As the festive season gets into full swing, the constant stream of parties and celebration can overcome even the most hardened among us. We can be caught up in the whirl of over-indulgence, as everyone expects a piece of our time and the shopping, eating and drinking create a hazy shade of winter that can blind us to the true meaning of Christmas.
Whether we mark Christmas in December or January, it is the same story and celebrations tend to extend long into the weeks either side. Personally speaking, I am already feeling the effects of the festivities. But although I am paying the small price for festive excess, there is little chance of letting up before the New Year bells toll. I am definitely not Ebenezer Scrooge and I intend to make the most of the party season to enjoy time with friends.
Among the usual December revelry, one particular engagement struck a chord and highlighted how the messages of Christmas can be brought to life for us all. It began when an eagle-crested invitation arrived from the Russian Ambassador to Britain, inviting me to a reception at his Embassy in London. Always happy to acknowledge the call to party, especially in such grand surroundings, I was quick to accept.
The occasion was to honour Eva Schloss, a German Jew and close childhood friend to Anne Frank, who later became her stepsister. The similarities to their lives were striking: they both moved to Amsterdam at an early age and the two innocents both brutally suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Sadly, only one of the two girls came out of the Second World War alive.
Both Eva and Anne had been forced into hiding during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands in WWII. Like Anne, Eva’s bolthole was discovered and she was taken to suffer the tortures of a German concentration camp. Whereas Anne famously perished in Bergen-Belsen, Eva survived the camp where she was taken, to be rescued and later re-homed by Russian forces. Since then, Eva’s life has been dedicated to visiting schools, prisons and parliaments to share the experiences of her childhood and work tirelessly to prevent the devastating effects of such hatred from taking hold in the world again.
To meet the woman and to hear Eva’s story in her own words was a humbling experience. I once visited Bergen-Belsen in Germany and was moved by the silence and solemnity of the memorials there. Eva transfixed us in a similar way. She spoke about her family being torn apart by war, how she lived for months in a secret annex, and how she held on to life in the notorious Auschwitz death camp as people around her died of starvation, torture and disease. We should remember that millions, including many in the Balkans and Eastern Europe experienced such extreme horrors.
As well as the graphic stories of survival, one thing struck me about what Eva said that night, as she was asked if she forgave the Nazis for what they did to her family. Her voice strengthened and her response was clear: While she does not hold a grudge against the German people, Eva said she will never forgive the Nazis who carried out the crimes that she experienced at first hand. She told how one man had offered to pray that she would enjoy the peace of forgiveness for her captors. Don’t waste your time, she told him. I will never forgive them. This might be something that some people will find hard to hear.
One message was clear. An entire people or nation cannot be held responsible for the unforgivable acts of individual men and women. We might not be able to forgive individuals for their actions, but the acts of a few should not be visited upon the whole. This is a message that many of us would do well to remember more often. For some, it might be hard to swallow, as it would seem to go against a fundamental Christian message of forgiveness, but sometimes that level of forgiveness can be dependent on personal circumstance.
But while we might toy with religion at Christmas and Easter, for many of us it ends there. We cherry pick from religious teachings to suit our chosen lifestyles and can chastise others when their actions do not match our own norms. As a well-known English poem tells us, ‘to err is human; to forgive, divine’. Sometimes we have to admit that we are only human.
This Christmas, we could do worse than to think about people like Eva Schloss and the millions who still suffer from prejudice and persecution. We each have our own demons to fight and we deal with issues in ways that are personal to our story. How we chose to do that is at the heart of who we are. Happy Christmas.
Marcus Agar writes a weekly column for Serbia’s Wannabe Magazine. Click here to read in Serbian or for an in-depth interview in English or Serbian.