“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up men to gather wood, give orders and divide the work. Rather, teach them to yearn for the far and endless sea.”

Great Stories

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My life in Germany before and after January 30, 1933

Dr Fritz Goldschmidt

An excerpt...

If I think back to Sachsenhausen [concentration camp] today, then for me it's not this place alone which I associate with the greatest human misery I had ever experienced, but knowing that in that place personalities were to be found who were able to restore our belief in humanity, courage and greatness. I have already mentioned that on the day we arrived at the camp we were received by our block leader [Blockältester], Peter G. With remarkable patience and endurance he had taken on the job of looking after the 350 men on his block. A simple machine fitter by trade, he exercised his authority vis-à-vis his comrades without any swear words or beatings. He impressed the Lagerführer and the SS with his cool-headedness and courage. He saved our block from having to endure many a special punishment and harassment. At night he would quietly take the seriously ill to the infirmary. Many of us have him to thank for our lives and health. Only once did I see him fly into a rage. This was after one of the men on Stubendienst [barracks orderly duty] had punched a comrade. One day he gave me the job of taking a group of seriously ill inmates to the infirmary block. When I arrived there the medical orderly on duty, a prisoner, shouted across to me that he couldn't allow my people inside, seeing as the (SS) doctor could turn up any minute. So I had to wait outside in the cold with the seriously ill prisoners. Finally the doctor turned up. After a while the orderly appeared again and shouted:

"No treatment for Jews today, the doctor is here!"

Those ill prisoners who continued to stand there and didn't march off again with me were chased away with punches and kicks. But our block leader refused to leave it at that. Without the 'doctor' noticing he managed to get the seriously ill into the infirmary after all. The medical orderlies took on the job of treating them and even performed operations as best they could - or thought they were capable of.

In our hut the office of block clerk [Blockschreiber] had been entrusted to a former vicar of the Confessing Church [Bekennende Kirche], Ernst..., who had left the service of the church and had become a social worker in the prison service. Every one of the 350 prisoners in our block must be eternally grateful to him too. He looked after everybody. He took on the job of organising the work rosters. He gave broken men courage. He had the strength to remain true to his beliefs and convictions, although most likely renouncing this faith would, sooner or later, have given him back his freedom.

One evening I got to know him a little better when, in connection with our fate, he started to talk about the Jewish question. I asked him whether he knew any of the writings of the Bible translator Martin Buber. He told me that he had studied theology at the University of Tübingen and had walked from there down the River Neckar to Heppenheim to discuss things with Martin Buber. He had stayed with him for three days and by the time he was arrested he had got hold of every book Buber had written.

We then talked about Buber's Kingdom of God, the Chassidic Books, the Talks on Judaism and the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible. I told Ernst ... about Leo Baeck's latest book, The Gospel as a Document of the History of the Jewish Faith. Although it was illegal to do so, almost every evening after that we continued our discussions way into the night - and I think these conversations were very useful in helping me to forget the acts of brutality and agonising nights packed together like sardines.

And later...

From a world in which crimes have once again been given legal status: may a new world arise in which the nations take to heart the prophet Micah's words of warning:

"He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good
And what doth the Lord require of thee,
But to do justly, and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with thy God!"

The United Religions Initiative

A great story of Discovery and transformation

The United Nations inspired the formation of the United Religions Initiative as an international interfaith network. In 1993, a UN official called on Rev. Swing and requested his assistance in organizing a big interfaith worship service as part of the then upcoming 50th anniversary celebration of the signing of the United Nations charter in San Francisco in 1945.

Rev. Swing recalls that a century earlier, the idea for an international interfaith body was first proposed at a meeting of the World Parliament of Religion in 1893. Paradoxically, all attempts at forging meaningful cooperation failed to get past the idea stage. Profound theological differences and deep conflicts on how to organize such an unusual assembly invariably torpedoed earnest efforts at bringing believers of various religions to build upon common ground.

"Religions know a great deal about competition," observed Rev. Swing, "but they don't know much about cooperation." He continued: "If it were left up to religions, they wouldn't get together. They would keep right on doing their own thing." He recalls Albert Einstein's famous quote: "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them."

Instead of focusing on problems, Prof. David Cooperrider encouraged participants in URI group discussions to focus on what he described as moments of highest engagement or passion." At the URI's organisational summits and regional conferences in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States, participants would interview each other - Jew and Muslim, Christian and indigenous believer, Buddhist and Baha'i.

They asked each other questions such as: "How did you come to embrace your faith?" "What's the greatest gift that you've received from your religion?" Then they are asked to focus on the future that they want to create, not on present problems that they wish to eliminate: Imagine the world 30 years from now and describe three positive changes that have occurred.

This approach has engendered rapport, friendship and trust among erstwhile strangers who had preconceived notions about each other's faith. "In a space of a few hours," observes Reverend Canon Charles Gibbs, URI's executive director, "they came to see one another as folks who have so much in common, instead of seeing one another from across irreparable gulfs."