The Nazis imprisoned my mother in one of the lesser-known concentration camps. Mauthausen was located about 12 miles from her home, Linz, Austria. More people are familiar with camps like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, but Mauthausen and its nearly 100 subcamps was one of the largest labor camps of the Nazi Regime.
Slave labor was a slow and agonizing form of execution. People were sent to labor camps to work and starve to death. Somewhere between 122,000 and 320,00 people died in the Mauthausen complex.
A nice if rebellious Catholic girl, my mother entered Mauthausen at around age 15. The American soldiers who liberated the camp found her badly beaten and left for dead in the dirt.
You may be wondering why I have chosen this Thanksgiving week to share a ghastly part of my family story. Well, this is a holiday unlike any I’ve experienced before. The swastika is having a resurgence in our country, and as a Bishop of the Episcopal Church I cannot remain silent.
Vandals marred Episcopal churches in Maryland and Indiana with the Nazi symbol. They added hate speech like “whites only” and “fag church.”
Political figures are considering forming a registry of Muslims who live in the United States, whether they are citizens or legally resident aliens. And I am reminded of the stories my mother and grandparents told about the Star of David on Jewish shops and clothing. They said nothing, never imagining that a nice Roman Catholic girl could eventually become a target.
My mother always made a big deal out of Thanksgiving. She was grateful to be a naturalized citizen of this country. She understood what freedom means in a way that very few of us born on these shores will ever know.
Every Thanksgiving my thoughts turn to my late mother. And this year, I feel the shock and the horror she would feel seeing the resurgence of the hate and the violence she thought she had escaped once and for all.
Minorities, women, LBGT persons, and immigrants have expressed fear and anxiety. But everyone should be vigilant. In the twentieth century, Germany and my mother’s birthplace Austria were sophisticated, humane, advanced countries. And they succumbed to organized hatred. Especially Christians must speak up and stand in solidarity with the weak and the marginalized. They are always the first targets. But they may not be the last if we do not speak up now.
In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. To love our neighbor our ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people. To respect the dignity of every human being. Every. Human. Being. Not just the ones who look like us. Think like us. Believe like us. Speak like us.
This is what followers of Jesus look like. We look like we’re learning to love what he loves—who he loves—in response to the love he has already given us. That is what real Thanksgiving looks like.
Thank you for this important reminder. If ever the nation and the world needs to hear the message of love both preached and lived out in the lives of Christians, it is now. So glad you reminded us of that. Thank you for sharing your mother’s story.
Thank you, Canon!
Makes me proud to be an Episcopalian. To have someone stand up and say this is very hard. Praise him helped him find the strength to do it. My dad was an Episcopalian priest who passed away a little more than a year ago. Enstilled values in me that I will keep for the rest of my life. Proud to have a connection to this man.
Thank you, Lise! I’m sorry for your recent loss. I would like to have met your dad. It sounds like he was a fine man.
Thank you for your post. Your leadership is critical in our Episcopal Church right now and in our nation. We need the Bishops and National Episcopal Church to join with Muslims and Jews and to be more vocal nationally and internationally on behalf of our God of Love and our duty to stand against hate. So your voice feels to me like water in the desert. We surely are not called to sit by and watch our country become fascist and oppress its citizens and a tool of global alt-right? (I am a cradle Episcopalian. ) Where is our leadership?
Thank you, Jane. And please keep your eyes peeled. My episcopal colleagues and especially our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry are saying wise and powerful things.
Thank you for your message of family story. We have work to do right now and may God give us the courage to speak out, walk boldly, and be lovers of all. Inshallah- God willing. The Rev. Dr. Susan Lukens, Associate Dean St. George’s College Jerusalem.
I write in family and priestly solidarity. My father was a Polish Army Officer, who spent WWII in a German POW camp. He survived, thankfully, and I was born post-war, before we emigrated here. Both parents were Eastern European, so I heard about the Nazi horrors as a child. I’m feeling a bit as though we have forgotten our history; or are choosing to ignore it. Thank you for calling it out.
(The Rev) Henry Galganowicz (Rtd)
Thank you so much for this very personal and important story. Vigilance is critical for us as Christians. History has a tendency to repeat itself unless remembered and acted on when we see evil surfacing and being ignored. May God give us all the courage to speak up and act to resist what we know is evil
Thank you for this message. Way out here in West Texas our parish strives to to respect the dignity of all people and share the message : “GOD LOVE YOU!” Happy Thanksgiving.
What would happen if our Sundays were not the most segregated hour of the week? Maybe if we worshipped with the “other” we wouldn’t be afraid of “each other.” I have no answers, only questions about lessons not learned from history. This makes for sacred anger. We all have to speak up or we will all be silenced.
Jake, thank you for sharing about our church’s incident and the one in Indiana, but more especially for sharing this painful part of your family’s story in response. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of acting in love in response to such hate.
Robert and I were thrilled when we heard you had been elected bishop. We think fondly on our time and friends at Sewanee. I hope you and your family have a blessed Thanksgiving.
Anne, it’s good to hear from you. I regret that we’ve reconnected under such sad circumstances. Love to you and Robert and blessed Thanksgiving.
Reblogged this on Michael Moore's Blog and commented:
Thank you, Bishop Owensby, for sharing your Mom’s story… today especially, we need to be reminded…
Reblogged this on Espirational Faith.
Jake, thanks so much for the reminder, via the Baptismal Covenant.
Thanks, John! I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
I visited Mauthausen as a tourist in 1991. I saw rhe gas chambers. I saw the crematories. I noted that it is located near a quarry where many of the slave workers worked. I saw the small bunks for the prisoners. One thing I noted was the guards quarters adjacent to the prison. The guards had the luxury of a large swimming pool, while the prisoners had barely of anything to survive for a short time.
Thank you for sharing the story of your visit and these additional sorrowful details.
Thank you for speaking out and sharing you mother’s story.
My father was a WWII vet. He never saw combat, instead teaching scores of young men to drive everything from a jeep to a tank.
The thought that any person in America considers themselves a Nazi is abhorrent to me. There is no place for them in our government.
Thank you again. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and God bless you!
Thank you, Lisa! My father was a WWII vet, too. His time was spent with the Navy in the Pacific, but he would be just as appalled by those in our country with Nazi sympathies. Have a great Thanksgiving!
Bishop Owensby, thank you for this.
I don’t know if you know the rest of the story about Church of Our Saviour, in the aftermath of the defilement.
About 80% of COS are immigrants. Most are from West Africa, followed by the Caribbean and Latin America. Our congregation can name at least 50 separate countries of birth.
So while the defaced sign advertised our Spanish language mass, everyone at COS felt singled out.
But whatever statement the vandals wanted to make was swamped by the love and support we received from our community. We were (and continue to be) overwhelmed by the response, not just from fellow Episcopalians, but from local (and intl) Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, pagan, and humanist groups. Unbeknownst to us, a local middle school teacher rounded up some friends and designed a lovely new sign for us saying, “Silver Spring Loves and Welcomes Immigrants.” It’s now proudly displayed in front of our Christmas tree lot in front of the church.
We need to take these incidents of hatred (700+ since 11/8, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center) as the warnings they are. Hatred and “othering” is alive and well across America. But so is love, kindness, and community. I know many people are despairing. We must not become that which we revile. Love is, and will win.
Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, Silver Spring, MD
Thank you for filling out the rest of your story. It does my heart good.