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Lessons of the Holocaust

By Kurt Mayer
For each of us, our life’s journey is different, often due to luck and happenstance. But we also make choices when we are young and unsure of ourselves, and some would say they were made by divine providence. As I look back on my own journey, I feel fortunate to have had influential mentors. Those mentors were my teachers, my wife, my children and friends, including friends I have made at PLU over the last 30 years. There have also been strangers who have changed the course of my life, often through only a single meeting.

In 1945, I was privileged to hear Martin Niemoller, the first German permitted to travel in the United States after World War II, speak in San Francisco. Niemoller was a former U-Boat commander who, after World War I, decided to become a Lutheran pastor. He openly opposed Hitler from the pulpit of the most influential Lutheran church in Berlin, for which he spent years in a concentration camp. After his lecture, I went up to speak to him. The one thing that still stands out from that conversation was his story about sharing a cell at the Dachau concentration camp with a Catholic priest and discovering how much they had in common.

This was quite amazing, considering the history of Europe and a 30-year war that, in actuality, lasted almost 300 years. The Thirty-Years War was, at least in part, a religious war among Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists. The blame for this war always depended on who was telling the story, but each had a different interpretation.

In many ways, it is no different today when we listen to the British historian Julius Irving, or the current president of Iran, denying the Holocaust.

About 30 years ago, when I was first asked to speak in Dr. Christopher Browning’s PLU class on my childhood remembrances of living in Nazi Germany, I strongly suspected it would be nothing more than an excuse or a cover-up. Why did I feel that way? That had been my experience when I returned to Germany in 1953-1954 as a draftee court interpreter in the U.S. Army. The majority of the judges and civil servants were all ex-Nazis who were serving out their time until retirement. They still ran the country into the 1970s, and their views had changed very little. After auditing Dr. Browning’s class, I began to appreciate what it means to be a true historian and scholar. Never had I heard this period, which my parents and I had experienced, more accurately described than by Dr. Browning and later by Dr. Robert Erickson. It was at a Lutheran university, and I was astounded.

When 6 million people are murdered, it is too large a number to comprehend. To an individual like me, still a young man, it just meant grandpa, grandma, aunts, uncles, classmates and friends. This experience had a devastating effect on my parents, who were forced to leave their home, friends and relatives, robbed of their total material possessions, and not able to give me the kind of guidance other American kids got from their parents. I had to become an adult to understand their different reality. After all, it occurred in the 20th century in Germany, the cradle of the Lutheran church.

As I was growing up, I always wondered who would tell this story truthfully, without shifting the blame to the Merchant of Venice or the Treaty of Versailles or the betrayal of Jesus by the Jews or the capitalists or the Communists or the university intellectuals or the clergy or the homosexuals. The blame rested with Germany, which became a dysfunctional society of technical, barbarian geniuses who were totally void of humanities and who did not understand their own Christian heritage, in which Jewish people played a major role. The Germans were unable to accept responsibility for their own mad ambitions.

PLU is a place where faith and reason meet, and where young minds are molded to make the world a better place. PLU does not teach you how to make money. At PLU, you learn to serve your fellow human beings and to value life and faith. When Don Morken ’60 helped fund the Raphael Lemkin award to help students write essays on genocide, I wanted to bring members of my own Jewish community to see that at PLU, history is not taught by revisionists but by objective historians.

In our Jewish tradition, there is a Hebrew saying called “Tikum Olom,” and it means that it is the job of every Jewish person to repair the world. In the late afternoon of my life, I have come to conclude that there is so much repair work to be done that we can’t do it alone, but we must do it together. Christians and Jews both believe in the same creator, but technology has advanced further and more rapidly than civilization has been able to absorb.

In the last decade, of all people who came closest to bringing peace to the Middle East, it was the Norwegians with the Oslo Accords. That is why I write these words. For me to have the opportunity to serve three terms on the board of regents has given me a profound respect for this university. My wife and I will continue to be involved, because we understand that what we do today will have far-reaching positive consequences for future generations. I would like to thank President Anderson for the opportunity to serve. The resources my wife and I have donated are nowhere equal to the friendships that I have made and the lessons I have learned.

As the first person of the Jewish faith to serve on PLU’s Board of Regents (1995-2005), Kurt Mayer was instrumental in the development of the university’s Holocaust Studies Program, which deals with the two major Christian religions’ responsibility in the Holocaust. Through his involvement with the Raphael Lemkin Awards, he has been important in encouraging regular attendance among the Jewish community at this annual event.

Kurt moved to Tacoma in 1957 and established the first volume home-building company in the area. He later founded Mayer Built Homes, Inc., which specializes in subsidized and affordable housing. The company eventually expanded to Boise, Idaho and Denver, and is now operated by his son, Joseph. He has been involved in numerous civic boards, including the Pierce County Planning Commission, Parkland/Spanaway Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee and the Martin Luther King Housing Development Association.

His wife, Pam, volunteered for more than 20 years, supporting PLU arts and building the School of Fine Arts board. Both Kurt and Pam are members of the Eastvold Leadership Committee. In 2006, Kurt and Pam were recognized with a Special Recognition Award during the annual Alumni Awards ceremony.

Photo top: Kurt Mayer served on the PLU Board of Regents for 10 years (1995-2005) and was instrumental in the development of the Holocaust Studies Program.