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.