Healing Ethnic Wounds

In United States we often hear – unfortunately more and more – about racial tensions, racial injustice, and racial guilt. It is sad that we read or hear a lot about the negative aspects, and less about how to forgive, correct and heal.

I had little exposure to racial problems, mostly limited to what I read. My life was limited to family, church, work, and friends. I knew friends of other races and had good and warm relationships with them. I am thus not so much qualified to talk about race. However, coming from Europe, I had the opportunity to witness and even feel tensions between nations and ethnic groups. I have learned a lot about them, and this is what I would like to write about, hoping that it would be revealing and beneficial to my readers.

I started to think more about this subject after a small talk at my workplace. One of my colleagues was a German software engineer, born and raised in Germany, who otherwise worked many years in the United States, to the point at which he spoke English without any German accent.  He told me this:

“I had strange the experiences in France. If I go to a restaurant in Paris and order food, it makes a difference if I appear as an American or as a German. If I am an American, they are professional but cool with me. If I am a German, they are more friendly and respectful.”

Was this not amazing? The French and the Germans were involved in wars with each other for a thousand years, perhaps more. Worse, in the twentieth century they had two major wars, in which territories were exchanged and in which more than a million people died. Each one had humiliated the other, the French at Versailles, the Germans with the quick defeat of the French armies in WWII. They did not just enslaved but killed each other.  In both wars, the United States help the French people defeat the Germans. How come now the French are more friendly with the Germans than with the Americans?

I have seen other things which surprised me at the time – but not now. Sometimes in the mid-nineties I rented a car in Frankfurt, Germany and drove in a weekend to Strasbourg, France. I watched my map carefully and when I approached the line of the border, I prepared my passport. Surprise: there was no border passport control. In fact, there was nothing to mark the border. Cars flowed freely between the two countries and the only way to detect that you cross the border was to look at the language of the road signs. This was even more impressing for me, because coming from a former Communist country, I imagined borders as some impassible barriers, maned with forbidding and unsmiling soldiers and machine guns in high towers. There was not a trace of that here. Crossing from Germany to France was the same as crossing from Virginia to Maryland.

How can one explain the total disappearance of the old wounds, resentments, and animosities?

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to look how brothers relate to each other. In childhood and even in the teenage years, they may fight and occasionally even think that they hate each other. I saw this in my own family and in other families. After they grow and have their separate lives, everything changes. Even if they do not show it, they experience real brotherly love. They keep in touch, and they are happy when they meet. They tell stories about their childhood, and they laugh at their past conflicts. They discover that what separates them, including past grievances, are but a negligible part of a bigger picture. They grew together, shared experiences, had the same parents, went to the same schools, grew in the same house, played with the same pets and had common friends on their street.

This commonality of experiences and values is what can overcome past conflicts. The French and the Germans read each other’s literature, listened to each other’s music, and admired each other’s paintings. They travelled to each other’s country and were engaged in business and commerce. Listening to war stories, they even admire the virtues of the other’s soldiers.

A life together, even if punctuated by conflicts, help former adversaries to know the humanity of the other and appreciate their culture. War propaganda aims to rob the adversaries of their humanity, and we have to take the opposite position, seeing all people, even enemies as human beings.

I read the book and saw the movie All Quiet on the Western Front. There is a scene of profound meaning. In a bomb hole, the protagonist – a German soldier – mortally wounds a French soldier, not because of hate, but because of fear, the old “if I do not kill him, he will kill me” principle. While the French soldier is dying, they talk. The German is trying to help his dying adversary. After many hours of agony, he dies, and the German takes from the dead man’s pocket a business card, on which the name is written, with the subtitle “Compositeur Français.” Yes, the dead French soldier might have been a great composer, the German thinks. They might have met in a Paris café and the German might have listened one day to a beautiful symphony composed by this French composer.

Sure, we cannot be naïve or too idealistic. There are still nations or ethnic groups who still hate each other. There is still racial discrimination and racial hate. There is however a road to healing, based on common history and common experiences and in seeing the humanity of the other.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” (Charlemagne)

There is wisdom in this, and it can be extended. To know another people, its culture, its values and its history, is to gain another soul. I have partially experienced this, as I have grown in Romania, then moved to United States. I admired the New York skyscrapers, but, most important, I felt the energy of the Manhattan streets and learned about the life and experiences of my co-workers. I took part in a Bible study group inside the New York Stock Exchange. I read the newspapers, from the serious Wall Street Journal and New York Times to local politics newspapers like New York Post. I am not sure if I felt the soul of America, but I clearly felt the soul of New York. I became a New Yorker, and I loved the city and its people.

I had similar experiences in India and Russia, where I traveled not as a tourist, but to work with local teams. In India I traversed Mumbai at night, through streets filled with people, old, young and children, beaming with life. I was surrounded by beggars, and I met professional people in modern offices. I was amazed at the size of the country and realized that there are more people in the word than I imagined while living in a nice American suburb, quiet and deserted at night.

In Russia, in Saint Petersburg, I encountered a great culture. I worked with brilliant engineers and went for picnics in the forests. We spent evening in the sauna and went to the famous Mariinski Theater to view the Nutcracker. I came to love the Russians and I transitioned from being a Russophobe to a Russophile.

The key to all these experiences was a certain type of direct knowledge, which does not come from books or from the superficial sightseeing offered to the tourists, but only through a direct encounter. Only in this way one can feel the humanity of the other. Just as you cannot really know a person by simply reading about him or her, in the same way you only know a people and its culture by immersing yourself in it and identifying with it, becoming part of it. If you do that, you gain a second soul. After you become an American or a Russian or an Indian, you cannot hate these people. Past grievances are forgotten and the road to healing the wounds is open.

Growing up in Romania, there were two peoples whom we disliked: the Hungarians and the Russians. We had old grievances with them, old wounds which were slow to heal. To a degree, I had my own ethnic prejudices while I grew up. Later in life, my perspective had radically changed, and I will write how about this in the next postings.

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