In light of Holocaust Remembrance Week and Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 5, professor Rick Langer shares what a swastika means to him.

A swastika is the Nazi cross—the Hakenkreuz (hooked cross). In fact, the comparison to the Christian cross is helpful.

The cross distills all of Christianity into a single iconic symbol. It speaks of  crucifixion, of sin and atonement, of God’s wrath and God’s grace. The cross also symbolizes more ancient historical events like the Passover, and Abraham’s binding of Isaac, and  sermons and writing of Old Testament prophets.

But for me the cross is very personal. As a Christian, I see in its arms the day I came to faith in Christ. I see my baptism and call to ministry. I see joyful times of worship and tearful nights of prayer. For all of its iconic power, to me, the cross is still a deeply personal symbol.

Likewise, the swastika, the twisted cross, is a distillation of all of Nazism. It proclaims “racial purity” and narratives of “supermen” and “lives unworthy of living.” Its jagged arms encompass a thousand crimes both large and small, and circumscribe many million corpses, named and unnamed, which lie in graves across the continent of Europe.

But the swastika has also etched a personal meaning into countless souls. Some of these souls whisper stories from their graves, but others still walk among us. And for some, myself included, the stories of our fathers and mothers have been etched into our souls as well. These are often stories we saw in their eyes before they ever found the strength to push them out through their lips. Stories with crucial truths that I fear will be forgotten unless they are retold. So let me take a few moments to tell you what the swastika means to me …

It means a boy in a Hitler Youth uniform, lying dead in a forest near Jena, Germany. My Dad stumbled over his newly deceased body while on an outing with his own Hitler Youth troop. The boy was the son of a local pastor. He had reported his father to the Gestapo because he was speaking against Nazism. The pastor was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp for several months. He returned home a vacant shell of his former self. His son took his own life out of regret for what he had done.

To me, a swastika means disabled children sent to a summer camp to give their parents a respite. My Dad knew some of these children who, as he put it, “returned home as ashes in a cigar box.” Authorities claimed they mysteriously contracted pneumonia while at the camp. But in fact, they were euthanized because their lives were deemed unworthy of being lived. One of the early collaborators in such activities was Dr. Jussef Ibrahim, a renown pediatrician. A building at Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena was to be named after him in 1999, until rumors of his “euthanasia” activities came to light. Dr. Ibrahim was my Dad’s pediatrician.

To me, a swastika means Kristallnacht, the night when Jewish businesses and synagogues were ransacked by Nazi agitators. For me, it was the night my Dad heard a commotion in the kitchen and rushed downstairs to find storm troopers taking his mother off to Buchenwald. She returned home a few days later because the camp could not begin to hold all the people who were taken that night. My Dad’s family never talked about this event, but my Dad was woken by nightmares of that night for all of his adult life.

And a swastika means a postcard, sent to my Dad’s mother a few years after the events of Kristal Nacht, informing her that she was to report to the train station for deportation to Theresienstadt—the gateway to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She declined the invitation and took her own life by jumping off a cliff in the hills behind their home in Jena.

To me, a swastika means Buchenwald. The camp was close enough to the family home that my Dad once rode his bike to the outer boundaries of the compound.

I visited the camp in the late 1970’s with my aunt who remained in Germany throughout the war. My Dad fled without his parents or siblings in 1939. As we walked the Avenue of the Nations, a mass grave for the tens of thousands who died in Buchenwald, I asked my aunt what she thought about this place during the war. After a long pause, she said, “Sometimes, we smelled things …” She then explained that the one thing everyone knew was that you did not want to go there, so no one talked about it.

And finally, a swastika reminds me of taking my own children to Buchenwald when they were 13 and 10. I felt it was something I had to do. We sat together in a sunken mass grave at the end of the Avenue of the Nations while I told them stories of my Dad, and of my own visit with my aunt. I told them of people who refused to speak when words might still have mattered. I told them of people who did speak up and paid the price for speaking. I told them to always speak against injustice.

It was a big deal for me—probably less so for my children. I had told them many of these stories before. I’m sure they did not feel it as deeply as I did. After a while my son asked me, “Can we move on now?” I think he was ready for a few castles. He was ten, I can’t really blame him.

But what a question: “Can we move on now?”

Can we? I wish we could. These are events I would be happy to leave behind. But I’m not sure we can while presidential candidates glibly speak of registering people just because of their religious background. “It is only a card!” “If you do nothing wrong you will have nothing to fear.” Did they say such things to my grandmother?

Can we move on when someone draws or uses the twisted cross? This gesture, whether ill-willed or careless, has the effect of invoking all of the ugly legacy of Nazism along with all of the ugly legacy of American racism. What an appalling combination! Until people understand this, and speak up when such things happen, I’m not sure we are ready to move on.

Can we move on when those of color tell stories of countless indignities, large and small, that are still part of their daily experience?

Some say it is just a symbol. Aren’t we making a mountain out of a molehill? But some symbols are mountains, and the swastika is one of them. It is a volcano of meaning—it shouldn’t be thrown around like a beach-ball at a graduation ceremony.

Some may tire of grinding the stump of racism in our public square. Stump grinding is an unpleasant sound. I find it irritating as well. But the reason we grind the stump is because we grew the tree.

I pray that one day a swastika will be a molehill; I pray that one day the stump of racism will be well and truly ground. But today is not that day. Today is a day to speak out and stay the hand of the person who considers drawing a swastika or sowing an acorn that will grow into the oak of racism.