Ben Stern, now 97 years old, “was a teenager in Poland when the Nazis rose to power. He lived in the Warsaw ghetto and survived nine concentration camps including Auschwitz.” He “lost seven brothers and one sister. I lost my mother and my father. I carry that loss with me twenty-four hours a day,” Stern says.1 Last year, after his wife entered a nursing home, Stern found a roommate in 31-year-old Lea Heitfeld, a German student of Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley and the granddaughter of Nazis. Stern says welcoming Heitfeld into his home is an “act of justice. . . . It was the right thing to do. I’m doing the opposite of what they did.” Heitfeld says of Stern welcoming her into his home, “How forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me.”2
“Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek, to forgive and reconcile rather than carry a grudge, to forgive rather than seek vengeance, to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us.”3 Jesus’ teachings can be hard to follow, especially those of forgiveness and reconciliation with an enemy who wants no part in it. But as believers, we are called to live as Jesus taught us, with forgiveness in our hearts.
Stern sought not only forgiveness in his heart, but also reconciliation. He found that reconciliation in an unlikely place: with his roommate, the granddaughter of people who destroyed his family. Stern and Heitfeld demonstrate for us that life is better when we forgive and reconcile and when we reach out to learn and grow from a history that we hope is never repeated.
- How is Ben Stern welcoming Lea Heitfeld into his home an act of justice?
- How is reconciliation different from forgiveness? Why might reconciliation be more difficult or more time-consuming than forgiveness?
- What can Stern and Heitfeld teach you, your faith community, and our nation about forgiveness and reconciliation?
From “Forgiveness Unites Holocaust Survivor With Unlikely Roommate,” by Ben Trace, CBS News (cbsnews.com/video/forgiveness-unites-holocaust-survivor-with-unlikely-roommate/).
2From “This 95-year-old Holocaust Survivor Has a Roommate––She’s a 31-Year-Old Granddaughter of Nazis,” by Colby Itkowitz, The Washington Post (washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2017/03/02/this-95-year-old-holocaust-survivor-has-a-roommate-shes-a-31-year-old-granddaughter-of-nazis/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fd15018dacb4).
3From Adult Bible Studies, Fall 2018, by Jack Gilbert (Cokesbury, 2018); page 74.