Anti-Semitism and Holocaust

For the Jews, One Woman's Unusual Plea for Forgiveness

She knew she was descended from Martin Luther. What she didn't know about was Luther's dark side.

by Neil Reisner, The Toronto Star, October 13, 1997 Dianna Dunken Rowe knew from family legend and ancestral documents that she was descended from 16th-century theologian Martin Luther.

What Rowe didn't know about was Luther's darker side, the anti-Semitic tracts he wrote after Jews rejected his Protestant Reformation, tracts that Hitler used in part to justify the Holocaust.

When she found out not too long ago, it disturbed her profoundly.

So this deeply religious resident of rural Alabama prayed asking God what to do.

The answer she says she got and her quirky, quixotic effort to make amends are giving some Jews across the country pause for thought during this season of atonement.

What Rowe did was locate the addresses of 4,000 rabbis, synagogues and Jewish centres across the United States and send each one a postcard.

"I am a descendant of Martin Luther, who wrote many anti-Semitic tracts during the 16th century. I hang my head in shame and I have great sorrow in my heart for the tracts he wrote and for the influence that his writings had one those who persecuted the Jewish people," Rowe wrote from her hilltop home in Sylacauga, a community of about 21,000 near Birmingham.

"As you prepare to enter into Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I pray that you will open your hearts to forgive my family."

A curious request and one unnecessary by either Jewish or Christian tradition. But Rowe's message is made even stronger by the fact that both the Roman Catholic church in France and the International Red Cross recently apologized for their silence during the Holocaust.

For observant Jews, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and prayer, a time to seek forgiveness for any sins they committed against God. But to fully repent - to do tshuvah - one must first seek absolution from one's fellow human beings.

"In a time of tshuvah, this is a good remind that sometimes we have to take cognizance of things we may not be as proud of as others," says Rabbi Randall Konigsburg of Temple Sinai, a Conservative congregation in Hollywood.

"Here is a woman who even 400 years later wants to unburden herself of something that she really didn't have to shoulder at all. We can ask how much of last year are we going to carry into this year?"

Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobel Peace laureate, says: "I don't believe in collective guilt, therefore there's no collective innocence or collective pardon... Only the guilty can ask for forgiveness."

But "when a person says forgive, you must listen... There is something touching in this naiveté, in this innocence."

To be sure, not all Jewish leaders were quite so moved.

"Martin Luther's guilt is not hers and the people he offended were not me," says Rabbi Mitchell Shifts, president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Miami and Leader of the Havurah of South Florida.

To understand why Rowe went to such lengths to absolve herself of something for which she bore no guilt, it's necessary to understand a little about her and the Weogufka Family Worship Centre where she prays.

It also helps to know that Jews rarely think about Martin Luther and that the Lutheran church has repudiated Luther's anti-Semitism.

And we have to wonder: Is Rowe, 52, really descended from Martin Luther? Does it really matter?

Rowe believes in her heart and soul that she is and that her religion requires her somehow to make things right. And Rowe's religion shapes her life and her world.

It is, says Rowe's pastor, Tommy Thornton, a Full Gospel church, whose adherents believe in the literal truth of the Bible and occasionally speak in tongues during joyful worship. Church members believe God takes an active role in daily life, with miracles, divine healing and "deliverance from those things that oppress."

"We pretty much believe in the acts of the Holy Spirit," says Thornton, approving of Rowe's missive. "Her heart is really toward the Jewish people and has been for quite some time."

Church members love Israel and the Jewish people, believing the Jewish state fulfills biblical prophecy portending a redemption in which even Jews will accept the kingship of Jesus.

But Rowe stresses that her letter is not aimed at making that happen in the near term. Rather, it came out of a personal ministry she runs with her husband, Richard, in which she studies and teaches about the Jewish roots of the church.

"I don't know why, but the Lord has just put a love in my heart for the Jewish people, even when I was young," she says. "I always had a Jewish buddy."

Rowe's kinship to Luther was part of family lore. And her grandmother and aunt had assembled a genealogical study. But it wasn't until a year and a half ago when Rowe read a book - Our Hands Are Stained With Blood, by Michael L. Brown - that she learned of Luther's anti-Semitism.

Rowe sent her husband off to a Birmingham library, where he copied "hundreds and hundreds" of Luther's anti-Jewish tracts.

"I wept for days," she says, sobbing even now at the retelling.

"I sought the Lord in what I could do, if there was anything I should do. I just prayed. It took about a year to get the plan. I waited for God."

Rowe understands that all this sounds weird. In fact, she thinks it's pretty weird herself. "But I still could not get out of my heart the need to do it. And I know it was placed there by God, because in the natural world I wouldn't go to this extent," she says.

"It was just a personal thing that the Lord had wanted me to do and I was just being obedient."

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