The afternoon was warm and gentle and I walked for hours among groves of graceful, whispering birches, listening to the joyful songs of birds well nurtured by nature, soaking up the warm restoring rays of an early summer sun.
All of this elegant beauty shouted aloud to me of the promise of God's goodness, the promises of new life, of resurrection. It was the presence of a new creation and the sure, constant presence of God's "fresh every morning" love.
Only one thing was wrong with this scene: I was walking through a cemetery. And not just any cemetery at that. 470,000 bodies lay in the ground under those gentle birches, most all of them in mounded, unmarked graves -- huge mounds of verdant fresh green grass as far as the eye could see. They were marked only with plaques that gave the year of death: 1942, 1943, 1944.
What began as an ordinary city cemetery became, in the years of World War II, a bloody shrine of Russian pain and humiliation. Leningrad, as it was then, was surrounded by Nazi troops for 900 days. Hitler's plan was to lay siege to the city and to starve and shell it into submission. At that he did not succeed. But for those 900 days, through two bitterly cold winters, the people of Leningrad endured daily bombings and struggled to survive and feed families on rations of two grams of bread -- the equivalent of one communion wafer -- a day.
In the end, hundreds of civilians died. More died from starvation and disease than from the bombs. All of them were victims of war. They were buried together, sometimes 5000 a day, a tangle of pain and loss under those mounds of now fresh earth. Now it was eerily quiet except for the song of birds and breath of breeze, and, ironically, beautiful except for those ugly grave markers.
Among my companions on that day long ago, a German friend. Three others were Soviets. Udo was in the most poignant position. Not only was he German, from Nurmberg, the designated 'enemy of the day,' his own uncle, a conscripted Nazi soldier had died on the other side of the lines at Leningrad. His body was buried who-knows-where in the countryside outside the city. Or was he buried here too? German blood mixed with Russian? He confessed his sense of guilt, even as a member of the new, young generation, the children of the war soldiers. He also expressed fear -- that we would blame him. And frustration, that the war ever happened, and dread: could it happen again? In those Cold War days, THE WAR was not so far behind us and yet another loomed as Europe filled up with warheads pointing every direction.
The moment came as Udo poured out his vulnerable soul to his friends, to us, that our Soviet friends came to surround him and put their hands first, tentatively, on his shoulders. Then it became a hugging, tears all around, and reconciliation. One generation forgiving the child of another. It was a moment I will never forget. Of forgiveness.
Forgiveness. Reconciliation. New thinking. Memory, not forgetting. But memory not beholden to the past.
As I look out on this Memorial Day, I remember that walk in the cemetery, Piskarovskoye. It is a hopeful memory. Poignant and tragic as it is, none of which can be washed away, it is yet a place where a new reality took root. A "new thinking" of peace, of understanding, letting go.
Beginning anew. We who are Christians call this resurrection. All of us who are human call this new possibility, fresh every day. We can wake up and be different. We can wake up and forgive. Let go. We can all be new.
The Soviets eventually, under Gorbachev, gave it a new word, "Perestroika." Remember those heady days? It is easy to lose heart but it is still possible, every day, each one doing our bit. Perestroika. New thinking. New fantasies of how it can be.
May the memory of all who died be blessed and redeemed. And may we find a new fantasy that catches fire so the killing will end.