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Grace in a Time of Betrayal

previously published in March 2007

I show the film Europa, Europa in my freshman composition class. This film portrays a boy named Solly, a Jew who conceals himself, especially his circumcised penis, to the Germans during World War II. This act of concealing or acting or playacting is called passing to people in the realm of philosophy.
And this, in Solly’s case, is perhaps a result of the many separations that he has during his formative years. He is separated from people whom he loves throughout the film. His parents ask his brother and him to leave their home to escape from the Germans. He is separated from his parents; he is separated from his older brother, who eventually ends up in a concentration camp; he is separated from a German soldier who finds out about his Jewry (the soldier is killed); and he is separated from everybody else that is significant in his life.

Solly is utterly alone and must act as a German youth in order to survive the war and the Holocaust. He eventually ends up being a German war hero and is placed in a prestigious school for Hitler youth in Germany, where he learns how to become a Nazi, singing anti-Jewish songs and learning of the superiority of the Aryan race. He fits in with the other children and forms strong bonds with his enemy.

Throughout the film, Solly never really understands who he is and why he is placed in certain circumstances. He ultimately ends up denouncing three things that should never be denounced: his religion, family, and culture. He cleverly lies and acts as if he were a full-blooded German (speaking against his fellow brethren), and people believe and trust him. And my students, some of whom are in awe, watch as he “innocently” manipulates everybody around him. (This story, by the way, is true; Solomon Perel is still alive, I believe).

After we view the film, I ask if Solly’s actions are moral in light of what is going on around him. People have problems with betrayal, especially if it means the betrayal of God, family, and background. Solly does these things without thinking deeply of the consequences. And many of my students cannot forgive the protagonist for his actions. They do in fact raise their hands and say that they would, without question, die in the hands of their enemies rather than compromise certain beliefs.

Unfortunately, this is not a religion class, so I do not make references to the Bible. But if I could, I would look at the incident in which Peter, a grown man, denounces Jesus three times. Jesus showed him grace, and in the end, Peter was able to spread the Gospel with a great deal of fervor and passion.
I also ask if Solly is any good if he is dead. Does he get to tell his story? Does he give people who have betrayed their beliefs some hope that something good could come out of the most heinous acts? 

At the end of the film, Solly, still dressed in a Nazi uniform, escapes from the Nazis and is looking at a Russian soldier who would like to see him dead. Solly then says that he’s a Jew. How convenient? But the soldier gives a gun to someone who has just been freed from the concentration camps and asks him to kill Solly. Just as the man is about to pull the trigger, Solly’s brother calls  out his name, and they embrace, saving Solly for the final time.

I think it’s safe to assume that it is difficult to forgive or show grace, especially when it deals with the betrayal of God. But there is perhaps nothing more debilitating than not forgiving. Jesus later asks Peter three times whether or not he loves him or not. Peter’s reply is yes (a frustrated yes at the end), and Jesus tells him to take care of his sheep. Peter, at this point, understands that grace goes beyond betrayal. He is inspired and wants to do nothing else but spread the gospel. We as Christians must also remember Judas (and even Lucifer), another betrayer who did not understand forgiveness and grace and the resulting consequences of his misunderstanding of forgiveness and grace.

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