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Lessons learned on loving our enemy from beloved neighbor

By Terry Dawson
Special to the American-Statesman
Hanns-Bertold Dietz served as professor of musicology at the University of Texas' Butler School of Music.

Eighty years ago this week Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu exploded under attack from Japanese planes. My father and uncles enlisted once President Roosevelt declared war against Japan. They all deployed to the South Pacific.

My wife's father, a member of her Majesty's Forces, showed up on a Normandy beach on D-Day, while her uncle flew dozens of bombing missions to combat German expansion.

I, on the other hand, sought conscientious objector status during what I believed was an unjust war in Vietnam. I did serve, however, for five years on a naval base as a civil servant in a commissary providing food for active duty submariners and their families.

Most of my workmates were retired sailors —some World War II vets. One, a reticent and congenial fellow, shocked me during one lunch break with his matter-of-fact response to another worker's question, "Had he ever tried Saki? "No," the man said without looking up from his soup, "and I never will." 

For this man to "remember Pearl Harbor" meant to never forgive. I never shared with him how I, while in college, volunteered with a group providing medical aid to civilian hospitals bombed by U.S. planes in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In later years when I traveled to Honduras and El Salvador to bring educational materials to refugees fleeing conflicts my own government involved in, I'd hear folks, harboring the attitude of my former workmate, suggest I "aided and abetted the enemy." 

In our current political climate, we regularly witness folk harboring similar sentiments toward fellow Americans. They might not use the word "enemy" but, when it comes to those with opposing views, a demonstrable hostility raises its ugly head. Many of these same people, nevertheless, regard themselves as devout adherents of their faith — one exhorting us to "love our enemies." But honestly, whether knotted in the context of domestic or international conflict, does not such a notion strike us as a bit ridiculous?  

A close friend and neighbor, who often joined me in wrestling with such questions, died a few weeks ago. As I reflect on the life he chose, I find a kind of answer. 

Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty member of San Francisco Theological Seminary.

A possible European equivalent to our Pearl Harbor, the firebombing of Dresden had little military strategic value beyond pummeling Germany. Hanns-Bertold Dietz survived this obliteration of his hometown. Yet he managed to salvage his family's prized Gerbrüder Perzina baby grand piano by breaking it down to its component parts and carrying off to a tiny Frankfurt apartment. The reconstituted instrument left only enough space for Dietz to sleep beneath it. 

 The Dietz family resisted the Nazi regime's ruthless rise to power as best they could but still watched a number of their Jewish musical colleagues abusively removed from their homes. This contributed to Dietz's desire to part for America. Still, observing his homeland divided to keep Germany from again becoming a destructive world force proved painful.

In 1953 when the Refugee Relief Act was in effect, Dietz became one of the first to emigrate from Germany to the country responsible for his hometown's destruction.

Dietz would complete his doctorate in music history from the University of Innsbruck in 1956 and assume a position on the faculty of Notre Dame before moving the family he'd began there to Austin.

From1963 until his death he'd serve as professor of musicology at the University of Texas' Butler School of Music and then as emeritus professor. In 1966, while walking across campus, Dietz had to take cover. A sniper atop the bell tower had begun opening fire on those below, one policeman Dietz watched breath his last.

My neighbor had a knack for showing up at in the middle of history. In 1989 Dietz found himself guest professor at Berlin's Humboldt University and witnessed firsthand the wall coming down. Learning of a few such serendipitous moments, I began to refer to him as the Forest Gump of the Neighborhood.    

Always the scholar, Dietz began most discussions with a probing question. He focused first on what he'd yet to learn.  

The book of Deuteronomy tells us Moses declared to the Hebrews as they about to cross the Jordan into the "promised land" they'd never seen: "I command you today to love... I put before you life and death, blessings and curse; choose life."

Dietz had much to curse when it came to those who'd bombarded the place of his birth or when it came to fellow countrymen who destroyed his cherished Deutshland from within. Instead my friend chose a life full to the brim and an abiding way to love. 

The trajectory of Dietz's life compels me to recognize that choosing love of people with different values than us, not only a ridiculous way forward, it's the only way forward. This love might not manifest immediately but ultimately a solution must arise from the collision of two clichés that I'm certain Herr Professor Dietz's despised: time heals and love conquers all. Choose life my friends; choose love. 

A memorial service for Hanns-Bertold Dietz will take place at 4 p.m. Dec. 10 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover Ave. 

Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty member of San Francisco Theological Seminary.