Holocaust survivor: Oppression continues

Published Oct. 20, 2004|Updated Aug. 28, 2005

When Lisa Raphael got the e-mail offering an all-expenses trip to Germany, she was stunned.

Falun Gong practitioners there had read a talk she had given about the spiritual movement's ancient symbol and wanted her support. They felt she would be the right person to help draw attention to the persecution of Falun Gong followers in China, where the movement has been banned.

A Holocaust survivor, Ms. Raphael jumped at the chance to speak on behalf of the oppressed group.

"It was a chance to make the connection between the past and the present. It was making contact with a new generation of Germans and a new generation that was interested in creating a bridge between the past and the present," she said.

"It felt like such a gift."

During her week in Germany, she spoke to education directors at three Holocaust memorials about the parallels between the Third Reich and China's present-day persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. In Hamburg, the 69-year-old St. Petersburg author, counselor and spiritual mentor braved brisk weather to address passers-by over a microphone at a busy street corner.

Speaking in German, she read the talk that had brought her to the attention of the German-based Falun Gong followers. It was the same speech she had given in 2001 on United Nations Anti-Torture Day at the University of South Florida.

In the street corner speech, she said that as a survivor of the Holocaust, she never could have imagined she would support a group whose central symbol is the swastika. The Falun Gong symbol, she said, which resembles the Nazi swastika, has ancient beginnings and has been associated with good fortune, well-being and spiritual truth. The Nazis distorted the ancient symbol, reversing it both literally and figuratively, Ms. Raphael told her audience.

During an interview this week, she said that what is happening to Falun Gong adherents in China repeats history.

"The fact is that the world was blinding itself to what was going on in Germany and we held the 1933 Olympic games right in the middle of the Nazi era. And we are planning to do the same thing in China in 2008. In each case, the world is blinding itself to the abuses and persecutions that are going on there," she said.

Human rights groups accuse the Chinese government of imprisoning, torturing and killing practitioners of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa. They say thousands have been arrested and sent to labor camps, and followers also have been institutionalized in psychiatric wards and been subjected to brainwashing. As the sect grew into the millions, Chinese authorities apparently became alarmed by its influence, labeled the group an evil cult and outlawed it in 1999.

Begun in 1992 by a former government clerk, Li Hongzhi, the movement has roots in Chinese religions and traditional exercises similar to tai chi and qigong.

Ms. Raphael said she was introduced to Falun Gong after seeing followers practicing their exercises in North Shore Park in St. Petersburg. Though she does the exercises and is drawn to the group's principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance, Ms. Raphael describes herself as a supporter rather than a follower of the Falun Gong movement.

The visit to Germany was emotional on several levels, she said. Born in Vienna, Austria, she and her parents fled the Nazi-occupied country in 1939 for Australia, where she grew up.

"It felt personally important to me to speak to the German people," she said.

"I was a child when the Nazis took over my country, so I didn't have a voice. Now I had a voice in the same country that initiated the suppression of that voice and a voice on behalf of those . . . currently being suppressed."

She was moved when attending the dedication of a memorial plaque for the largest synagogue in Hamburg, Ms. Raphael said. It was destroyed during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi supporters smashed, plundered and burned Jewish shops, synagogues and homes.

Her trip was "ground breaking," Ms. Raphael said, noting that the Falun Gong practitioner who invited her to Germany was 20 years old.

"I think that above and beyond whatever usefulness my presence may have had on what's happening in Communist China," she said, "the personal connection between myself _ cross-generationally and cross-culturally _ with a whole new generation of Germans was for both of us extremely rewarding, given that it is unlikely that many Germans born after the war would have had personal contact with a Holocaust survivor."