Number 8. Rethinking the Unthinkable: Why Christians must never forget the Holocaust.
Marvin Wilson


The year 1993 marks the sixtieth anniversary of Hitler's rise to power, but what have we learned over the last sixty years? The Holocaust years (1933-1945) present all humanity with a tragedy of mind boggling proportion. The Holocaust was not and is not a Jewish problem. It was a crime against all humanity committed upon the body of the Jewish people. This evil claimed the lives of six million Jewish people, whose only crime was that they were Jews. Whether victimizers or bystanders, many of the enablers of this infamous event were closely identified with the church. Certainly, it is unlikely that many among the readership of this article were personally living in Germany as adults during those horrific years. Furthermore, it is not the intention of this article to focus on the question of guilt. People who were not present or participating in activities surrounding the Holocaust obviously have nothing to do with blame. It is not our purpose to fix blame. It is our purpose to remind every Christian that he has a responsibility to learn from this numbing, all-too-easily-forgotten episode of modern history.

New Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Even as I pen this essay, historical revisionists are pumping out 'scholarly' literature which avows the Holocaust never occurred. Other critics insist that commonly held beliefs about the Holocaust are really gross distortions of what really happened. For example, it is often argued that the Holocaust was simply 'Zionist propaganda' to create public empathy for the rebirth of the Jewish homeland. Some have even claimed the gas chambers were actually showers and that the crematoria were only ovens for the baking of bread. With the present rise of support for the Neo Nazis, the white supremacists and those promoting ethnic cleansing, today's church must remain vigilant. Let us not be fooled. Anti-semitic incidents worldwide have increased dramatically in the last decade. Certainly the incredible silence of most of the church during the Holocaust years should draw Christians of every denomination together now, more than ever before. In unison with the Jewish community, today's church must affirm 'Never again'. This means that together we insist no more holocausts be allowed to happen and that no forms of anti-semitism will be tolerated. Indeed, as Edmund Burke once wisely observed "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing".

Forgetting the Root

I believe that one of the chief reasons the Holocaust was permitted to happen is because Christians had forgotten their Jewish biblical roots. Because the church had become largely cut off from the Jewish womb that had given it birth, anti-Judaism in the early Christian centuries eventually led to anti-semitism. What an unbelievable paradox! The very people who have given more of their rich heritage to the church than any other people have been most maligned by the church. The anguish of the Jewish people at the hands of the institutional church is well documented in the teachings of the Church Fathers, in the works of reformers such as Martin Luther and in events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain. A spirit of arrogance, triumphalism and supercessionism was allowed to fester within the church for centuries (Romans 11:17-24). It was never rooted out. Instead of non Jews humbly seeing themselves 'grafted into Israel' (Romans 11:17), the church proclaimed itself to have replaced Israel. Instead of the church viewing itself as a remnant of Israel; it proceeded to define itself apart from Israel.

The Culmination of Believing a Lie

The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. For centuries, Germany had distinguished itself as a sophisticated, intellectual culture. But the seeds of anti-semitism were allowed to remain largely unchecked. The Holocaust was the culmination of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions in or nearby the church for nineteen hundred years. If these negative teachings had been exposed and rooted out over the centuries, there may never have been a Holocaust, and Hitler's desire to build a museum to an extinct people might well have been nipped in the bud.

In the Holocaust, not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims. True, Hitler also targeted certain non-Jews such as gypsies, homosexuals and trade unionists. But in regard to the Jewish community, the Holocaust was a systematic, carefully planned effort to liquidate an entire people. As for the Jews of Europe, there was no safe place to go. Most Jews were not allowed to leave their countries. And few neighboring countries were open to Jewish refugees. The State of Israel was yet to be born. Furthermore, Hitler had convinced millions of non-Jews to believe a lie. (If a lie is told often enough, there will always be those who start to believe it). In Nazi Germany, people believed the falsehood that Jews were racially inferior and thus had to be destroyed. Jews must be eliminated lest they corrupt those who were racially 'pure'. In Nazi doctrine, Aryans, ie non Jewish Caucasians, were of a pure blood. Jews, however, were untermenschen, 'sub-human'; they were little more than lice to be exterminated. Today, death camps such as Dachau and Auschwitz stand as mute testimony to how the Nazis believed and acted upon an untruth.

Anti-semitism Today

Anti-semitism is a virulent disease. It currently rears its ugly face wherever Jews are found. Sometimes hatred toward Jews is of the so-called 'polite' variety, expressed through racial slurs. Words, however, hurt. Many a hateful action and many a war has begun using 'only' words. Throughout the world, Jewish houses of worship remain the targets of bombings, fires or swastika-smearings. Reports of gravestone desecration, obnoxious graffiti and vicious stereotyping persist. One of the newer expressions of anti-semitism today is sometimes disguised as 'anti-Zionism', denying the right of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland.

In early 1991, the scud missile attacks of Saddam Hussein against Israel - he fired more than forty - were clearly inspired by his desire to bring about another Holocaust to the Jewish people. Totally unprovoked, and aimed solely at civilian targets, Hussein boasted "We will turn Tel Aviv into a crematorium". Fortunately, chemical warheads were not used by Hussein. Nevertheless, the need for Israeli Jews to don gas masks in Israel and remain in sealed rooms during these attacks created near panic and hysteria among thousands. This was especially so among Holocaust survivors who immediately began to have flashbacks to their personal experience with Hitler's 'final solution'. Indeed, these survivors are all too familiar with types of gas such as Zyklon B. Surely, the Iraqi scud attacks remind both Jew and Christian alike that the Jewish people are still not safe - not even in their own Jewish nation. The Hamans, the Hitlers and the Husseins remain, and unfortunately they seem all too ready to emerge wherever Jewish people live.

Lessons of the Holocaust

What relevant lessons and practical concerns ought to be remembered and addressed by today's church as it rethinks those unthinkable Holocaust years?

First, we must educate about the past so as not to repeat it. One of the sages of ancient Israel taught "Take fast hold of instruction, do not let her go; keep her, for she is your life" (Proverbs 4:13). Holocaust education is absolutely essential. It must begin at a young age. Such education reveals the errors of the past and eliminates ignorance. Christians and Jews must learn not simply to tolerate each other; we need to learn to respect each other. Education is an important tool in this process. In remembrance of the past there is hope for the future. Christians may now look back and take inspiration at the courage of those in the resistance movement, small as it was. We have reason to hope that in studying the lives of those righteous Gentiles - few as they were - like the Ten Boom family, Raoul Wallenberg and others that far more Christians in the future would also be willing, if the occasion demanded, to put their lives on the line. Today, in Jerusalem, outside the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum to Jewish people who died as victims of the Nazis and their collaborators, is a tree-lined walk called the 'Avenue of the Just'. Here one will find trees planted in honour of those righteous Gentiles who courageously risked their lives to save Jews. In sum, study of the Holocaust and of those who were either victims or rescuers has helped many people confront their own prejudices, an important first step in combating discrimination.

Second, though education is important, simply studying about anti-semitism and the Holocaust is not enough. We must also communicate how to be compassionate, human and accountable for actions. As previously noted, Germany was a country of great learning and culture. Many of Hitler's SS officers held graduate degrees from outstanding universities. Yet these acted like barbarics in regard to Jewish people. After the War, when confronted regarding their conduct, many typically replied that they were 'only following orders'. Hitler's mission could only be carried out by his assembling a vast team of doctors, engineers, industrialists, clergy, lawyers and common laborers. What was lacking? Compassion, humaneness, responsibility. The prophets of Israel speak of a deeper spiritual work whereby God gives to the people a new heart, removing their old 'heart of stone' (Ezekiel 36:26). This produces a human being truly sensitive to God and to others. Such spiritual sensitivity is what Hillel, the great sage of classical Judaism, also taught: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellowman" (T B Shabbat 31 a). This means to have feelings and to be able to put oneself in the shoes of one's neighbour.

Third, today's church must learn to cultivate personal friendships with those of the Jewish community. Martin Buber once correctly observed that "all real living is meeting". Unfortunately, today we tend to hide anonymously behind our stockade fences and the bolted doors of our residences. If we are concerned about preventative measures to would-be genocide, we can all learn from the results of one study in which many righteous Gentiles who saved Jews from the Holocaust were interviewed. These non-Jews who risked their lives were carefully questioned, "Why did you do it?" The survey indicated that one's religion, occupation, sex or age had little to do with prompting such acts of bravery. The study did indicate, however, that non-Jews who personally knew at least one Jew was a major fact behind such displays of courage. Today, if every Christian would make a sincere effort to reach out and befriend at least one Jewish person, what a potential this would hold for making a difference in a time of crisis. Christians can enhance interfaith community by such activities as minister-rabbi pulpit exchanges, joint lectureship on themes from our common Biblical heritage, combined study tours of Israel and joint Yom HaShoah gatherings to commemorate the Holocaust.

Fourth, we must remember never to separate our work from our worship. How could the SS officers be killers during the day and yet loving fathers and husbands at night? These people lived dual lives. If a Christian is true to his Jewish biblical heritage, he will not compartmentalise his life.

Everything is theological. There are no non-sacred occupations. All of life is sacred. The Biblical Hebrew term abodah means both 'work' and 'worship'. What a person does each day with his hands is considered to be a spiritual activity like the service of God at his holy sanctuary. Accordingly, Scripture reminds us "In all your ways acknowledge Him" (Proverbs 3:6) and "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (I Corinthians 10:31). When any professed follower of Jesus fails to consider his work an act of divine worship, a deceptive dualism may enter and lead to grave behavioural consequences. Today's church must continue to affirm its Jewish roots by adhering to a holistic approach to life.

Fifth, we must examine our theology and correct it if it is faulty. Has our theology led to arrogance, triumphalism or a distortion of Biblical truth? Several years ago, one of my students in my course on Contemporary Judaism became confessional while writing her final examination. I had assigned the class the following essay question: "Why should Christians study about the Holocaust?" When reading Allyson's discussion of this theme I came upon the following sentence:

"I can still remember when I was age ten and in the fourth grade hearing my Sunday School teacher tell us children - in fact, we had to memorise the lines - "The Holocaust was the Jews' 'holy cost' for not accepting Jesus". Here is the old rationale of blaming the victim instead of the victimiser. It is my conviction that good theology will lead to good ethics and good sociology. On the other hand, bad theology will eventually lead to bad ethics and deviant or distorted social practice. What do we teach in our churches today concerning what is often taken to be anti-Jewish rhetoric in the New Testament (eg Matthew 23:15-33; John 8:44; Revelation 2:9)? What do we teach regarding who killed Jesus? Is there such a thing as 'corporate guilt' upon the Jewish people of today? What of those who would use the charge of deicide in seeking to justify Jewish suffering in the modern world? These and other questions are of more than academic interest. Unless we examine our theology and correct it if faulty, the seeds of anti-semitism may be allowed to grow into another devastating attack upon the Jewish community.

Finally, we must strategize now on how to overcome apathy in the face of evil. Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: "Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself". Most of the world stood strangely silent during the Holocaust. Pastor Martin Niemoller, a victim of the Holocaust, reminds us so graphically of the ramifications of failing to get involved:-

"In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn 't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, nobody was left to speak up".

Both Moses and Jesus taught "Love your neighbour as yourself". But how can we say we love our neighbour if we have never taken the time to reach out to get to know our neighbour? Love must result in action, not inaction or silence. Personal friendships with individual Jews based on humility, love and genuine caring, rather than 'conquering' will make a great difference should the existence of the Jewish people ever again be threatened. By God's grace, may today's church learn from the failures of her past. May she shun indifference and be more determined than ever to tear down walls of bigotry and hatred and to replace them with bridges of love.

(First published in Tishrei Vol 1, No 3. The Journal Tishrei was launched in 1992 to highlight the need for the Church to return to its Jewish roots)