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The Shoah and Contemporary Religious Thinking
Albert H. Friedlander
The 9th November 1988, was marked with specialized observances throughout the Western world. Churches, synagogues, secular places of assembly, the sites of concentration camps, and those empty city squares where synagogues had stood in earlier times became meeting places for Jews and Christians. It was the fiftieth anniversary of `Kristallnache, that "night of Crystal" when all the synagogues of Germany were burned or damaged, when the leading Jews in the community were thrown into the concentration camps in order to extract an enormous fortune from the Jewish community to pay for the armaments which had brought Nazi Germany close to bankruptcy.
The historical reality of the largest armed robbery in modem times was concealed behind the legend of a popular uprising against "Jewish murderers". Later, when it came to be seen that what happened on that date was thefirst step in the crime inadequately named 'Holocaust' or 'shook', historians still used Nazi sources to describe the events: one spoke of "over 200 destroyed synagogues" when the actual number of vandalised houses of worship numbered in the thousands. The number of Six Million—inadequately telling of the death which came to a society, a people, a whole civilization —was pronounceable because it had moved far beyond what an individual or indeed a society could comprehend. Six million is the equivalent of one person: "The death of one person is the death of the whole world" says the Jewish tradition. But: thousands of synagogues — while the churches which stood alongside remained unmolested? Unlike the murders, pressed far beyond the limits of human understanding, this one night action of tenor and criminality is totally believable. And, for that very reason, it came to be supplanted by harmless images: crystal chandeliers in a department store smashing into the carpets beneath; shards of glass from looted stores littering the streets illuminated by occasional street lamps; the excitement of crime without its slimy taste. And, totally forgotten at this point: the silent churches which did not cry out while the synagogues burned. One or two churchmen spoke out from their pulpits, thus showing that speech was possible in the face of tyranny. And this was the final, damning proof which established the failure of Christianity half a century ago. The Church and its teachings was absent at a time when it was most needed. The Church failed during the Holocaust.
I stood inside a church in East Berlin on the 9th of November, 1988 and watched a congregation at prayer. Fifty years ago and a few streets further along, I had been a hunted animal in this city, had come out of hiding places too early, had escaped the mob because they had believed the stammered lies of a hunted child, had learned to fear and to distrust fellow human beings.] would not have gone into a church for sanctuary: the hunters had their lair there. On one side of the huge gate was the statue of the blinded, defeated synagogue; on the other, the Church Triumphant. A small boy had to accept that reality. Fifty years had passed. Had I unlearned the lessons of childhood?
Yes and no. I stood alongside my friend Paul, a canon of the Church; he had also wandered through the streets of Berlin that dark night, hunted because his father had been born a Jew; that had sufficed to brand him victim rather than hunter. Paul and I engaged in dialogue that night; talked about the innocence and guilt of the Church, of the innocence and guilt of the Germans, of humanity. The congregation listened and prayed. They were mainly young people – over a thousand in the church, hundreds outside, even scattered in the cemetery. I had visited some of the graves earlier. It had been too dark to see the stones, but I was told that Ranke (yes, that Ranke: the historian of the papacy) was buried next to the church. But who chronicles the thoughts of a congregation at prayer? What were the young Christians thinking about the Holocaust on this night? About guilt and about responsibility? About forgiving? Forgetting?
There is a different agenda for Jews and for Christians when they consider the Holocaust. For both of us, the question of our self-understanding stands in the foreground. Our paths diverge there. The Jewish self-understanding commences with our identity as victims, as sufferers. This can and does lead us astray: we were not the only victims, not the only sufferers. But we are overwhelmed by the reality of our personal loss – few Jewish families exist in Europe or even in the Americas who have not lost members within that extended family circle, who cannot put a name and a face to that tragedy called Auschwitz. The enormity of our grief can blot out the knowledge of the grief suffered by others, the millionswho died alongside the Jews in the camps. And yet: a child grieving for his murdered parents cannot be accused of heartlessness if he fails to see fellow mourners alongside of him – the identity of the orphan does not depend upon its being a shared tragedy. And so the Holocaust automatically confronts us with our identity as victims, and the 'victim syndrome' surrounds us with the ancillary tortures which arise in a society where suffering is all too often equated with guilt. "Why are we persecuted?" 'Is it something within us?" "Are we truly inferior?" (Growing up in Berlin, hearing about the evil Jews, that inferior people, that infection of the body politic daily, I did acquire much selfdoubt, stuttering, fear and shyness–perhaps the outside world was right about me?) "Is everybody around us evil?" "Do the Christians kill us because of Jesus?' (George Steiner's thoughtful essay comes to mind here: "Yes, as Freud suggested, Christians who want to rebel against Jesus and his moral teachings; since they are inhibited, they transfer their hatred to those out of whose midst Jesus came and whose ethical teachings he promulgated – the Jews!")
The Holocaust brings other questions regarding our identity to us. We are forced to examine ourselves in the face of the darkness which overwhelmed our community. "How selfish were we?" "Did we save ourselves at the expense of others?" "Were we too apathetic?" "Were we cowardly in the face of evil?" The commitments of the Jewish community to causes of civil rights and the defense of minority groups within society is quite ancient; we might still argue that it was re-enforced in the 20th century through the encounter with the Nazis who reminded the Jew that the danger is ever-present. The contemporary presence of the Jewish community in the civil rights struggle in the United States and in South Africa is not unrelated to our experiences in Nazi Germany. At the same time, with much sadness, we have also come to realize that suffering does not always refine and ennoble. Those who have suffered persecution at one time in their life are still capable of persecuting others later on in their own life. The State of Israelis an example here, although this comes to be overstated by many. It is basic to point out that restrictive legislation on an Arab minority and acts of warfare carried on against enemies who do want to annihilate the state of Israel are not analogous to the events which took place fifty years ago. They point, rather, to an unredeemed world and to a flawed humanity. But nothing compares to that furnace of affliction, the Holocaust. All of us who survived it, all Israel, and ultimately all humanity emerged from it maimed and afflicted.
TheJewish process of self examination also probes our responses within the ghettos and the camps: the nobility of aJanusz Korscak, the falterings ofJewish Councils and of Jewish police, of Kapos and of those who stole bread from their neighbors. Ultimately, the over-arching answer to the problems raised here is the fact that the guilt rests with the persecutors who created the impossible conditions. Weak people crumbled under impossible conditions, surrendered and cooperated with their torturers. This must be remembered, even when it cannot be judged: "al tadinchavercha ad ki taws bankomo" —do not judge the other until you have stood in your neighbor's place! That is the tradition of Judaism. And who could penetrate the darkest circle of the Inferno and experience that impossible situation? Also, Judaism teaches that death ends the account; the judgment which follows belongs to God and not to humans.
The Christian agenda
We move into the area of dialogue between Judaism and Christianity under the shadow of the Holocaust at this point. It is not the old "Forgive and Forget" demand made of the Jews a half century after the Holocaust. That discussion (also important) deals with the nature of repentance and the function of forgiveness within the divine sphere of justice. Here, we are at an earlier stage: what type of self-examination is needed for Jews and Christians after the Holocaust which will permit us to come together in order to begin rebuilding our broken community? How can we speak to one another? To whom are we speaking? And what do we have to say to one another?
Much depends upon what we have said to ourselves before such an encounter. To some extent the Christians self-examination will resemble the Jewish quest for identity. Christians were also victims, are represented by the priests and confessing Christians in the death camps, by resistance fighters in occupied countries and even in Germany, yet their primary suffering may well be one which they refuse to acknowledge for themselves because it appears to be more a cause and encouragement for evil, a crime rather than a consequence: they suffered from apathy and became passive onlookers! Self flagellation for this aspect of their past is not necessarily incorrect, but it must not obscure the fact this was also a consequence of that time, a maiming of their character, a grievous wound inflicted upon them by the evil of that time. A key word for our dialogue emerges now: COMPASSION. We must have compassion for the Christian who lost his true Christianity, either as an onlooker or as a participant in acts of evil, just as the Christian tries to bind up the wounds of his Jewish neighbor.
Christians — those professing Christianity as well as those who had shaken off the name — Christians did evil at that time. That must be acknowledged and dealt with, by the community as well as by the individual. It must be dealt with from within. Attempts to assist from without are counter-productive — witness the Waldheim controversy where the World Jewish Congress "assisted" Waldheim greatly in his election as Austrian President. For Christians, this inner healing must involve various levels of action: the inner confession and repentance of the individual and the Christian community. That process will be judged by them and by God, not by the neighbors. It must also result in visible actions which we can understand: removing the anti-Jewish teaching from the textbooks; exhibiting greater understanding for the suffering of the survivors who can still meet their torturers on the streets after their prison term has been commuted or when it seems safe to emerge from their hiding places. The Christian community has shown compassion and understanding in regard to the Nazi criminals now that four decades have passed. In many ways, this is commendable; but there must also be compassion and understanding for the victims. It is a point to keep in mind during the process of self-examination.
Let us say that this has begun to happen, and that we have resolved some of the painful issues of self-confrontation. We know ourselves in our weakness, and we have begun to understand weakness in others, suffering and greatness in equal terms after the time of darkness. We now want to talk to one another, to work together. How can such a task commence?
Commemorating the Holocaust in Public Prayer
Perhaps one should begin with public ceremonies that can be shared. The 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht was such an occasion, and much that was said on both sides at the many meetings which took place was commendable. But: can prayers be shared? Can there be a common liturgy after the Holocaust which joins us together for such occasions of remembrance? A number of delicate issues would have to be explored. In February 1989 I spoke at a theologians' conference in Germany which had a programme centered upon the Christian Mass and the Jewish Seder meal. With the best of intentions, some of the Christians wanted to take more of the Passover meal into their observances in order to come closer to the Jesus of the Bible and to his Jewish community. Clearly, one cannot come closer to one another by eradicating boundaries and attempting some kind of syncretism. Unless we acknowledge a parting of the ways, we cannot gain a deeper mutual understanding. And each prayer has its own authenticity and sanctity, derived from thousands of years worship as well as from its particular origin. The Paternoster and the Kaddish are doxologies approaching God through different and authentic religious traditions; these traditions must be respected. Nevertheless, there are ways in which we can approach God and pray together after the holocaust. At least, there are attempts.
This year, Elie Wiesel and I published a text which tried to be a beginning in an area where beginnings matter as much as the end. During the period when Elie Wiesel was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize, he also wrote six stories of the Holocaust and six of its victims. The stories ended in death. They were ragged, dark stories (he wrote one 'beautiful' touching story and then replaced it as incorrect within this text). And I surrounded them with meditations and introductions in which our religious traditions tried to say what cannot be said. Two liturgies became part of that book: a religious service for Jews, and one for Christians. They could be used interchangeably, could even be studied by those who profess the absence of religion as their guiding precept.
The book was published in Great Britain by Pergamon Press and in the U.S.A. by the Paulist Press and has sold well. In both countries, special introductions were written by a cardinal, a bishop, and a rabbi... In the British edition, Cardinal Basil Hume reminded the readers that the story of the holocaust has to be repeated endlessly. The mystery of evil seemed a sign of the times to him which all humanity keeps encountering. And he felt that those who would join in reading the text would come to recognize and experience good and evil and a sense of God. Then he said:
"Part of the process of reconciliation has to he the healing of memories in shared grief and the patient effort to accept the other's history and identify with it. We come as we are to this process; we shed nothing of our inheritance but only what is sinful. We seek to refocus everything in the light of God's love and concern for us all.
In our day that process has begun between Christian and Jew. Together we have to explore the mystery of evil and suffering and what it means to he God's chosen. The Second Vatican Council declared in 1965: 'The Church condemns all persecutions of any men; she remembers her common heritage with the Jews and, acting not from any political motives, but rather from a spiritual and evangelical love, deplores all hatred, persecutions and the manifestations of anti-Semitism, whatever the period andwhoever was repsonsible' (Nostra Aetate 4). We must retrace... the paths... when Christians and Jews wandered far from each other, and forgot how to recognise family features in each other. For the future those who acknowledge Abraham as their father in faith must witness together to God's love and His purpose for mankind."
(in Wiesel and Friedlander The Six Days of Destruction, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1988, p. viii.)
The Protestant introduction was written by Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford, who stressed that the shared memories of the Holocaust had to be remembered in Christian life "liturgically, if possible", for very special reasons:
"The purpose of remembering the Holocaust is not to induce feelings of personal guilt. The vast majority of the Christians in the world today were not alive at the time of the Holocaust... (hut) to keep in mind the dark side of human existence... we must remember the harm which religion can do." (ibid, p. x-xi.)
It is instructive to set these thoughts against those of the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, who used the space allotted to him in the book to express his deep uneasiness about new liturgies and days of remembrance. tressing the Holocaust. For him, the basic reason for the Jew's existence in the world was that of being a witness for God, not a survivor of human cruelty. He felt that too much emphasis had been placed upon the Holocaust which he saw not as a unique and extra-ordinary event, but as one of many occasions when evil had arisen against the Jews and had been repulsed. The American edition, by contrast, had Rabbi Joseph Glaser proclaiming the book as the most important liturgical text for many years. And the prelate from Chicago — Joseph, Cardinal Bemardin — had no hesitation in recommending the book and its liturgies for holocaust Day observance to his flock. As he said in his introduction:
"I encourage Christians to reflect upon the contents of this book and to commemorate the holocaust by means of the liturgy presented here. This will make our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters real and authentic.
While we cannot undo the past we need not and must not repeat it. As Jews and Christians, we must remember it in such a way that the memory shapes our common Mutt in which God and his purposes shall be our sole guide and inspiration."
(in: Wiesel and Friedlander, Six Days of Destruction, Paulist Press, New Jersey, 1988, p. 3-4.)
Religious scholars here joined together in an effort to move towards a common language of prayer. Without going into the details of the liturgies which were presented, one can at least affirm that we had made an attempts to show how one might pray together after the Holocaust. The fact remains that prayers are also poetry. The assertion that there can be no poetry after the Holocaust has been answered in the literature of many countries; perhaps, too, in the liturgies.
When might one pray together? Yom Ha-Shoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Jewish community, varies from year to year according to the lunar calendar. It is observed by many Jewish communities. More often than not, concerned Christian laity and clergy join us in these prayers. Nevertheless, the thought that fills me continually is that Christians must pray in their own churches, within their own liturgies, in their response to the holocaust which changed the world. In Germany, Professor Metz once said that there can be no theology today in which the knowledge of and the wrestling with Auschwitz is not present. There is no theology without Auschwitz. And there should be no liturgy without Auschwitz. The questions of guilt, of compassion, of repentance and of reconciliation belong to the prayers of Christianity –and and can any one of them avoid or circumvent the Holocaust.
When, then? Talking about this problem at the Frankfurt Kirchentag, with Kristen Stendahl, the Bishop of Sweden, we dismissed the notion of Yom Ha-Shoah observances as such in the Church. But he did say that the Lenten season was the time when one has to consider past sins, when self-examination takes over. Tracing at least some of the darkness to the beginnings of Christianity and to the charge of deicide made against the Jews, with an historical awareness of how often pogroms commenced in the Easter season, this seemed to the bishop the most proper time for opening the liturgy to this memory. He himself had often preached about the Holocaust on Easter Sunday, but the study of that dark past as an exercise of Christian introspection during Lent could and should take place throughout that season. Later, going to the Katholikentag in Aachen, I tested that proposal and found much response among my friends.
What can and what will happen within the structure of Christian prayer cannot be predicted by an outsider, particularly when such prayers can only be the end-product of a period of self examination. It may well be that no words can be found, or that the ancient prayers of penitence and confession can be enlarged or simply come to contain the new experience of anguish. Within the Jewish liturgy, this has happened – at least, it has happened for Orthodoxy. That is why Lord Jakobovits can look at a history of suffering reaching through the millenia, point to the times of fasting and penitence, of confession andgrief, and can declare quite firmly that no liturgy is to be written to reflect the immediate past: all is contained in the old prayers. In a paper given at the Oxford Conference of the Holocaust ("Remembering for the Future") I reviewed the contemporary liturgy which had responded to the holocaust. Within traditional Judaism, the Holocaust was often – but not always – subsumed under the ancient formulae: "mippe chatta-eynu– for our sins do we suffer; yissurim shel ahavah: God's loving punishment which intructs and develops us; b'chol dor va-don in every generation evildoers arise against us, but God always saves us" – these and similar prayers show the great trust and faith of bygone generations, and they speak of the self image the Jew had, one which linked the witness of God with the suffering servant, which proclaimed a trust in God's judgment which has now faltered: "A million children killed, and you assume that they were either punished or were witnesses for God? My God does not fit into that answer!" Out of that anguish came new answers, but more than anything else there came questions. Prayers are also questions we ask of ourselves and of God.
/s there other comfort, is there other knowledge which Judaism and Christianity can share with each other in the darkness of the Holocaust? It is so hard to speak to one another when we donot have the words. What can we even call that darkness, that terror? Wel say 'Holocaust' because that is the accepted current word, even though the Biblical notion of a burnt offering does not suit that terrible event. We say 'Shoah' because that is the term used in Israel, a whirlwind of destruction sweeping though a world of darkness and fear. Some Jews prefer the term `Churban', a destruction which is linked to the Churban, the destruction of the First and of the Second Temple. The late, gifted American theologian and writer Arthur A. Cohen gave that event the name `Tremendum', following Rudolf Otto's use: a word describing that which is in the end beyond our understanding, whether it is the Holy or absolute evil. The Nazi terms must drop out of our language, and terms used generally: genocide, mass murder, etc. do not begin to say anything significant in this event. Perhaps we go back to prayer here; to silent prayer. Once, in a handbook for pastors, I tried to explain much of the event in one sentence (admittedly in a Germanic manner). Trying to show that it contained much which was not present in the term 'genocide', I wrote:
"(Genocide blocks out unique features of the Nazi action:) the criminal pattern of a state which made the mass murder of the Jews a national priority overwhelming all other considerations (i.e., trains were diverted from supplying troops in order to rush Jewish men, women and children into the concentration camps); the actual technology of murder involving not only death camps, gas chambers, carbon monoxide vans, etc., hut a bureaucracy and reorganization of society which made the majority of critizens passive participants in the crimes „guided by mass propaganda and re-educational approaches demanded conformity with the state; and a dehumanizing of Jews, Sinti and Roma (gypsies) and other victims of Nazis (Communists, homosexuals, etc.)." (in: A Dictionary of Pastoral Care, ed. A.V. Campbell, SPCK, London 1987, p. 113.)
There is so much to remember that the world would like to forget, even as there is much we would like to forget yet cannot but remember in long and bitter nights.
One last word on a topic that has no end: if historians should not use the term 'genocide', theologians should be wary of the word 'theodicy'. First, because it is an attempt to file away the horror and the evil by handing it back to God in a critical fashion: "Flow could YOU permit it?" But the problem is not solved or even filed correctly. What we heard during that long period of darkness was a mob of humans, murdering and destroying. What we also heard 'not the silence of God', but the silence of Man. Moreover, theodicy means putting God on trial. Elie Wiesel does this in a profoundly moving play: God is tried in the concentration camp—and found guilty. Then the jury adjourns: it is time to pray.
In the time after the Holocaust, it may well be that we can only speak to one another if we speak to God. And perhaps we can only speak to God if we speak to each other.
Rabbi Albert Friedlander Ph.D., D.D., M.H.L., Ph.B., is Dean of the Leo BaeCk College, London and Minister of the Westminster Synagogue. He is a writer, many of his works deal with the Holocaust, for example Out of the Whirlwind: A Literature of the Holocaust. His latest book written with Elie Wiese! is The Six Days of Destruction. Rabbi Friedlander is a well known lecturer in Europe and the United States.