Five things Christians should not say about the Holocaust

by John E. Phelan Jr.

In August I made a trip with a group of Jews and Christians to Poland. We visited the great centers of the Jewish civilization that flourished there for many centuries. In Warsaw we visited the old Jewish cemetery. Among the crumbling monuments were the graves of great Torah scholars and rabbis, radical Socialist reformers, Polish patriots, artists, visionaries, philanthropists and the occasional crackpot. Jewish Poland was vibrant, diverse, argumentative, and wildly creative. We also visited the last remaining fragment of the wall of the infamous Warsaw ghetto. Jews were herded in large numbers into a small space before being placed on trains east. When a group of young Jews finally rebelled against the Germans, the ghetto was destroyed building by building. Very few Jews escaped the slaughter. Travelling across Poland we saw synagogues in small towns and villages — now museums rather than places of worship. We saw a magnificent Yeshiva, a graduate school of Torah study, opened in 1930 and closed nine years later by the Nazis. It is now a hotel. Its study hall/synagogue is now a museum. Everywhere we went we were knee deep in absence. Of a prewar population of millions only a few thousand remain.

What happened, of course, was the Holocaust, or the Shoah. Hitler dreamed of a world free of Jews and during the Second World War, despite fighting on two fronts against the Americans, the British Empire and the Russians, expended vast resources to transport and murder Europe’s Jews. And so we visited Treblinka, now a memorial given that the Nazis attempted to destroy the evidence. We also went to Majdanek and, grimmest of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. In these places and many others, Jews were shot, gassed, hanged, starved and worked to death. They died of disease. Some died trying to escape. Some committed suicide. Not one woman who boarded the train for Treblinka survived the camp. Even when the war was obviously lost, the Germans rushed to murder nearly a half-million Hungarian Jews before the Allies could halt the slaughter.

Jews, Christians, and people of other or no religion have struggled to come to terms with the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust. For Christians in particular it has been painful to contemplate that this slaughter took place in “Christian” Europe aided and abetted by both Protestant and Catholic believers. The overwhelming temptation of Christians is to admit to the failings of some individuals Christians while minimizing or pardoning the role of “the Church” and Christianity as a whole. This is both intellectually dishonest and spiritually debilitating. Renewal requires truth telling and transformation. To this end I would suggest five approaches to minimizing the Holocaust that Christians should avoid:

Christians should not attempt to interpret or explain the Holocaust using Christian theological categories. In the preface to the second edition of To Mend the World, Emil Fackenheim recalls Pope John Paul II remarking that the suffering of the Jews had been, like the suffering of Christ, “a redemptive gift to humanity.” Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain would remark that “the people of Christ had become the Christ of the people.” But it is impossible to find something redemptive in the murder of six million. Fackenheim writes, “’the people’ includes children, and…children are not martyrs.” It is impossible to find anything redemptive about living children thrown directly into the flames for the sake of efficiency. Attempting to use Christian theological categories to interpret such horror, however well intentioned, borders on blasphemy. The rush to theologize amounts to a rush to minimize.

Christians should not attempt to minimize the Holocaust by comparing it with other examples of mass murder. There have been many dreadful examples of mass extermination in this century alone: the Turks and the Armenians, Stalin’s starvation of Ukrainians, the Serbs and the Bosnians, the Hutus and Tutsis. However horrible these events, they do not approximate the Holocaust. Hitler did not want to simply removed Jews from Germany or, for that matter, Europe. In the end he wanted to destroy every single Jew. The Germans had determined the Jewish population of every country in the world. Where they had power, they intended the death of every single Jew. When they won the war, they intended to extend their reach. At one point they sent a contingent of seven SS men to pick up a single hapless Jew on one of the Greek Islands. Furthermore, the planning and calculation of the Germans is simply unlike the frequently haphazard and unplanned murders of these other genocides. This is not to minimize the other cases of mass murder, but to insist that they really do not compare with what Hitler did, and intended to do, to the Jews.

Christians should not use the term Holocaust to refer to any other action, however awful. There is a great temptation to seize upon the horror of the Holocaust to add moral weight to one’s moral objections to some other perceived wrong. Among conservative Christians one frequently hears abortion compared to or called a “holocaust.” Besides the fact that many Christians continue to dispute the appropriateness of abortion, this is clearly an inapt analogy. No woman who seeks an abortion wishes to kill every baby. Recently an anti-vaccination group compared requiring vaccinations to a “holocaust.” No medical professional administering a vaccination intends harm to a child. Quite the contrary. Hitching one’s outrage (however honestly felt and intended) to the attempt to destroy an entire people is once again to inadvertently minimize the Holocaust.

Christians should not attempt to minimize the role of the church or Christianity in the Holocaust by arguing that the Nazis were pagans or by citing the role of the handful of righteous Gentiles who attempted to save Jews. However tempting it is to trot out the paganism of the Nazis and the occasional anti-Christian language of their leaders, this will not get Christianity off the hook. Not only were many if not most of the murderers members of Christian churches, many acted on the basis of ostensibly Christian convictions in their persecution and eventual murder of the Jews. The soil of Jew hatred had been sown with the seeds of death by Christian preachers and teachers for many centuries. The Nazis easily played on this hostility by, for example, reprinting some of Luther’s most virulently anti-Jewish writings. And while some Christians did act on the basis of their faith to object to the treatment of the Jews and while others protected and hid Jews, they were all too few. A rebellion of Catholic and Protestant Christians against Hitler could have stopped the Holocaust before it began.

Christians should not declare their shock and horror at the Holocaust and continue to traffic in anti-Jewish tropes. Unfortunately anti-Judaism is far from a thing of the past. Not only is it distressingly common for Jews to be attacked in their places of worship both in the United States and elsewhere, it is far from uncommon to hear Christians using anti-Jewish language in preaching, teaching, and ordinary conversation. As a teacher I made every effort to argue that it was simply not true that the Pharisees were terrible legalists who thought they would be “saved” by obeying the law. And however much Jesus conflicted with the Pharisees, he was closer to them than any other group in Judaism. You often fight hardest with the people to whom you are closest. You will still hear people speaking darkly about “Jewish money,” “Jewish power” and the like. And far too often legitimate criticism of the state of Israel is a thinly veiled attack on not only Israel’s legitimacy but on the very existence of the Jews.

Perhaps the best thing that Christians could do is to remain quiet and listen. We are far too willing to gabble away trying to explain the world to anyone who will listen when silence is a much better option. Perhaps we should also consider how gaining political power and social capital corrupted the Jesus movement and led to violence and oppression of religious minorities both within and outside of the church. Perhaps we should consider how coercion and violence against these minorities violated the very teachings of the Jesus we claim to follow.

Years ago a former student wrote a thesis in which he argued that given the church’s history with the Jews we Christians should maintain a discipline of silence. It was then and I think is now a good idea.