The half-century that has passed since the discovery of the Auschwitz death-camp has not lessened its horror. "Where was God and what can be learned from the Holocaust?" ask British and American members of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary at Darmstadt.
Weakened by a life of hardship, Paula moved with difficulty through the rooms of the memorial building. The tragic history unfolded as wall after wall displayed documentary evidence of savage persecution. A life-sized photograph in particular caught Paula's attention. Drawing closer, she suddenly cried out, transfixed to the spot. It was a picture of her. ..
The casual visit by the Polish Jewess to a kibbutz with a ghetto museum attached to it caused memories to come flooding back: the inhuman conditions in the Warsaw ghetto; the build-up of tension; the brutal deaths of family members; the disappearance of her young children, transported to an unknown destination.
By 1942 the twenty-three year old was the only one left of her family. At great personal risk a sympathetic Polish Christian offered her sanctuary in his cellar along with thirty-seven others, mainly Jews. But as the situation became increasingly critical, he finally begged them to leave, seeing no hope of either them or his own family surviving.
After only eleven days in hiding, Paula ventured out onto the ghetto streets. There, she was arrested and sent to the Maidanek extermination camp, where she was subjected to great cruelty and indignity, even to the extent of being experimented on by the notorious Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele. Yet in this hell, God was there and held His protecting hand over
her, as she later testified.
If anyone had a right to be bitter, then surely it was Paula. She had lost her family and home under horrific circumstances, witnessed unprecedented atrocities, and had subsequently been obliged to start life all over again in Israel. Amazingly, she harboured no bitterness towards her enemies or the situation she had been thrown into. As she shared her story with us, we detected no trace of rancour.
Paula, who had been asked to be a witness at the Adolf Eichmann trial, and who had been accorded the privilege of lighting the first candle at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem) on the annual remembrance day for the Holocaust victims, was completely free of such feeling. Indeed, she would have us all clapping and singing Hevenu shalom aleche
m ('We brought peace unto you').
One of our last memories of her was at a Christian conference in Germany in 1985. There, on the Nuremberg parade ground where the Nazi rallies had been attended by tens of thousands, on the same platform on which Hitler stood to announce the Nuremberg Laws, Paula flung open her arms and declared, "I love you all. You are my brothers and sisters."
Understandably, forgiveness does not come so easily to everyone. Disillusioned with religion and humanity, a high-ranking Israeli official and former rabbi who had survived Auschwitz vowed never to speak a word of German again, but a chord was touched in his heart when our founder, Mother Basilea Schlink, asked him to forgive the guilt of her nation. Over the next few months he came to a living faith in God and shortly before his death he had a vision of the Messiah. "His eyes! His eyes! I'll never forget those eyes," he declared.
IS THERE A LINK between the repentance of Germans and the spiritual receptiveness of the Jewish people? Benjamin Berger, a Messianic Jew living in Israel, believes so. While staying with us recently, he described a visit to Auschwitz, where he could sense the blood of the innocents still crying out from the ground.
He felt that the tears of the Germans over their crimes would help to remove the huge mountain blocking the way of the Jewish people's understanding and belief. Berger's feeling is borne out by surveys revealing that the Holocaust is the greatest hindrance to Jewish acceptance of God.
CONFESSION and repentance of national guilt and, in particular, for the crime against the Jewish people, is a keynote of our sisterhood, which was founded in the aftermath of World War 2. This has found many practical expressions; for example, Germans have served voluntarily in Israeli hospitals, and some offered hospitality to Jewish witnesses at Nazi trials in nearby Frankfurt in the 1960s.
In her longing to make amends, Mother Basilea also opened a house in Jerusalem in 1961. There at Beth Abraham, Holocaust survivors can come for times of rest in pleasant surroundings. Through the daily devotions from the Old Testament scriptures, many have returned to the faith of their fathers. Tracing the long history of Jewish persecution which began with the forced labour under Pharaoh, they come to see how God's covenant
with them still stands. He has never abandoned them.
Although we can never completely heal the wounds, a gesture or token of love can act as balm. A guest of ours who had remained a watchful but silent spectator, not joining in a single conversation, began to open her heart after seeing a small gift on her table napkin: a hand-crafted bird.
Long repressed emotions surfaced as the scene came back to her. As she was being lined up to be shot by the nazis, she prayed, "Oh, let me be a little bird and fly away." Inexplicably, her life was spared. The sight of the ornamental bird on the napkin brought back memories she had never been able to cope with before. It was the beginning of a healing process.
As memorial services are held at former concentration camps, fifty years after their liberation, let us reflect on the implications of the Holocaust. In Israel, My Chosen People: A German Confession Before God and the Jews, Mother Basilea writes: "Can we Germans really continue to walk under the open sky of our fatherland, in daytime in the sunshine and at night beneath the stars, enjoying it all without feelings of shame?"
"Must we not always remember that not long ago, under that same sky, in the midst of our people, gigantic flames ascended from the burning bodies of millions of people day and night? Were not these flames like a cry of desperation and a raised finger of accusation?"
"The river of our tears of repentance should first flow over the mass graves of the Jews...How can we flee His wrath, and where can we hide from the wrath of the living God so long as this condition is not fulfilled? Even if we were to go to 'the uttermost parts of the sea', there too His hand would lay hold of us, and at every turn His call would reach us: 'Where is your brother Abel? Where is your brother Israel? Where is he ?' Then God would point to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidanek, Belzec, Gross-Rosen, Sobibor, where the smoking chimneys stood."
What is the message of the Holocaust to the world in general? Many Jews have expressed the fear that having happened once, it could happen again. A Catholic primate stated, "It has been said that after Auschwitz one can no longer believe in God. My reaction would be just the reverse. Auschwitz shows us what people are capable of when they despise God and His commandments and exalt their own will, making it absolute law."
"CONTEMPT OF GOD soon leads to contempt of people. This is the everlasting truth which Auschwitz teaches us, though sadly not for the last time." A Polish visitor to us who had suffered immeasurably during the war observed that the rise of Nazism could have happened in any country.
Had it not been for the passivity of almost the entire world community, Hitler could not have gone ahead with his mass extermination of the Jews. At the Evian-Les-Bains conference in France, specifically convened by President Roosevelt in July 1938 to discuss the lot of European Jewry, only three out of thirty nations volunteered to help Jewry by taking in a few thousand Jewish people. Nazi informers reported back to Hitler, "Do whatever you want to the Jews; the whole world doesn't want them." The appalling outbreak of persecution now known as Kristallnacht followed four months later.
With their stringent immigration laws, Canadians and Americans abandoned countless Jews to their fate during the Holocaust, as documented in the book, None Is Too Many. The title comes from the answer of a Canadian who was asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada after the war.
The Swiss, to, closed their borders. Reports of Jewish communities perishing in the gas-chambers were trivialized by the Allis or treated with disbelief.
Even before the war Carl Goerdeler, the mayor of Leipzig, later executed for his opposition to Nazism, repeatedly warned the British, French and American governments that Hitler was bent on destroying first Jews, then Christians. He met with skepticism and open rebuffs. A good patriot does not denounce his own government, they said. As with Adam von Trott zu Solz, who was also martyred by the Third Reich, Goerdeler's words were dismissed as gross exaggeration. A policy of appeasement was preferred.
In national self-interest the British government compromised, reneged on the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and heartlessly closed the doors to thousands of fleeing Jews seeking asylum in Palestine both during, and immediately after, the Nazi era.
THE TRAGEDY of the Struma must remain forever seared in British national consciousness. After being turned away from Israel by the British, the ship was torpedoed in the Black Sea in the winter of 1942. Of the 769 refugees on board only one survived. Now writer David Irving claims that the Holocaust was a myth. For the phenomenon of neo-Nazism in Europe, British skinhead bands with their virulent lyrics must bear part of the blame.
The Christian community at large must carry responsibility for making the name of Christ and the cross repellent to Jews. The appalling record includes the Crusades, the Inquisition, and countless ghettos and pogroms.
It began innocuously enough, as Mother Basilea points out. In the theological realm, doubt was expressed as to whether the Jews were still the people of the covenant. Had not the Christians taken their place as the people of the New Covenant? The church then spiritualised and appropriated the promises of blessing made to Israel, leaving them with the judgments.
This train of reasoning is the basis of a deception known as "replacement theology," which is with us to this day, although the apostle Paul states emphatically that God has not rejected His people. He goes on to warn Gentile Christians, "Do not boast over those branches...Consider this: you do not support the root, but the root supports you...Do not be arrogant, but be afraid." (Romans 11:18-20)
If we love Jesus, we will also love the people whom He loves. The Word of God endures for ever: "May those who bless you be blessed and those who curse you be cursed!" (Numbers 24:9) Similar Scriptures include Zechariah 2:8; Isaiah 63:9 and Matthew 25:40.
THE TRUTH, concludes Mother Basilea, is that we have not only failed to love the Jewish people but, through our cold and hostile attitude, have actually distorted for them the image of the LORD we claim to serve.
Is it not tragic that we Christians who talk of forgiveness and grace are generally unaware of any guilt towards God's chosen people, Israel?
Fifty years after Auschwitz, let us take the opportunity to show our love, support and friendship towards the Jewish people, many of whom are still hurting, not only from the past, but also from recent instances of lovelessness and hostility.
A small episode at a hotel in Israel's seaside resort of Netanya may serve as an illustration. One Sabbath morning a group of German-speaking pilgrims were singing during a service which included prayers for Israel. Understanding only the word "shalom" in the song, French Jewesses in the hotel grew curious and through an interpreter asked why Christians should be signing Hebrew songs.
As the pilgrims explained their love for Israel and their desire to make up for the past, the bewilderment of the Jewish women grew. "But we have never heard of Christians loving us. We come here once a year to be among our own people, where we are not hated." At that, one of the Christians, a nurse, asked for forgiveness with tears in her eyes. "No, no, you mustn't cry! You're not evil," one of them protested.
Meanwhile all the Jewish women were weeping. There, in the hotel lounge, reconciliation took place amidst warm embraces, and addresses were exchanged.
How apt are the words of Isaiah for our times, "Prepare the way for the people. Build, build up the highway! Remove the stones." (Isaiah 62:10) Only through confession, repentance and prayer, can we help to remove these stones and prepare the way for God's chosen people.