Hundreds of Christians, led by a nun who grew up in Nazi Germany, are coming to Jerusalem next week to publicly confess the role that Christian anti-Semitism played in the Holocaust.
When millions of Jews pause this Thursday (April 19, 2001) to reflect on the great tragedy that befell the nation in the 20th century, they will not be alone. Joining them will be 700 Christians from around the world who are coming to Jerusalem to declare openly: We have sinned against the Jewish people for 2,000 years; it led to the Holocaust, and we are sorry.
The conference, entitled “Changing the Future by Confronting the Past,” has a simple purpose, as stated in its brochure: “ A time to reflect, to repent, to get right with God and our elder brother Israel, writing a new page in Christian history.” After all, confession and repentance are as much a part of Christianity as Judaism, though this group is not seeking a pardon from Jews.
“We are not coming to ask for forgiveness,” says Sister Pista, a member of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, a Protestant denomination in Germany that is sponsoring the conference. “We wish to admit the crimes we Germans have done, and all that Christianity is guilty of for 2,000 years. We really wish to say we have greatly sinned – and this is where we can only cry to God for mercy – and to say it here, that you may understand that we wish to turn over a new leaf.”
Joining in the conference at Ramat Rahel are Protestant representatives from 22 countries and various denominations, including Reformed, Anglican Presbyterian, Free Church, Lutheran, and also a Catholic speaker. The highlight of the three-day affair is a repentance service that will take place at 4:30 p.m. next Thursday on Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day.
The service is all-encompassing, enunciating clearly the extent of 2,000 years of Christian teaching: “From the days of the early Church fathers, who claimed the Jewish people were being punished for 'murdering' God and taught that they should be 'continually humiliated.'
“To the age of the Reformation and the advent of Protestantism, when the Reformer Martin Luther himself called for Jewish synagogues to be set on fire, Jewish homes destroyed, and all Jews expelled from the country.
“To the modern era and the Holocaust, when international Christian indifference contributed to the closing of doors to Jewish refugees at a time when their very lives were in danger. We and our forefathers have sinned! Christian anti-Semitism has become so entrenched that it has shaped the attitudes of ordinary people throughout the world, regardless of Christian tradition or political persuasion.”
THIS conference was not a sudden inspiration by the Sisters of Mary, but is part of an ongoing focus of their mission since 1947, when it was founded by Mother Basilea and Mother Martyria to do penance for the sins of Nazi Germany.
As national president of the Women's Division of the German Student Christian Movement from 1933-35, Mother Basilea – then known as Klara Schlink – refused to comply with Nazi edicts barring Jewish Christians from meetings.
Later, during the war, she put her own life at risk by speaking publicly about the “unique destiny” of the Jews, whom she continued to describe as “God's people.” Twice she was summoned for questioning by the Gestapo, but managed to avoid arrest.
After the war and the formation of the sisterhood, Mother Basilea – who died last month at 96 – gathered documentation of the concentration camps and would read it aloud to the sisters along with passages from scriptures.
Moreover, says Sister Pista, “Mother Basilea prayed with us over 40 years in our Israel prayer, which we pray as Christians when the Sabbath begins on Friday nights: 'We did not love Your Chosen People; we have sinned previously; our hands are stained with blood.'”
Thus inspired, the two sisters came to live in Jerusalem in 1957, serving voluntarily as nurses at Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer.
“They felt the depth of the pain,” says Sister Pista, “because many of the women they served turned to the wall when they came into the room.”
Then on April 18, 1961 – three days after the start of the Eichmann trial – the sisterhood dedicated Beth Abraham, a small guesthouse on Rehov Ein Gedi in Jerusalem where Holocaust survivors can come for rest and relaxation.
“We take them just for a holiday, a refreshment,” says Sister Pista, adding, without prompting, “We have no missionary purpose whatsoever.”
Today the sisterhood comprises 200 nuns, most of whom live at the order's headquarters at Kanaan, Germany, near Frankfurt, a cloistered area of 25 acres of parkland and gardens. Their day begins with prayers at 5:30 a.m., and bedtime is 9 p.m.
The sisterhood ranks among the world's top producers and distributors of Christian films and videos, which are broadcast in virtually every language. They also produce books, flyers and pamphlets that are translated into 80 languages and distributed worldwide. They compose hymns sung by their congregations in 20 countries - in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
Indeed, 33 new instrumental pieces of classical music and laments have been written for the conference and repentance service.
“No clapping, no shouting, no dancing,” says Sister Pista. “I am sure if we do it in earnest, then we will come through – as you read in many places of the Prophets, 'joy comes out of repentance.' Real joy, not superficial, out of real repentance. Not the superficial skipping and leaping, but deep joy.”
Sister Pista's need for repentance goes back to her childhood in Koenigsberg, a German-populated area on the Baltic Sea annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Although her father never supported the Nazi Party, her own resolve weakened when as a teenager during the war she began dreaming of becoming a doctor.
“I was 16, and a Christian teacher told us, 'girls, apply for membership to Hitler's party, or else you won't have a good career opportunity.' Even though I was already a believing Christian, who read the Bible every day, I remember walking down the City Hall steps after I applied to the party and saying, 'This does not interfere with my faith.'”
When the war ended 15 months later, she knew she had been wrong.
“Six million Jews perished because of thousands of Bible-believing Christians like me who had been deceived and went along with the flow,” Sister Pista would say later.
In 1947, after escaping across the border into West Germany, she met Mother Basilea, who was about to start the sisterhood, and Sister Pista sensed she had found her real place in the world. After a probationary period, she joined the sisterhood, where she has been for 54 years. Today she serves as one of the seven sisters administering the order, in charge of representing them to the outside world.
“As a Christian, I love and belong to the Lord Jesus Christ,” she says, “and this is the cross we are wearing,” pointing to the sign embroidered on her tan-colored robe. But when she sees Israeli schoolchildren recoil when they see her wearing that sign, “it makes me aware, each minute when I travel on public transportation, of what we did in the name of the cross.”
IT IS for that purpose that Sister Pista is here this week with her fellow Christians, to acknowledge publicly before God and the Jewish people those sins committed in the name of Jesus.
“God will have mercy if we bow down before those we have tormented,” she says.
Asked to explain the historical basis for anti-Semitism, Sister Pista says it is “hatred against God. Our hubris, our wanting to have our own way.” Perhaps, she says, it is also a jealousy that Jews are God's chosen people.
“Hitler said this bluntly – he reportedly was walking up the steps of a cathedral and said to one of his aides, 'There can only be one chosen people on earth, and that is us.'”
What bothers her is how even today perpetrators of the Holocaust cannot admit to their guilt. A recent TV series on German TV about the Holocaust interviewed former SS officers. One woman, a guard at Bergen-Belsen, was asked if she had any regrets, if she had done anything wrong in her life.
“'Me? Anything wrong in my life? I just did what I was told.' This had such an impact on our community life, because we feel there is the cause in the Christian life of our deepest travail: if we are self-righteous, if we always have an excuse, if we always think, 'I can't help, the circumstances, and the other people, and the difficulties, please,' but never to say, 'I am guilty.' And only if we admit this, if we thoroughly acknowledge it, will the Lord throw our sins into the depth of the sea.”
The problem with this conference for many Jews will undoubtedly be the immediate sense of mistrust such a Christian gathering engenders. But that would squander an opportunity for fostering better relations between communities, others argue, especially with groups that are friends of Israel.
“I am rather optimistic in regards to Jewish-Christian relations,” says Nobel laureate and author Elie Wiesel. “I feel that never before have relations been so good; never before have so many rabbis and priests met and learned together, discussed things together, never before has a pope come to Israel – and to Jerusalem, after all, the capital of Jewish history!
“Never before have so many Christians in the world, Catholics and Protestants, spoken about forgiveness. So I think it is a good thing that they are doing: 700 people who are coming to Jerusalem and speaking. Whether they are speaking on behalf of the entire movement I don't know, nor do they, maybe. I am sure there are extremists everywhere who will say 'they don't speak for us.' But it is good that they are doing it – in Israel – and it is good to encourage them and to say we appreciate their solidarity.”
Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, agrees, saying that the group is declaring that while the past cannot be changed, “they want to point to a future that reverses the past way in which the Church related to the Jewish people, and begin to bring healing to the relationship and a greater sense of trust on the part of the Jewish people, and not to cast with broad strokes all Christians of the past, and certainly not today.
“These people, through their deeds, express remorse and contrition for the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism done in the name of the Church.
“Even as they do so, it's important for Israelis and the Jewish people to be open to accepting these people, and to extending our hands to them and meeting them halfway.”
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, takes a more cautious approach, saying a public pronouncement of an acknowledgement of guilt by Christians is important, but it's equally important to combine such declarations with active work in education to demonstrate feelings of remorse.
“For them to come to Israel and acknowledge guilt both before and during the Holocaust is important, but even more important is teaching how the doctrine of the church led to terrible anti-Semitism and paved the way for the Holocaust,” Zuroff says. “We need such acknowledgement accompanied by good works and educational activities in their communities. This is the key – the true test of the validity of such pronouncements is what goes along with it.”
“Six million Jews perished because of thousands of Bible-believing Christians like me who had been deceived and went along with the flow,” says Sister Pista.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post