As we observe “Yom Hashoa,” Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Day, I am transported back several years to an intriguing visit I paid to Chambon sur Lignon in southern France. This village has been granted the status of Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem for the collective actions of its members in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. As many as 5,000 Jews, mostly children, were hidden from the Nazis by this small community of mainly Protestant Christians.
The story of Chambon sur Lignon is the story of ordinary people who displayed courage and uprightness when it was so desperately needed, and yet in such short supply. Everybody in the village was aware of what was at stake. If the Germans had discovered the Jews, the entire village would, most likely, have been wiped out.
Weeks after my visit I watched a documentary about this unique French town and its “conspiracy of goodness.” I well remember the testimony of an elderly lady who had helped many Jews survive.
When asked why she did what she did, she looked puzzled and burst out: “Isn’t this what we were all supposed to do?” This dear woman had grown up with a sharpened conscience that never had to think twice about what was right.
Helping people in need, even at great risk to her own life, was simply what she expected of herself. Listening to her story has made me think long and hard about what went wrong in my native Germany.
How did so many millions of Christians not know “what they were supposed to do” during the Nazi era? One reason was because many Christians in Germany were Germans first, and then Christians. Their ethnic and nationalist feelings overrode any biblical values that might have been instilled into them.
That is why the official parts of the church that collaborated openly with the Nazis called themselves “German Christians.”
That is, first Germans and then Christians.
The villagers of Chambon sur Lignon were largely Huguenot Christians with their own history of persecution.
They saw their identity less in terms of nationality and more anchored in the beliefs and values which had shaped their community for generations.
But something else took place in Germany in the decades before Hitler’s rise to power. German universities became the breeding ground for what was known as “liberal theology.” Scholars actively worked to strip the Bible of its divine authorship. According to them, figures like Abraham or Moses were mere legends.
Miracles became myths, and they developed a flexible concept of God as being shaped in each man’s own image, rather than the biblical view that all humans were created in the image of God. Both Tanach and the New Testament were stripped of everything supernatural and divine.
This opened many doors to abuse and disbelief. With the scriptures downgraded to a mere human document rather than God-inspired, German theologians also purged the Bible of its Jewishness.
An entire institute in the city of Erfurt was established called Entjudungsinstitut (“De-Judaization Institute”) with the sole purpose of “de-Judaizing” the Bible. Christ was transformed from a Jewish descendant of David to a blond Arian national redeemer.
While most liberal theologians of that time did not necessarily subscribe to Nazi ideology, they undermined the foundations of the Judeo- Christian ethic which had served to safeguard society.
Today, we see societies in Western Europe moving even further away from these biblical values. This has even caused concern among some secular intellectuals of our day, like the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas of the Frankfurter Schule. For him, the very idea of man created in the image of God serves as a guarantor of freedom in society, so that even the most ardent atheist can question and criticize God publicly, but nevertheless enjoys dignity and respect from others as being created by Him.
In my own family, these principles were at work during the Nazi rise to power in Germany.
It was the strong biblical faith of my grandmother, Rosa Bühler, which swayed her to engage in small acts of kindness towards the Jews.
When shops in her hometown refused to sell to Jews, she would go buy groceries for her Jewish neighbors.
When the Gestapo eventually came to pick up Jews, my grandfather stood on the street and declared, “We should be ashamed of ourselves that this is taking place in Germany.”
As a consequence, the Gestapo frequently visited their home and rebuked my grandparents for their Christian actions and for helping Jews. In late 1944, the Gestapo came for one last time and warned, “If you don’t stop your activity you will also end up in a concentration camp!” But my grandmother boldly replied: “Mr. Schmid, you have an eternal soul and one day you will have to give account to God for what you did to our country.”
The Gestapo never came back.
It was my grandparents’ strong belief in a God in heaven which gave them the courage to make the right decisions.
There were thousands more German Christians who stood with the Jewish people. Some wound up in concentration camps and also paid with their lives. But in the end, there simply were too few of them.
When I look today to an increasingly secularized Europe, I pray for a spiritual revival. In our Christian Bible we read: “The purpose of the law is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience.”
(1 Timothy 1:5) In Europe, we need our conscience sharpened once again.
The writer is executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which has an official partnership with Yad Vashem to help that institution carry its message about the universal lessons of the Holocaust to the Christian world.
Since its inauguration in 1953, commemoration of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day has changed radically. In the first decades after the establishment of the state, Holocaust victims’ experiences of genocide were practically ignored.
Perhaps this was because of the inability to process the enormity of the event so soon after its occurrence. Perhaps this was because Holocaust victims’ experiences simply could not be integrated into the Zionist collective narrative.
In a society that valued courage, self-reliance and the romantic ideal of an indigenous Hebrew man who preferred action over words, there was little room for the Shoah.
The spurious “like sheep to the slaughter” claim was widely accepted, precluding remembrance of nearly anything but isolated incidents of partisan uprisings against the Nazis. (It is no coincidence that the approximate date of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on Passover eve, was chosen for Holocaust Remembrance Day.) The Adolf Eichmann trial, which began on April 11, 1961, set in motion currents that enabled Israelis to begin to process the enormity of the Shoah.
For the first time there was a framework for Holocaust victims to voice their nightmarish experiences.
The extremely personal accounts of survivors were broadcast to a captive audience glued to the radio throughout the day, and were avidly read in transcribed form in Israeli dailies.
This “privatization” of Holocaust remembrance came at a time when a new generation of Israelis who took the State of Israel for granted, and lacked the sense of purpose shared by the founding generation, were ready to reject a narrow, parochial Israeli self-identify, enabling them to be more open and less judgmental of the suffering of the Jews who experienced the Shoah.
By the 1980s and 1990s, a sophisticated understanding of the Holocaust was inseparable from the broader phenomenon of “post-Zionism.” Justifiably or not, classic Zionism’s use of the “never again” claim was harshly criticized.
Jewish life in the Diaspora – both before and after the Holocaust – was no longer seen as tainted by an “exilic mentality.”
Today, as Israel approaches its 65th birthday and prepares to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day for the 60th time, the real challenge we face is the “routinization” of Holocaust memory.
Thus, new and different ways of giving voice to remembrance develop from year to year. Joint Arab-Jewish groups of high school students make the trip to Auschwitz to reaffirm every individual’s inalienable humanity; the haredi community has found ways to grapple with the theological questions that arise from the Shoah; the stories of Sephardi Jews murdered in North Africa and Greece have gained prominence.
But as we move further away from the events, Holocaust remembrance has lost its intensity. Perhaps this is part of the healing process.
In recent years, Holocaust Remembrance Day has become primarily a time for reevaluation of the treatment of those victims who are still among the living. Unfortunately, much is still in need of improvement.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s announcement on Sunday, during the weekly cabinet meeting, that over the next four years a total of NIS 465 million will be allocated for survivors was an important step toward righting an historic wrong.
According to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, with about 1,000 victims dieing every month, this is our last chance. By 2017, costs are projected to begin to drop as fewer and fewer Holocaust victims remain among us.
We must not forget the lessons of the Shoah, at a time when anti-Semitism – particularly of the Islamist variety – has reinvented itself, not just in Iran and Egypt, but in France and the Netherlands, places where the Nazis carried out their Final Solution.
But we must also recognize that with the passing of time the intensity of the Holocaust memories will wane. And this should be welcomed as part of the gradual process of moving from destruction to rebuilding, to a semblance of normalization – and healing.