The news from last Tuesday was sobering. A video surfaced showing a Jordanian pilot doused with fuel and burned alive by ISIS insurgents. Jordan retaliated by executing two prisoners. Jordan had agreed to swap one of the prisoners for the pilot, but ISIS could not offer proof that the pilot was still alive. It is believed that the pilot was killed in January.
Horrific, savage killings continue to grieve our world. Tensions are particularly high in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land as Israelis and Palestinians and Christians, Muslims and Jews attempt to share a land where God chose to send Jesus as light to our world. Our faith dictates that every human being deserves to a have a name, home and love to share. Yet peace has proven to be elusive for the past two thousand years in this sacred place on earth.
The hearts of our pilgrimage group are especially heavy as we head toward Vad Yashem, which is Israel’s official and living memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, established in Jerusalem in1953, is the world’s largest repository of information on the Holocaust. We are warned that the exhibits are graphic, powerful and heart-breaking, yet through our sadness we are determined to learn from the past and create a world where all people are accepted, respected, valued and unconditionally loved.
We come prepared to enter into the shadow side of human existence. Six million Jews and two million others were murdered during the Holocaust. 1.5 million of the victims were children. Adolf Hitler named his program to exterminate the Jews the “Final Solution.” In 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and instituted a totalitarian, racist and anti-Semitic regime. His intentions were always clear, for in a 1920 speech he said, “The impact of Jewry will never pass away, and the poisoning of the people will not end as long as the caused agent, the Jew, is not removed from our midst.”
Unfortunately, our world consciously denied the reality of Hitler’s Final Solution. It did not help that through the centuries Christianity has been ambivalent about Judaism. Some brands of Christianity even developed a hatred for the Jews for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah and blamed the Jews collectively for his death. The Christian perpetuation and spread of this negative image fed into a new type of anti-Semitism in the late 19th century as people objected to the economic prosperity and achievements of Jews. Out of this attitude developed a seemingly “scientific” racist theory that fed into Hitler’s vision; namely, that Jews have “negative immutable biological traits.”
As we walk through the museum, we encounter dozens of young Israeli soldiers, both male and female, who are experiencing the exhibits with a guide. I wonder how many of them have family members who were killed in the Holocaust. There are also groups of young orthodox Jewish men, with their black dress, sidelocks, beards and ritual fringes. I wonder what is going through their minds.
The exhibits engage us with hundreds of stories of tragedy, hope, courage, and despair. On April 1, 1933, Hitler instituted an economic boycott of Jews in Germany. On April 7 a Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, the purpose of which was to dismiss from civil service all employees of Jewish origin. Diarist Victor Klemperer wrote in his journal that day, “Even an animal is not bereft of rights or more hounded than a Jew.”
In the 1930’s the rest of the world considered the persecution of the Jews to be an internal matter. Martin Niemöller, a German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor, described the cowardice of German intellectuals after the Nazi’s rise to power.
“They came for the Communists, and I did not object. I was not a Communist.
They came for the Socialists, and I did not object. I was not a Socialist.
They came for the Jews, and I did not object. I was not a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to object.”
By 1938 the Jews tried to leave Germany by any means possible. Unfortunately, other countries were unwilling to admit Jewish refugees, including the United States. A 1930’s cartoon in the museum pictured a Jewish refugee ship steaming toward the Statue of Liberty. However, the face of Miss Liberty is turned away from the boat, and she is holding a sign, “Keep Out.” Underneath is the caption, “Give me your tired and your poor? Really?”
Most Europeans ignored the obvious crimes against their Jewish neighbors who had lived in their midst for centuries. Many of the brightest and best left Europe while they were still able, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, Nelly Sachs, Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill.
In the 1930’s, German Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent time in in London and New York City but returned both times to Germany, speaking out against Nazism and writing eloquently about the cost of discipleship if one proclaims to be a Christ-follower. The cost for Bonhoeffer himself? He was arrested in April 1943 and executed by hanging on April 9, 1945 at Flossenburg Concentration Camp, just a month before Germany surrendered to the Allies.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews were confined to ghettos and eventually shipped off to concentration (death) camps. From the beginning, not only Jews but other enemies of the state were detained in concentration camps, including 15,000 homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally and physically disabled and those considered racially inferior and antisocial. In other words, anyone who was not perfect.
I look around me. I see people from all nations on the earth, tourists, pilgrims, repentants, but no children under ten. The exhibits are too graphic. There are few words, somber expressions, occasional sniffles and much silence.
The indignities perpetrated and atrocities committed were and still are unspeakable. Yet courageous Jews attempted to tell the story and find ways to survive in the midst of a living hell. On May 4, 1942, eighteen-year old Erwin Haber wrote on his way to Auschwitz, “I am trying to throw this letter from the train. I thank you (dear finder) that you are doing this favor for my grandmother, my mother and my little sister. They don’t know where I am. God bless you and also us.”
In the midst of death, music provided small pockets of joy. A sign in the Warsaw ghetto said, “Urgently needed – oboe and bassoon players.” Polish poet Henryka Lazowert wrote a well-known poem, “The Little Smuggler”, about a child having to risk her life daily to search for and smuggle back food for her mother.
And if the hand of sudden fate
Seizes me at some point in this game,
It’s only the common snare of life.
Mama, don’t wait for me.
I won’t return to you,
Your far-off voice won’t reach.
The dust of the street will bury
The lost youngster’s fate.
And only one grim thought,
A grimace on your lips:
Who, my dear Mama, who
Will bring you bread tomorrow?
Despite much of the world turning a blind eye to Hitler for years, the courage of Jews who resisted and non-Jews who risked their lives to help was astounding. Anti-Nazi resistance movements, underground partisans and brave families sheltering Jewish neighbors saved tens of thousands of Jews. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member who became one of the most famous supporters of Jews, employed and saved 1,200 Jews in his enamelware and ammunitions factories. Schindler spent his entire fortune on purchasing black market supplies for his workers and bribing Nazi officials. His agonizing words are immortalized in the movie Schindler’s List, “I could have done more.”
I leave Yad Vashem challenging myself, “I could be doing more. I don’t know what it means to be a Palestinian or a Jew. I don’t know what it means to be black or Native American. I don’t know what it means to be lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered or queer. But I do know what it means to be human.”
“Who are the very least of God’s children in my world? Who is being persecuted simply because of who God created him/her to be? I may not be able to change the world on a large scale, but each small act of kindness makes difference. What more can I do?”
What more can you do?