“Holocaust Avoidance Syndrome”

“As the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.”

~ Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking

On Thursday afternoon I was privileged to speak on the phone with a vivacious, enthusiastic 93-year-old Holocaust survivor about participating in a remembrance event I’m organizing at a local colbentflamelege next month. April 8th is Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance in the United States and Israel. This warm and wonderful human being, Helen, and I, spoke for about twenty minutes and, I must say, it was as if a brightly shining light was being transmitted from her end of the phone to mine. I must also honestly admit that, however, as meaningful an experience meeting Helen for the first time truly was, I was also left with the same confounding sense of aggravated frustration that is always present in the midst of all that good energy, a phenomenon that occurs whenever I encounter one of these extraordinary human beings who not only survived the anti-Semitic hatred of the Nazis, but have chosen to spend the rest of their years fighting the good fight: to honor the memory of those who did not survive; to teach the truth to succeeding generations; to advance the teaching of human tolerance… a cause that, tragically, has never reached full traction in the post-Auschwitz world, as evidenced by the broad-based human suffering taking place in regions such as Bosnia, Rwanda and the Sudan. This contra-indicated sensation of hope-filled optimism and aggravated frustration is something I’ve learned to live with over the past two decades or so that I’ve had the pleasure to bring young people and Holocaust survivors together for the purpose of keeping the memory of the Shoah alive.

The “confounding sense of aggravated frustration” that occurs each time I encounter a Holocaust survivor is triggered, first of all, by the excruciatingly real fact that this precious  inspirational human resource is collectively dwindling in number and so relatively few have been exposed to the power of their heart-rending testimonies in person. But emotional frustration also occurs on the other end of getting these living testimonies out into the broken world that so desperately needs to hear them: most attempts to organize events or implement curriculum that engages the teaching of the Holocaust – to include hosting a visit by a Holocaust survivor – is regularly met by so many forces of resistance that they are difficult to identify and enumerate. This phenomenon is perplexing, to say the least. I’ve encountered reluctance by administrators of secondary schools who simply seem frightened by the “controversy” or are concerned about the “depressive spirit” the subject of the Holocaust may inspire in both teachers and students. I’ve even encountered one instance where members of the board of a secondary school seem to have filibustered the hosting of a Holocaust survivor for reasons unknown. Wiesel.classroom But the greatest obstacle to bringing critical awareness of the Holocaust to the current generation of youth seems to be the lack of TIME itself. The time it takes to properly break-down, articulate, analyze, and assimilate the essential information pertaining to this subject, within the time frame of a normal academic school year already jammed to the point of bursting with curricular objectives too inordinately huge for classroom teachers to manage, acts as an iron curtain of counter-purpose, allowing only dribs and drabs of Shoah-related content to trickle through into the mainstream, student-side of the curtain, most often, in the United States, by way of English/Language Arts classes via the assignment of Holocaust-related literature such as “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” and Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize-winning novella-memoir, “Night.”

Teachers are understandably overwhelmed by the depth and scope, the emotional, psychological and sociological complexity, as well as the heavy personal emotional burden of teaching the subject of the Holocaust to young people. It is an epic undertaking. There are serious ramifications to be considered if the Holocaust is presented in any way other than the way it ought to be presented. It is a heavy burden of responsibility, not only to bear-up under as a teacher, but to try to understand and fully incorporate into one’s own heart and soul as a person.

And yet, if not now, when?

I’m not writing on this occasion to appear “scholarly” or even remotely academic, but merely to vent my frustration with the resistance to taking up the cause of teaching and remembering the Holocaust in earnest — a burden that, up to this moment in history, has been left solely to the Jewish community to bear. Helen and her fellow survivors cannot do the job alone. Besides, as valuable and powerful as survivor testimony is, we need for the Holocaust to be taught as a matter of history by history departments of secondary and post-secondary schools if it is to remain a part of history at all. We Christians bear a huge burden with regard to our history of anti-Semitic theology and behavior as well as the horror that it spawned: the deafening silence that allowed for the Final Solution to be implemented with such ease. Therefore, it is the Christian community that ought to be taking the lead worldwide in this urgent matter of teaching and memorializing the Shoah.

I believe that there are sincere and concerned people out there who would take up this cause with courage and vigor, but the internal and external forces fighting against them are too formidable to be approached in a practical way. Complicating the issue with regard to the Church’s furtherance of the Second Silence is the fact that most practicing Christians do not seem to have any sense of awareness concerning the long, dark veil of Christian Anti-Semitism that hangs from the neck of its own painful legacy. If rank-and-file Christians were appraised of this submerged parallel legacy, it is my belief they would respond righteously, in the manner of King David when when confronted by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:7.

To correct something there must be understanding. It is the first step.

Why do you think the Christian community has not seen the great opportunity before it to take up the cause of teaching and memorializing the Holocaust?  I’d love to get your feedback.

We need to make this right.


5 comments on ““Holocaust Avoidance Syndrome”

  1. Dan,
    Thanks for such a great post.
    As for feedback, I too think Christians would do the right thing and repent and then take up the cause, if they only knew they had anything to repent of.

    As I’ve been saying on my blog, it was a strange feeling to finally become aware that my secular home, and secular school cared more about the horrors Jews suffered in WWII than my Christian Church. Especially when we Christians historically knew we were to relieve human suffering in the world. I’d literally never heard it addressed at church. But It seems so counter intuitive.

    But Christianity has created a tightly woven and comfortable cocoon, at least in America, that we think we bear no responsibility. When pressed, we tend to say:

    It happened in Europe, or,
    It wasn’t “real Christians” who committed the atrocities.

    The two biggest problems, as I see it so far is:
    1. Christians, by and large, have no clue about our history.
    2. We’ve been taught to overlook the words in scripture that are clearly, unmistakably, saying who Israel (the Jewish people) are, what they mean to God and the redemption of the world, and instead spiritualize them out of their own story.
    It’s reflexive by now, how else can Christians use the “New Covenant” the way we do? As if the Sinai covenant was with the Jews, but the NC is with us Gentile Christians, who are supposed to be the main goal of God all along? If one took the time to read the NC as found in Jer 31 (and elements are in Ez 36) it’s impossible to think that, but it doesn’t matter, the misinformation abounds.

    It’s actually scary to see a person who on one hand says they don’t believe in or teach RT and then say God is done with Israel now that they served their purpose! (Jesus came, us Gentiles are now in, so Jews are OUT, unless they convert to Christianity and quit being Jewish)

    Sorry it’s so long, keep up the posts Dan.


  2. Dan Hennessy says:

    Your insights are right on, Ruth and I agree with them. The “cocoon” imagery is a good metaphor for the insulation effect Christianity has spun for itself. If one were to ask “But what is the cocoon made of?” I might try to explain my thoughts as to how I believe that a dogmatic attitude/approach to systematic theology is the stuff the cocoon is made of. As a tool, it’s useful, but it becomes a comfy, cozy blanket to wrap oneself in giving the illusion of safety and protection. However, it can cut-off a creative and spontaneous intimacy with God. While it keeps all other ideas and approaches out.

    I’ve heard the “real Christian” defense more times than I care to count. So, there were NO “born-again, Spirit-filled” Christians in all of Europe at that time. Ludicrous. Part of the “cocoon” you speak of. I describe this a bit in a radio interview yesterday, I’ll be posting it in my next edition of Jacob’s Relief.

    Thanks for your valuable feedback and encouragement.


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