The Shoah in Exile

Opportunity, it seems, often presents itself suddenly, as a complete surprise. Sometimes opportunity just appears, as if out of nowhere, often in the form of a locked door or a dead-end or worse. And yet, as if in some  secret, mystical way, opportunity also seems ubiquitous, ever-present, more commonly available than is commonly realized. Opportunity, it increasingly seems to me, is more a matter of uncovering or recovery than a matter of discovery.

jews.1 For instance, I recall the day back in the early 90’s when I schlepped to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles where I began my long journey into the heart-rending world of the Holocaust. This was the old Center, before the Museum of Tolerance was built. I made an appointment and met with a researcher there, and was taken completely by surprise to hear the following two words emerge from his mouth in a unified, yet incoherent way:

“Christian Anti-Semitism.”

This is what I thought I’d heard him say, and indeed, this is what, in effect, he told me as his first order of business at our first meeting:

“In order to fully understand the Holocaust, you must first understand the two thousand years of Christian anti-Jewish teaching that preceded it.”

A shocker.

An oxymoronic shocker.

As a pious Irish-Italian Catholic kid growing up, in all my years up to that point, I’d never heard or imagined those two words being combined in that way, to that affect.

But, then again, the day had just begun.

There was also, as it so happened, a bomb threat delivered to the Center on that day, targeting every Jewish administrator, teacher, and student inside the building that I also happened to be occupying at the time. This act of terror turned out to be one of the most momentous occasions of cosmic clarity in my life… as well as the moment of my greatest opportunity. As a crowd of evacuated people stood milling about in the heat of the parking lot, wondering what was going on, I felt a sense of sickening horror coupled with an even deeper sense of moral outrage come over me. Like a blow between the eyes it struck me that someone, somewhere, was: a) trying to kill or psychologically terrorize this building full of innocent, unsuspecting human beings simply because they were Jewish, while simultaneously, b) terrorizing the warm and wonderful woman standing at my side: Livia, a Jewish survivor who’d lost seventy-two members of her extended family in the complex of cold-blooded murder known as Auschwitz. Our very private and personal conversation in the basement of the old building had been suddenly disturbed by loudly shouted commands to evacuate by yeshiva students bursting through a door. I was simultaneously sickened, demoralized, and furious that Livia, this kind, exceptional human being who’d barely survived Auschwitz and yet dedicated her life to speaking out about the need for tolerance and understanding was, nearly fifty years later, still being targeted for death by a complete stranger or strangers simply for being Jewish.

And so it was that the visceral evil of anti-Semitism became a “live” and lethal reality for me in the exact same moment that the battle against it became intensely personal.

Samuel Bak, untitled lithograph

Samuel Bak, untitled lithograph

As a social studies teacher, the weapon laid out before me was obvious: education. But more than “just” education, the finding of a way to build human bridges between Jewish and  Christian hearts and souls via the engineering of a living connection between Holocaust survivors and Christian youth; the engineering of educational experiences that could create a direct path deep into the recesses of the human heart to make the Christian relationship with the Jewish people more alive, animated, intimate and real. It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that the healing of this long-suffering Jewish-Christian relationship may be a divine imperative in implementing tikkun olam, repair of the world. How can a kingdom stand if the house is divided? How can one get up when they fall if there isn’t another to help them up?

At the time I didn’t fully understand the implication that, in that moment, I was placed in a position to “see” a huge metaphysical rupture in the universe. It seemed that there was a deep, invisible spiritual wound that remained a kind of cosmic source of pain to the collective heart of the Jewish people; an open wound that rendered the effort geared toward tikkun olam less effective than it could be, or should be, and that this was a great loss to the mass of humanity still suffering from the lethal fallout of the deception in the Garden of Eden. It seemed as if the human hydraulic  fluid of God’s redemptive machinery had been leaking from neglect of this wound, draining both parts of the machine–the Christian church and the Jewish people–of strength, integrity, and spiritual power… to humanity’s great loss. As a result of this vision of cosmic woundedness and ongoing pain, it occurs to me that we, as Christians, must begin to realize the largely Jewish notion that we are not passive players with regard to the timing of Messiah’s coming, but rather, that we play a significant role in the repair of the world and the subsequent hastening of Messiah. And that the healing of this spiritual wound known as the Holocaust must be tended-to in order to hasten his coming, tended-to by those who both contributed to the infliction of the wound and have,  since then, neglected it for so long: those who are called by the name “Christian.” Though we did not behave as good Samaritans then, we can do so now.

So it is that this unexpected event occasioned the moment when the subject of the Holocaust became a matter of personal significance for me as an educator. I pledged that day to Livia that I would make the subject of Christian anti-Jewish bias, and its ultimate expression, the Holocaust, a primary focus of my life as an educator for the rest of my days.

Now I see not only what the researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center meant, but also how the absence of awareness of this disturbing history of Christian anti-Semitism worked as an effective paralytic within Christendom during the Holocaust and is still at work today in the extension of the current silence that follows the original silence.  I believe that most Christians will be as shocked and surprised as I was to hear of this–our dark, hidden history–once made aware of it; an occasion that has not yet come about in full. It is my impression that most Christians–Catholic and Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal–somehow believe that it was not the Church, but Hitler and his Nazi minions, who invented the satanic notions about the Jewish people that Josef Goebbels used in the anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda employed to further “condition” the anti-Jewish soul of Christian Europe toward passivity as the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” was planned and perpetrated. The majority of Christians that I’ve encountered do not know, and could not guess, the horror of the reality that Hitler only had to configure his own updated, Nazified version of medieval Church Canon Law  to conceive of and legislate the Nuremberg Laws, creating the “legal” conditions that effectively isolated the Jewish population from German society–an early, pre-ghetto-izational step in the overall approach to the Final Solution.

Samuel Bak, Sounds of Silence, detail

Samuel Bak, Sounds of Silence, detail

But I also believe that when knowledge of Christianity’s dark history comes into being among Christians, all defensive rationales allowing for the chronic denial of the past will be swept away and that “all Heaven will break loose” within the remnantal portion of the Christian soul that apprehends this truth and acts upon it. The capacity of sincere Christian hearts to accept and acknowledge truth has always been great… once the truth is made clear and accessible to them.  History shows that those whom the Spirit of God inhabits and guides are open to truth and are willing to act upon it… even at the expense of their own lives.

We who have already acknowledged this “working black hole” in the church’s collective conscience must increasingly become agents of truth with regard to the subject of the Shoah. We have our work cut out for us. Two thousand years of self-inflicted amputation from the second Temple sources of our faith, underscored by two thousand years of anti-Jewish teaching and anti-Jewish behavior, stand like Tolkien’s titanic black gate of Morder before us: an impregnable black stone and iron wall built of erroneous, biased theology. We can successfully navigate this valley of darkness only by thoughtfully emulating the courage and compassion of the prophet Nathan in speaking the truth in love to King David–an act of ruthless honesty on Nathan’s part that transported David, as the rabbis teach, to the apex of human greatness as “a man after God’s own heart.” It was not through his political governance or military success that the beloved shepherd-king of Israel achieved “greatness,” but through this act of gut-wrenching repentance for the murder of Uriah the Hittite in adulterous pursuit of Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.

Nathan confronting King David, oil on canvas

Nathan confronting King David, oil on canvas

The Christian community has been in denial about its duty and obligation to the Jewish people concerning the Shoah since the end of WWII, often employing complex conceptual semantics to distance itself from its responsibility to the past. But this does not mean that individual Christians are incapable of emulating King David’s righteous response once directly confronted with the hard reality of our collective culpability in the anti-Semitic past that made the Holocaust possible. We may not have caused the situation that now exists, but we are responsible for making it right in the wake of its occurrence.

As Christian Holocaust scholar John K. Roth put it: “Christianity was not a sufficient condition for the Holocaust, nevertheless, it was a necessary condition for the disaster.” [1]

The next step? Direct confrontation of Christianity’s miseducation concerning the dark underbelly of its own history. Though Christian theologians and teachers, from the late first century, on, may have placed us in a circumstance of “conceptual exile” with regard to the subject of our obligation to act, we, as individual Christians need not place ourselves in self-imposed exile from that obligation. We can, and must, reform our biased viewpoint and act. We stand poised at a moment in history unlike any other. We will either be vigilant in the manner of Moses, Caleb, and Hur battling Amalek at Rephidim… or not. While it is true that God once told His people, through the prophet Jeremiah, to bear the yoke of exile patiently, I, for one, cannot believe that such is the case in this matter of our current responsibility to the Jewish people concerning the Holocaust. If we are in exile, it is not from our responsibility to the Jewish people or the memory of the Shoah, it is the result of our inclination to deny our responsibility to both.

This is not ancient Babylon, we have not been instructed to “build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat their fruit;” this is America, this is the church in the acharit hayamim, the last days; we accept the current distorted view of exile-through-avoidance to our own dishonor, and, I would humbly submit, to the great displeasure of the God of Jacob, as well.

Samuel Bak, The Art of Reading, 2009

Samuel Bak, The Art of Reading, 2009

It is taught within the Jewish tradition that God always goes into exile with His people, never betraying them. As I see it, we, as Christians, are not being guided by Heaven to move away from Israel, to sit back on our imaginary laurels and enjoy the vineyards we’ve been allowed  to plant as grafted-in Christians and “not-yet-fully-naturalized” citizens of the commonwealth of Israel. We are being guided by Heaven to move toward Israel and to put our lives on the line to help defend and protect all that is under attack by our common Enemy.

One of those things under attack being the memory of the Holocaust and that of its innocent victims–from infants to the elderly–that were terrorized, ghetto-ized, caused to suffer unimaginable physical and emotional pain and then ruthlessly exposed to death by beating or bullet or gas throughout the cold expanse of the dark Nazi night… a cold, dark night that happened to occur in the very heart of Christian Europe.

The time has come. It is morning and time to rise up and come to the aid of our brother, Jacob. It is time to bring Jacob relief as concerns this great burden of Holocaust remembrance currently under direct assault from multiple fronts.

If delivered with an attitude of doing what is pleasing to our Heavenly Father, it will likely prove to be the kind of relief that will cause us to sigh with relief, as well, once finally delivered.



[1] John K. Roth, “What Does The Holocaust Have To Do With Christianity?”, The Holocaust And The Christian World: Reflections on the Past, Challenges for the Future; ed. Rittner, Smith, Steinfeldt, Bauer; Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies, Continuum, NY, 2000, 10.

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13 comments on “The Shoah in Exile

  1. James says:

    we, as Christians, must begin to realize the largely Jewish notion that we are not passive players with regard to the timing of Messiah’s coming, but rather, that we play a significant role in the repair of the world and the subsequent hastening of Messiah. And that the healing of this spiritual wound known as the Holocaust must be tended-to in order to hasten his coming, tended-to by those who both contributed to the infliction of the wound and have, since then, neglected it for so long: those who are called by the name “Christian.” Though we did not behave as good Samaritans then, we can do so now.

    Yes, exactly. We have a responsibility to do all we can to repair the broken world, including the “brokeness” introduced by twenty centuries of supersessionism and Jewish hatred in the church.

    The next step? Direct confrontation of Christianity’s miseducation concerning the dark underbelly of its own history.

    Agreed, and yet I don’t believe we can be effective in this if we all stand apart from the church, as if it were a prison containing mass murderers and other horrible felons. We are not to be the nice, kind, “social worker” types who float into the prison, tell the prisoners how awful they’ve been but how much better they could be if they’d just listen to us, and then we sail back out into our own little cocoons, leaving them in what we perceive as their “hell hole.” Walking into church, beating Christians over the head with a Torah scroll, and then walking back out isn’t going to achieve the goal, and all we’ll do is alienate the population we’re trying to reach.

    We have to be the change we want to see in the church. Not a task for all of us, and maybe not even a task that those of us who have chosen to return to church plan to do for the rest of our lives. But how else will someone learn to trust you and listen to you, unless you are a part of their life?

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  2. Dan Hennessy says:

    Amen, James. My position as well. This is why I use the collective “we” when referring to Christians and Christianity. This work of healing is “an inside job” all the way. As a matter of fact, when Livia and I were speaking that day in the basement of the old SWC, she said, “But you should not feel personally responsible for all that happened during the Shoah.” Once I got my bearings straight-she had taken my hand in her two hands as she spoke-I responded, “No, but it is ‘my people,’ that is, the Christian people, who were silent at that time and it is up to myself and other Christians to take responsibility for what we do now.” This sort of miracle can occur by prayer and love… it is a work of love from beginning to end… love of fellow Christians as well as love of the Jewish people… my desire is to see my fellow Christians rise to “Davidic heights” of righteousness via active repentance through the work of active remembrance, not because I’m angry at them, but because I love them. You say it all when you write: “We have to be the change we want to see in the church… how else will someone learn to trust you and listen to you, unless you are a part of their life?” .I think of Boaz’s sentiments here. We are of the expanded Tent of David and there are no second class citizens in the domain of the King. Thanks for sharing your confirming of the Christian role in tikkun olam and for your emphasis on employing biblical loving kindness, not dogmatic wooden clubs, when working within the midst of our fellow Christians. I always appreciate, and am encouraged, your input…

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  3. Dan, this is really amazing and you do a beautiful job of outlining the issue.

    I remember, to my shame, how I felt at the DC Holocaust museum. We began on the top floor, by watching the movie “the beginning of antisemitism” (or something close). While watching this I turned in utter shock to my husband and said “their blaming Christianity for the holocaust!?)

    I was so upset! All I could do was tell myself I’d write a letter and “set them straight” on how it was Christian people like Corrie Ten Boom and family that saved Jewish people precisely because they were Christians!

    It hadn’t occurred to me yet that other names weren’t rolling off my tongue.

    Years later I read the book “Future Israel” by Dr. Barry Horner where he lays out the horrible past and I think I cried for weeks, if not months. It’s shocking to the system to learn this, maybe that’s why it’s kept hidden or ignored.

    Thanks a ton for this post Dan.

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    • Dan Hennessy says:

      Don’t feel too guilty, Ruth, most of us are in the same boat (makes me think of the SS St. Louis). You’ve made a huge breakthrough in your thinking, most Christians are still defending, or rationalizing, the action, or non-action, of Christian Europe during the Shoah.

      Interestingly, many who rescued Jews during the Holocaust did so for non-spiritual reasons, often having to do with humanistic moral codes. People rescued others for various reasons. Some were motivated by a sense of morality. Others had a relationship with a particular person or group. Some were politically driven and were adamantly opposed to the Third Reich. Go to Yad Vashem’s site: http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/holocaust/about/08/rescue.asp … for a good treatment of motivation among non-Jews who rescued…

      And thanks, as usual, for the kind words. You’re a great source of encouragement…

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      • Thanks Dan, I appreciate it and I know I’ve a lot yet to learn as I go through the training via Yad Vashem (we should be starting another class shortly.)

        I’m just so thankful I changed my mind and never sent a letter to the DC Museum that would’ve added to the pain they must feel every time a Christian, ignorant of their history, spouts off. I am sure I wouldn’t have been the only one to so.

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  4. James says:

    Speaking of Holocaust related info, I just came across this bit of news about how the city of Amsterdam treated Holocaust victims after the war.

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    • Dan Hennessy says:

      James… wouldn’t you think that a municipal gov’t might go easy on a population where 75 percent were murdered in the Holocaust? Of course, we don’t know the whole story, yet. Regarding the economic damage from Kristallnacht pogrom and the resulting massive insurance claims, Herman Göring declared the Jews themselves should be billed for the damage and that any insurance money payable to them should be confiscated by the Government. The Nazis “billed” German Jews for the expenses involved in their persecution, to the tune of $1 billion marks!

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  5. Dan Hennessy says:

    Very tragic. Very disappointing. I just taught “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” to my sophomores and Anne writes that she has great respect for the Dutch as they risk their lives to hide Jews. I imagine the Otto Frank estate is dealing with this miscarriage of justice as we speak…

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  6. Dan Hennessy says:

    Ruth… I think it’s AMAZING that you’re taking the online courses at Yad Vashem! It’s so exciting to know someone studying, with their heart as well as their mind, this subject so critical to Jewish-Christian relationship and tikkun olam, repair of the world. I will hold your studies in prayer daily as you are entering a zone of intense spiritual activity; but ADONAI, of course, will be with you… “Hazak va hametz!” As the LORD said to Joshua… “Be strong and courageous!” For He will be with you as you go into the kingdom of night… bringing light into the darkness. ~ Dan

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  7. Dan Hennessy says:

    Interestingly, James, I received word back from the group “Christians For Israel” and they’ve requested that I send copies of my book to them at their headquarters in… The Netherlands.

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  8. James says:

    Who else needs it more?

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