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Why the Ongoing Fascination With the Holocaust by Non-Jews?

What accounts for this appeal with the Holocaust by non-Jews? Surely it is not the result of the number of Holocaust victims or that the Holocaust occurred in one the most educated and technologically advanced nations in the West, although this element cannot be ignored, observed the late rabbi Richard Rubenstein.

Out of the 15-17 million Jews alive in the world in 1939, six million or about 40% were annihilated, observed philosopher Steven T. Katz. Counting only the Jews of Europe, the percentage is about 65%. In Lithuania, Poland, and Holland the percentages were 95-96, 92 and 80 respectively. When we contrast this with other tragedies such as the estimated 20 million Soviet citizens who died in Stalinist Russia between 1929 and 1939, and the 34-62 million killed during the Chinese civil war of the 1930s and 1940s when Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong fought for control of China, we see that the rate of death surpasses the Holocaust by a factor of at least three.

Historian Yehuda Bauer noted that Rudolph J. Rummel, a political scientist, found that between 1900 and 1987, 169 million civilians were murdered by governments and government-like organizations. An additional 34 million soldiers were killed in battle. Nondemocratic regimes account for most of the deaths. Democracies were responsible for merely a fraction of 1% of the civilian fatalities. During World War II, 49 million people, most of whom were civilians, were killed.

These statistics merely offer limited insight, Bauer concluded. Rather than expose the catastrophe, they conceal it. We do not know these people who were tortured and murdered—they are just not statistics, and that a massive number of people who were just like every one of us.

 

What Happens to Jews Is a Sign

Rubenstein posited this interest, more than any other catastrophe perpetrated in the last century, resonates especially with Christians who believe that everything that occurs to the Jewish people, whether for the good or the bad, is “an expression of God’s providential justice and, as such, is a sign for God’s church.” The Holocaust “arouses speculation concerning God’s absence or presence in history for Jews and Christians.” No other attempted or successful genocides or the mass murders in Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere produce the same connection with the Bible as the Holocaust does.

 

Confronting the Dark Side

Any religious community expecting “to exercise a positive role in addressing some of the major problems in contemporary society” must recognize “it cannot be done with integrity unless they also confront their dark side and how they have encouraged violence,” asserted Father John Pawlowski, a professor of ethics and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union. “Until they sort of cleanse themselves, engage in a sort of chemotherapy on their religious tradition in terms of the use of violence, they really are in a very bad place to begin to try to address more contemporary issues.”

An integral part of the process of “cleansing the tradition from violence is reconciliation with those who were victimized by it.” Though one cannot seek reconciliation with the victims of this violence who lived hundreds of years ago, one can “make amends and reconcile with those who are sort of their heirs today.” Therefore, he sought reconciliation with the Jewish community.

Pawlowski quoted L. Gregory Jones, a theologian who in his work on the nature of forgiveness, identified several stages in the reconciliation process. They are “repentance, contrition, acceptance of responsibility, healing and finally, reunion.”

The Nazis inaugurated a new period of “human self-awareness” and opportunity, an era of “unprecedented destruction or unparalleled hope.” Mass annihilation “of human life in a guiltless fashion became thinkable and technologically feasible. The door was now ajar for dispassionate torture and the murder of millions not out of xenophobic fear, but through a calculated effort to reshape history and human identity supported by intellectual argumentation from some of the best and brightest minds in the society. In a very real way society lost its soul during the Nazi era. We can recover it today only by clearly coming to terms with it.”

Christian antisemitism, Pawlowski said, “provided an indispensable seed bed for the success of Nazism at the grassroots level,” and at the “theological level it was involved with biological racism and all that. That certainly has to be said.” At the same time, “to sort of factor out the Catholic antisemitic or the Christian antisemitic dimension is, I think, to falsify the real reason why the Nazis were as successful as they were.”

 

A Final Note

We will never be able to fight against our tendency toward reciprocal annihilation if we do not study and teach … the dark side of history—the mass murders, the suffering [and] the agony …” and do not accept the point “that humans are the only mammals that are capable of annihilating their own kind,” Bauer concluded.

For this reason, John C. Danforth, a three-term former U.S. Senator of Missouri, a graduate of Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School, introduced legislation in 1978 that declared April 28-29 the anniversary of the American liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945, to be commemorated as “Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust.” Danforth’s bill passed unanimously into law and established the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

In 1979, Danforth oversaw the first of what has become an annual Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust ceremony held in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Danforth explained that two days were selected instead of just one, because he wanted to include a Saturday and a Sunday, “two distinct days of religious observance for Jews and for Christians.

“The intention of the resolution was to encourage a consideration of the Holocaust from at least two points of view: Jewish and Christian. For that hideous course of events never to recur, it is the responsibility not only of Jews as victims to reflect on the meaning of the Holocaust; it is the responsibility of Christians as well. And so, the time has come for something more than generalized, non-sectarian good feeling. The time has come for an examination of the Holocaust in the light of what each of us professes as believing persons,” he said.


Dr. Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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