Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Visiting a Nazi Concentration Camp

By John Shelby Spong

In early October of this year, Christine and I had the opportunity to visit a concentration camp at a place called Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. This camp, known as Terezin, was run during World War II by the Prague Gestapo. Terezin was not normally the final destination of the Jews sent there, though some, in fact, did die there. It was typically used by the Nazis as a camp to house those Jews who had been gathered together out of Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, where they awaited their final transportation to the better known extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka. It was the official policy of the Nazi government to remove, by extermination if necessary, the entire Jewish population from Europe. In this task the Nazis were startlingly effective.

Before World War II, Czechoslovakia had about 120,000 Jewish citizens; today the Czech Republic has about 12,000. Not all of these Jewish people were killed, but some 6,000,000 of them were. Some escaped Germany and German-occupied territory by going to Palestine, Africa, Australia, South America and the United States, until that escape hatch was closed to them in 1942. These survivors became nomads and aliens around the world, since few of them were welcomed in the lands to which they migrated.

Many intellectually-elite Jews of central Europe came to Terezin. They were scientists, lawyers, doctors, diplomats, musicians and artists. Despite the fact that conditions at Terezin were deplorable, most survived until they were shipped away for what the Nazis called “The Final Solution.” Into this camp we walked, passing massive numbers of graves marked with the Star of David, trying to imagine and embrace the terror its captives endured in the 1940’s.

Jews were not the only victims of this Nazi killing. When people judge anyone as “sub-human,” it is easy to expand the list of victims. While in Germany, we also saw monuments dedicated to the homosexuals, the gypsies, the mentally-handicapped and the physically impaired, all of whom were systematically exterminated to serve the Nazi vision of Aryan racial purity and superiority. We also visited Berlin’s Jewish Museum and its Holocaust Museum. All told much the same story. Terezin was, however, the place where this horror was most visible.

In Terezin the prisoners were forced to sleep on shelves protruding some six feet out from the walls. There were four layers of shelves in that room, rising from the ground to the ceiling. Some eight people per shelf would be the nightly occupants, giving each person about two feet of space. As many as 100 prisoners would share one toilet among them. Their diet was thin soup and stale bread. They got showers no more than once a week. Their quarters had no lights so each night, they lived in total darkness. Hunger and dysentery were rampant.

When word of the horrors of the concentration camps began to leak out to the wider world, the Red Cross sought permission to conduct onsite inspections of these places under the provisions of international law. The Nazis then decided to make Terezin their “showcase” concentration camp to proclaim to the world how humane they were. Before a Red Cross inspection would take place, the Nazis would deport the thin and sickly prisoners to “final solution” camps not open to inspection and then would bring in recently captured, healthy-looking prisoners to fill Terezin. For inspection purposes, they also built in one room in Terezin multiple sinks, most of which did not work, but they looked good and this served well the Nazi propaganda needs. So Terezin came to be thought of as the “country club” of concentration camps. To me, however, it was breathtaking in its portrait of human depravity.

I have long sought to understand how such intense and killing anti-Semitism could have arisen in Germany, the nation that is home to so much of the intellectual thought that has inspired the world. At the beginning of World War II, Germany had more PhD’s per its population than any other Western nation. Without doubt, the finest Christian scholars have come out of Germany. One thinks of such names as Emil Brunner, Gerhard von Rad, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kung and Paul Tillich. How could the same nation that produced such influential Christian thinkers also produce Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust?

To the ultimate shame of those of us who call ourselves Christians, there is only one answer to the question. Anti-Semitism was created over the centuries by the Christian Church itself. It is a violent expression of our religious prejudice. It began early in Christian history. The Jewish disciples of Jesus, following the crucifixion, did not try to build a separate Christian Church. Instead, they sought to incorporate the Jewish Jesus into the synagogues of Judaism. They saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations.

When the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE at the climax of the Jewish-Roman War, Roman oppression of all things Jewish followed. That was when the Jewish followers of Jesus sought to separate themselves from other Jews in the minds of the Roman authorities so that they could escape this Jewish oppression. How better to do this than to suggest that, like the Romans, the followers of Jesus had also been the victims of the same group of Jewish leaders, who had championed this ill-advised war against the Empire.

That was when the traitor story, about Judas, the anti-Christ figure that we call “Iscariot,” came into the Christian tradition. He does not appear to be original to the Christian story. The traitor, rather conveniently, was given the name of the entire Jewish nation. Judas is but the Greek spelling of Judah or Judea. That was the moment in history when the blame for the death of Jesus was shifted from the Romans, who were undoubtedly the ones who crucified him, to the Jews. We see this theme developing as early as the writings of the New Testament. Recall how the gospels portray the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, as washing his hands and declaring himself “innocent of the blood of this just man,” while the Jewish crowd was made to say: “His blood be upon us and on our children.” By the time the gospel of John was written (95-100 CE) the Jews were called the “children of the devil.”

By the second and third centuries when the “Fathers” of the Church were writing, the Christian movement had become substantially Gentile and anti-Semitism had become part of the Christian self-identity. Names like John Chrysostom, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Jerome, just to name a few, poured a vicious anti-Jewish bias into the bloodstream of the Christian traditions in their writings until it appeared to be not only right, but appropriate.

During the time of the Crusades in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, “killing infidels” became a “Christian Virtue.” Most crusaders never made it to the Middle East, so they contented themselves by killing infidels wherever they found them. Jews were their primary victims. In almost every nation of Europe it was public policy either to expel the Jews from their land or, if that failed, to ghettoize them in their cities within narrowly-drawn limits. In Western history, Jews were by law not allowed to own land, to become apprentices in the developing trade guilds, to become civil servants or officers in the military. Out of economic necessity then, Europe’s Jews were forced to become traders, financiers and dealers in jewelry and hard currency. Jews then became known as moneylenders and as extortionists as the prejudices grew.

The primary victims of the Inquisition in the 14th century were Jews who had publicly converted to Christianity in order to escape Christian persecution, but who were thought to be continuing to be observant in the privacy of their homes. When the plague that we call the “Black Death” swept across Europe, killing up to 40% of the population, the popular cultural response was to blame the Jews who, it was asserted, “had poisoned the wells.”

When the Reformation led by the German monk, Martin Luther, broke the Christian Church into two primary warring camps, the Jews still fared no better. Luther himself was a virulent anti-Semite, even calling for the burning of synagogues. When Luther translated the Bible into German, his own anti-Semitism entered the language of this people in a particularly pervasive manner. Albert Stocker became the first German politician to call publicly in 1879 for the extermination of the Jews of Germany. In 1892, the conservative party of Germany made the extermination of the Jews a plank in its political platform. The Christians of Germany, both Catholic and Protestants, did not lift a finger to challenge this ever-growing killer mentality.

The “Great Depression,” beginning with the market crash in October of 1929, struck the vulnerable economy of Germany in devastating ways. Not only was Germany bogged down by its defeat in World War I, but it was also forced by the Treaty of Versailles to pay reparations. On the wings of this despair, Adolf Hitler rose to political power by identifying the Jews as the cause of all of Germany’s woes and by vowing to rid his nation of their pernicious presence. Seeds of hatred, nurtured for centuries, had clearly taken root in the German soul. This ultimately produced the Holocaust.

The leadership of the Christian Church surely cooperated with this tragedy. It was a Christian law passed in 1211 that first required the Jews to wear a yellow star. Hitler just reinstated that Christian law. One biographer described Pope Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope.” Germany’s Lutheran Church was co-opted by the Nazis so totally that the names of Christian resistors can be recalled on the fingers of a single hand. One thinks only of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. No matter how painful it is to face, the facts are that the Church acquiesced in the murder of the Jewish people. Terezin is a symbol of that reality.

Jesus was a Jew. Judaism is the womb in which Christianity was born. About 75 years after World War II war has ended, we still weep at what we did to the Jews. I for one want to bow before my Jewish brothers and sisters and say, “Forgive me, forgive us.” I hope the Jews will hear.


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