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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Dr. Carol Rittner, RSM

by Dr. Eugene Fisher Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Fisher: In your presentation at Kings College in Wilkes Barre, PA, you spoke of your vocation as a religious and as a scholar. Have you any reflections you would like to add to those in the video titled Gender and Genocide?

Gender and Genocide

by Carol Rittner, RSM

Dr. Rittner: Honestly, Gene, I think I have probably said all that I have to say at this point about my vocation as both a Sister of Mercy and as a scholar. Maybe in a few years, I’ll have more to say, but for now, I think people can watch the video, or read my comments in the April 2019 online issue of Profiles in Catholicism and they will get a good idea about me, about my choice to become a Sister of Mercy, and about my scholarly path.

Dr. Fisher: For more than 40 years you have been studying, writing, and teaching about the Holocaust. In a book you edited, Holocaust Education: Challenges for the Future, you write that the challenge of Holocaust education is to encourage people to help others when genocide occurs. How do you think studying about the Holocaust helps to achieve this? Do you think that studying is enough, or are other things required to overcome this challenge?

Dr Rittner: The purpose of education about the Holocaust and other genocides is to inform students about such events in history, to try to help them to understand that genocide does not “just happen,” but that genocide, whether it is the Holocaust or another genocide, is the result of people making certain decisions. Nothing is more important than for students to realize that genocide is not inevitable. Genocides emerge from decisions made and institutions created by ordinary human beings who are responsible for their actions and who could have acted differently – for human beings rather than against them.

As a teacher, I hope that helping students to realize all of this – and lots more, of course, will enable them to “think” before they act, to consider the consequences of their actions, and to act responsibly. This is one of the hoped-for outcomes of my teaching efforts. As a Roman Catholic Christian, I believe that one must not “pass by on the other side” when another person is hurting, injured, in danger. I think there is no sense in teaching about the Holocaust or any other genocide unless, at the end of the day, one’s teaching in some way enables students to pay attention to what is happening around them, whether close at hand or more distantly, to decide what they can do to help, in small ways and large, and then to act decisively to help. Hopefully, studying about the Holocaust helps to sensitize students to others whose lives have been, or are in danger. If students leave a course numbed to human suffering, paralyzed by fear, concerned only about themselves, they may have studied “facts and figures” about genocide, but they have failed to reflect on the questions, “Who is my neighbor, and what can I do to help him/her in a time of danger?”

Is studying enough? Of course not. Students – all of us, really, whether teachers or students – need exemplars and encouragers to help enable us to become sensitized to the suffering of others and to do what we can, where we are, with what we have to alleviate that suffering. We need leaders – political, religious, educational, civic – who help to set a tone in a society that encourages respect for the dignity of all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Studying about the Holocaust and other genocides is not enough, but ignorance about the Holocaust is simply unacceptable.

Dr. Fisher: You sometimes mention in class what an elementary school principal used to write to his students at the beginning of every school year: What did he write?

Dr, Rittner: Dr. Haim Ginnot, a child psychologist, at the beginning of his book, Teacher and Child, published the following letter a principal wrote to his/her teachers at the beginning of every school year. Dr. Ginnot does not name the principal, but that principal’s words are profound:

Dear Teacher:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp.

My eyes saw what no man should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses.

Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is: Help your students become human.

Your efforts must never produce learned monsters,

skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.

Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only

if they serve to make our children more human

I think the message that principal wanted to convey to his/her teachers is a message all of us who are engaged in education, in teaching – whatever our subject area is – would do well to ponder and remind ourselves of every day we are in the classroom, whether with young students or with graduate students.

Dr. Fisher: In your work on the Holocaust, what have you found to be the most difficult subject to teach students, and how do you handle that difficulty?

Dr. Rittner: The most difficult subject to deal with in teaching about the Holocaust, I think, is the role of the Christian Churches during the Holocaust. I say “Christian” Churches because it was not only the Roman Catholic Church that one must study. One must also look at the Protestant Christian Churches in Europe during World War II and the Holocaust.

I spent 20 years teaching in a state-related college/university – and another 20 years involved in education at various colleges. My students, both undergraduates, and graduates were overwhelmingly “baptized” Christians – Catholics and Protestants – with just a smattering of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and “nones.” Many of the Catholics even graduated from Catholic high schools, but overwhelmingly my students, whether Catholic or not, were notoriously ignorant about more than 1500 years of anti-Judaism in Christian theology, and they were just as ignorant about the efforts of Vatican II (1962-1965) to change all of this. Without understanding this history, one cannot understand that while Christianity – not just Roman Catholic Christianity, but Christianity as a whole – was not a sufficient cause of the Holocaust, without so many centuries of “the teaching of contempt” of Jews and Judaism by Christians, it is doubtful that the Holocaust would have occurred.

I find that students all have opinions about “the Church,” by which they mean the Roman Catholic Church, of course. They all have opinions about the Pope – Pius XII—during World War II and the Holocaust, and they all have opinions about just about every aspect of what the Catholic Church did or did not do during the Holocaust, but their actual knowledge is superficial. And I would say it is difficult to “fill in the gaps” in one semester. It is easier to work with graduate students, of course, because they are more mature, more committed to studying in-depth. For undergraduates, honestly, it’s “hit and miss.” I always try to do what I can, but I am sure that I have not done enough to try to help students understand complexities when it comes to the Christian Churches during the Holocaust.

Perhaps you are wondering how I handle teaching about the Churches, about anti-Judaism in Christian theology when I am teaching about the Holocaust. Well, I try my best to select texts, films, and other media that can help students gain greater knowledge about the topic as well as sensitivity. I try to prepare good, interesting lectures, ask questions that hopefully make students think, even say to themselves, “Oh, I never thought about that before!”, and I try to encourage students to think and to develop good, substantive questions that engage their fellow students, and me too, in a discussion.

Dr. Fisher: What would you say are the main points a student should understand after learning about these horrific events? Are there essential readings that could help students understand these points?

Dr Rittner: I think it is essential that students take away these main points after studying even one course about the Holocaust:

Genocide is not inevitable;

Genocide is the result of decisions made by human beings;

The Holocaust should be a reference point when looking at world events today;

And they should remember this important advice from Yehuda Bauer, the well-known Israeli Holocaust scholar: “Thou shalt not be a victim; Thou shalt not be a perpetrator, and Thou shalt never, but never be a bystander.”

Some essential reading that teachers and students alike could read and study about the Holocaust are the following books:

Dr. Fisher: I know you have spoken several times at the United Nations in New York, including one about the plight of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Could you please comment on the deportation of the Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust?

Dr. Rittner: Yes, I have been invited three (3) times to speak at the UN in NYC, although I hasten to add that it was not before the full General Assembly, but rather to small groups convened by either a UN department/organization or by an UN-related NGO for a meeting. In 2014 was invited by the UN Outreach Program on the Holocaust to speak on the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews from Hungary.

The Holocaust in Hungary is a complex topic, one that I could only deal with in broad generalizations. According to the 1941 census, there were about 825,000 Jews in Hungary (less than 6 percent of the total Hungarian population). By 1942, Nazi Germany dominated Europe and was furiously rounding up, shooting, deporting, and murdering Jews all over Europe, although the Jewish community in Hungary, until the Spring of 1944, was relatively speaking, somewhat spared from the worst horrors of the Holocaust. The great irony is that this last, “relatively intact Jewish community in Nazi-dominated Europe, was liquidated in a swift and ruthless campaign launched immediately after the German occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944. By the time the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators were finished, more than 437,000 Hungarian Jews had been sent to Auschwitz. There, in that Nazi German place of horror and misery, Jews—and more than a few non-Jews as well – were burned alive, starved, shot, gassed, and cremated. Their ashes scattered to the winds. Those who survived Auschwitz – and, relatively speaking, there were not many – were barely alive at the end of the war.

During the Holocaust, Jewish survival rates differed enormously: They ranged from 95 percent surviving in Denmark to 90 percent dead in Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Why the incredible variation in rates of Jewish survival across occupied Europe? As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “Clearly the difference lay not in Jewish behavior, neither in passive nor armed resistance. Armed resistance was a decision on how to die, not how to live. Nor was it Nazi behavior that made the crucial difference, because it was murderous everywhere. The single critical difference was the behavior of the bystanders” (see further, The Courage to Care, 3). This was as true in Hungary as it was in other German-occupied countries during the Holocaust.

The Jews of Hungary were not victims of a devastatingly destructive war – and World War II was devastatingly destructive. No, the Jews of Hungary were victims of genocide, a genocide organized by a modern European country – Germany; led by a modern political leader – Adolf Hitler; and perpetrated against a defenseless civilian population – Jewish men, women, and children.

On March 19, 1944, the Germans arrested some two hundred Jewish doctors and lawyers, their names chosen at random from the Budapest telephone book. All were deported to Mauthausen. The Gestapo then moved into hundreds of Hungarian towns and villages; prepared a list of all Jewish wealth in each town; took the leaders of the local community into custody; and then threatened to shoot the leaders if the money and valuables were not forthcoming.

Adolf Eichmann and his so-called “deportation experts” completed all preparations for rounding up and deporting the Jews of Hungary in less than two months – 56 days to be exact: March 20 to May 15, 1944. On May 14 the full-scale deportation of Jews from the Hungarian provinces to Auschwitz started, at the rate of approximately 12,000 to 14,000 deportees a day. In Professor Randolph Braham’s opinion, “The decisive factor in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry was the wholehearted cooperation of the Sztójay government . . . appointed on March 22, 1944,” three days after Nazi Germany’s occupation of Hungary, and fourteen months before the end of World War II in Europe and Allied victory. “While a relatively small number [of Hungarians] actively opposed the Nazis and some even risked their lives to save Jews, a proportionately large number of Hungarians collaborated with the Germans for ideological reasons or to advance their private economic interests.” And an even larger number simply stood by, as bystanders often do, neither collaborating nor cooperating, but not opposing either.

The great majority of the Hungarian population was Catholic – a minority were Lutheran – and while Pope Pius XII did join other leaders in trying to intercede with Admiral Horthy to stop the German operations against the Jews, he was ineffective. His message, cloaked in piety and worded in hazy terms, never even referred to the Jews as such. Such lack of papal forcefulness did not encourage the head of the Hungarian Catholic hierarchy, Cardinal Justinian Seredi, to take any bold steps of his own. The papal nuncio, however, Monsignor Angela Rotta, was far more outspoken. He tried to sway Seredi toward more active protest, but to no avail. A few Catholic bishops did courageously speak out in their dioceses, but they were lone voices that did not have a major impact on the attitude of their Catholic people. Individuals did what they could, but it was not enough to save the Jews of Hungary.

Of the approximately 825,000 Jews living in Hungary in 1941, about 63,000 died or were killed prior to the German occupation of March 1944. Under the Germans, another 500,000, died from malnutrition or were deported and murdered. Some 255,000 Jews, less than one-third of the Jews who resided within the March 1944 boundaries of Hungary survived the Holocaust.

Without the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people in Hungary and all over Europe, without their knowledge of local areas, the Nazi “Final Solution” would have been far less deadly. Enthusiastic and efficient Hungarian support was essential for Eichmann, who had a job to do and a mission to accomplish. And he did that job and nearly accomplished that mission – with help and in record time.

Dr. Fisher: Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe and here in the USA. In your view, what are some of the leading causes of Antisemitism in the United States?

Dr. Rittner: Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which is expressed as dislike of Jews, even as hatred towards Jews. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

Prejudice against or hatred of Jews has plagued the world for more than 2,000 years. Some people call it “the world’s longest hatred.” It did not start with Christianity, even though early Christianity certainly contributed to its ugly brew. Antisemitism in Western Civilization springs, at its root, from Christian theological anti-Judaism.

In the Christian worldview, Jews were outsiders (they did not accept Jesus as the promised Messiah). Jews were excluded from the Christian universe of moral obligation (as a result of the “deicide” charge, that is that “the Jews” were responsible for the death of Jesus). And even though we in the Roman Catholic Church and our co-religious believers in the mainstream Christian Churches have tried to change our teaching and preaching about Jews and Judaism, particularly since the end of World War II and the Holocaust, and especially since Vatican II, vestiges of anti-Judaism remain in our western culture and among baptized Christians.

The rise of right-wing populism in France, Germany, some parts of Eastern Europe, and in the United States has seen the growing incidence of anti-Jewish graffiti, the desecration of Jewish graves, physical attacks, and Holocaust denial have been encouraged and promoted by some political leaders in these countries. In the US House of Representatives, a new member of Congress accused Jews of having divided loyalties – being more loyal to the State of Israel than to the USA. It is reminiscent of what Catholics were accused of when they were said to be more to loyal to the Pope than to the US president. So-called “White Power” groups are targeting Jews, claiming they control the press, the banks, and other levers of political, social, and economic. The current president of the United States failed to condemn the August 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, VA. That has fed an undercurrent of antisemitism in the USA. And I would say that the seemingly intransigent situation between Israel and Palestine has not helped things. These are the sorts of things that contribute to an atmosphere where bias and prejudice against Jews – and other minorities – can simmer, build up, and explode into a cauldron of hatred against Jews.

Pope Francis has spoken out clearly and forcibly against this rising antisemitism, but we need others to do so: priests in the pulpit at Sunday Mass, teachers in the classroom during the school day; newspaper editors in our secular and religious press; cardinals and bishops, Christian religious superiors, and politicians. They – we – have to make clear, by our words and actions – and our solidarity with the Jewish community— that antisemitism will not be tolerated.

Unfortunately, I have not seen an improvement in fighting antisemitism or an awareness of its dangers in this country since I began my work. As we both know, there is still lots that we have to do – in the classroom, and beyond.


(1)Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Franciso: Jossey-Bass, 2000) 4-5.

[2] John K. Roth, “What Teaching Teaches Me: How the Holocaust Informs My Philosophy of Education” in John K. Roth, ed., Inspired Teaching: Carnegie Professors of the Year Speak (Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co., Inc., 1997) 203.

[3] Roth, “What Teaching Teaches Me,” 203.

[4] Gregory Baum, ed. Journeys (News York: Paulist Press, 1975) 1.

[5] Baum, Journeys, 1.

[6] Johann-Baptist Metz, “Facing the Jews. Christian Theology after Auschwitz” in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and David Tracy, eds., The Holocaust as Interruption (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd, 1984) 27.

[7] Franklin H. Littell, “The Credibility Crisis of the Modern University,” in Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton, eds., The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy and Genocide, TheSan Jose Papers (Millwood, NY: Kraus International Publications, 1980) 9.

[8] See John K. Roth, “What Does Christianity Have to Do with the Holocaust?” in Carol Rittner, Stephen Smith, and Irena Steinfeldt, eds. The Holocaust and the Christian World,2nd ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2019) 9.

[9] Roth, “What Does Christianity Have to Do with the Holocaust?” in Rittner, Smith, and Steinfeldt, eds. The Holocaust and the Christian World, 2nd ed., 9.

[10] See further, Johann-Baptist Metz, “Christians and Jews after Auschwitz” in his volume Beyond Civic Religion (Mainz-Munich 19870) 29-50.

[11] Haim Ginnott, Between Teacher and Child ((New York, Avon Books, 1972)

© Carol Rittner 2019


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