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Called to Learn and to Teach

Updated: Mar 12, 2019

A Presentation by Dr. Carol Rittner RSM

Distinguished Professor of Holocaust & Genocide Studies Emerita and the Dr. Marsha Raticoff Grossman Professor of Holocaust Studies Emerita at Stockton University

on 7 February 2019 at Kings College in Wilkes Barre, PA

“We teach who we are.”

Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (1998)

I was born in February 1943, in the middle of World War II and the Holocaust. By the time it was all over, and my Dad and uncles returned from the war, I was a toddler, unaware of the evil and suffering so many people had experienced during the devastating years of Nazi persecution and destruction in Europe. I grew up in Central Pennsylvania in a family of four children, with a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. I went to public school through 8th grade, then on to a Catholic high school in Harrisburg for my secondary education.

In the Fall of 1958 – I was a sophomore at Bishop McDevitt Catholic High School – Pope Pius XII died. A few weeks later, a fat, out-going, happy Italian cardinal named Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected pope. He took the name John XXIII. Probably the reason “fat, outgoing, and happy” struck me about the new pope was because the previous one, Pius XII, was skinny, introverted, and dour, at least, so he seemed to me. On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII unexpectedly announced he intended to convene an ecumenical council. It would take nearly four years to organize and would be known as Vatican Council II.

At the time, I didn’t know what an ecumenical council was, but apparently, what John XXIII wanted to do was bring all the bishops of the world together, “open the windows of the Catholic Church and let some fresh air in.” I was all for it, because I used to hear Catholics say that “outside the Church there is no salvation” – “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus." That always annoyed me. How could it be that heaven was only open to Catholics? What that meant to me was that we kids and my mom got a shot at heaven, but my dad didn’t because he was Protestant. How mean-spirited! Yes, a little “fresh air” in the Catholic Church would be helpful I thought.

During the late 1950s and into 1960, a Boston-born Irish Catholic named John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for president of the United States. I couldn’t yet vote, but he won, even without my vote. It was a very exciting time to be an American Catholic. So much seemed possible. I remember listening to President Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address on a cold, snowy day in January 1961 and hearing his challenging words: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” I remember how deeply those words resonated with me.

Just as Pope John XXIII was organizing his ecumenical council and President Kennedy was organizing his new administration, I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my “one wild and precious life.” I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I also knew I wanted something more. But what? After graduating from high school, I went to Immaculata College outside of Philadelphia for a year. I was active in all sorts of things, had a few boyfriends and dated, but I wanted something different than getting married, settling down, having kids, being a housewife. I looked around, considered various possibilities, and also thought about those nuns who taught me in high school and college. I thought some of them were very smart and creative. They were teachers and administrators, and seemed like “take-charge” women. I liked that – and I liked them. The ones I admired the most exemplified Gospel values: love God and neighbor, serve others, do what you can to make this world a better place for everyone. That also resonated with me.


Even today, after 55 years as a Religious Sister of Mercy, I am not quite sure what it means to say that one has a “vocation,” but in the early 1960’s, I thought I had a religious “vocation.” That is, I thought God was “calling me” to become a nun like those women who taught me, but looking back, probably what I had was an infatuation, an attraction to what seemed to me to be a kind of pre-women’s liberation from the expected: marriage, motherhood, and suburbia.

On September 8, 1962, my parents very reluctantly drove me to the campus of College Misericordia – now Misericordia University – in Dallas, PA where I “entered the convent,” as we used to say. Over the years people have asked me why I “entered the convent,” and I always say that why I “entered” is not why I stayed. What kept me “in,” so-to-speak, what has sustained me over the years and has kept me tethered to the Sisters of Mercy was, and is, the example and mentorship of some extraordinary women – Sisters of Mercy – who have encouraged me, challenged me, and urged me on as a teacher and scholar. They stand in a long line of other Sisters of Mercy who for almost two hundred years, in this country and around the world, have generously served “the poor sick and ignorant” in schools, colleges, orphanages, social service agencies, and hospitals.

Being a nun must be like being married. Whatever initially attracted a person to his/her spouse wears off after a while, and when “the rubber hits the road,” a person is compelled to think about substantive issues – like love, loyalty, fidelity, vows, promises, giving one’s word, and so on.

Parker Palmer says that “Vocation does not mean a goal I pursue. It means a calling I hear.” I heard that calling – hear that calling – within myself, and through the lives of so many Sisters of Mercy with whom I have lived, worked, and been associated. Palmer also says that “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”[1] I think I have tried to do that listening to my life, telling me who I am, what “the truths and values are at the heart of my own identity,” although it has been a slow maturing. Not that every day has been perfect, or that every Sister of Mercy I have met has been sane, generous, kind, and hardworking, but generally speaking I have not been disappointed in choosing to give my life in service to God and humanity as a Sister of Mercy, as a teacher and scholar, and I trust the Sisters of Mercy have not been disappointed in me.

Vatican II

One month after I entered the convent on September 8, 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the first session of that ecumenical council he had convened four years previously in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica. He died before the council could complete its work, but thanks in large part to the pastoral tone John XXIII set, the Roman Catholic Church underwent an enormous transformation. Among the many changes initiated by the council, two seemed – and still seem – particularly important to me. First, the Roman Catholic Church came to a new appreciation of Judaism and has since tried to free its teaching from inherited anti-Jewish rhetoric. And second, the Roman Catholic Church discovered a new sense of solidarity with other religious communities and with the whole human family. Both of these major changes significantly impacted me.

After completing my bachelor’s degree at College Misericordia, and the religious formation program of the Sisters of Mercy, I was sent in August 1967 to teach English to high school students. Four years later, June 1971, I was sent to graduate school at the University of Maryland. Just as I was making the transition from teaching to studying, someone gave me a copy of Victor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. I had never heard of Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist whose entire family, except for his sister, perished in Nazi Germany’s death camps, but I did know about Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who died at the hands of the Nazis.

To be honest, I knew very little about the historical events surrounding Anne and the Jews of Europe when I taught her diary to my Catholic high school students. Of course, I knew Jews had suffered during World War II, but about the Holocaust, about Hitler’s planned systematic attempt to annihilate every Jew on the face of the earth, I still had much to learn. Consequently, it did not occur to me at the time to raise questions with my students about antisemitism, about collaboration, or about resistance against the Nazis in Holland, Germany, or any other place in Nazi-occupied Europe. My ignorance about the Jews of Europe and about the historical issues surrounding the Holocaust disabled me. I was not able to probe beneath the surface of the words Anne had written during those two years she lived in the shadow of death in that cramped attic on the top floor of the narrow building on the Prinsengracht Canal in Amsterdam. I read – and taught – The Diary of Anne Frank as a story about the “triumph of the human spirit,” not as a primary document revealing a historical catastrophe. But what I missed when I read The Diary of Anne Frank, I could not avoid when I read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Perhaps it was because when I read Frankl’s book I was a bit more mature, freer emotionally and intellectually. I cannot say now, but I do remember that when I finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning, I was shattered. How, I asked myself, could a place like Auschwitz have existed within the very heart of so-called “Christian Europe?” How could human beings turn ferocious powers on themselves? How could they separate Jews from others in the human family, force them into concentration camps, demean and starve them, then funnel them into gas chambers and burn them in ovens? Where were the Christian churches? Where were Christians? Why didn’t they help the Jews in their time of need? What, I asked myself, had happened to the great teachings of Jesus taught to Christians through the ages, such as: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you?” “What you do to the least of your brothers and sisters, you do unto me.” “Greater love a person does not have than to lay down his or her life for a friend.”

Today these seem like naïve questions, but as a very young teacher I did not yet know that Hitler and the Nazis had built their deadly ideology on the twin foundations of racist antisemitism and theological anti-Judaism in Christian theology. It was only later, after much study – in scripture and other branches of theology, renewed and re-energized by Vatican II – that I came to see that there was an anti-Jewish underside to Christian theology. It was something about which I was completely ignorant, yet it was this anti-Jewish underside to Christian theology that had influenced millions upon millions of Christians – not just Roman Catholic Christians, but all Christians, Protestant and Orthodox as well – regarding what and how they/we thought about Jews and Judaism.

For nearly two millennia, the persistent Christian “belief” that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus – the so-called “deicide” charge against the Jews – fed and kept alive anti-Jewish prejudice and hatred in the Churches and in civil society. The Nazis used racist antisemitism, bolstered by theological anti-Judaism, to justify the “legal” discrimination and persecution of the Jews of Germany in the 1930s, the deportation of Jews from throughout German-occupied Europe to the Nazi death camps in the 1940s, and the use of modern industrial methods to exterminate the Jews in the very heart of Christian Europe during the Holocaust. Only with the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945 were those Nazi concentration and death camps finally closed down, even if the underlying ideologies that helped to sustain them continued to linger in the Christian Churches and civil society.

When people ask me what got me interested in the Holocaust, I always tell them it was the direct result of reading Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. It was Frankl’s book that prompted me to ask questions about Jews and Judaism, about what we Christians think about Jews and Judaism, how what we think influences what we believe, and how what we believe influences how we act. But it was also the fact that I was a Sister of Mercy, a “professional Christian,” so-to-speak, a young woman who tried to pray, who tried to read and reflect on the Christian scriptures, and who one day asked herself where Jesus, a faithful religious Jew, would have ended up if he had lived in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II and the Holocaust. I could not escape the thought that it probably would have been in Auschwitz, or in another Nazi concentration and death camp.

My friend, John Roth, a well-known Holocaust scholar, always says that “questions are more important than answers.”[2] I agree with him. Questions have been at the center of my life and my teaching. I already have mentioned some of them, but there are others: Who is part of my universe of moral obligation? In other words, who can count on me when “the chips are down,” I mean seriously down, like in a situation of life or death? Another is, if Anne Frank had been my neighbor, what would I have done? And a third is, what is the role of good people in difficult times? “Answers have their place,” of course, but “questions deserve lasting priority because they invite continuing inquiry, further dialogue . . . openness.” As John Roth says, “People are less likely to savage and annihilate each other when their minds are not made up but opened up through questioning.”[3]

My own questions about the Holocaust, questions about why Jews were targeted by the Nazis and their collaborators for death, for annihilation, and why so many baptized Christians turned their backs on their neighbors literally has forced me to study more and more about this historical event, but you should know that I am basically self-taught. None of my own undergraduate or graduate work focused on the Holocaust. I studied literature, theology, and educational administration, not the genocide of the Jews, not the Holocaust. Of course, I have learned from others: Elie Wiesel, Yehuda Bauer, Dalia Ofer, Myrna Goldenberg, John Roth, Richard Rubenstein, John Pawlikowski, and Kevin Spicer – to name a few of the Jewish and Christian scholars from whom I have learned about the Holocaust by reading their books, engaging them in conversation over the years. And, of course, I have learned from the many survivors of the Holocaust I have met and interviewed. But why have I devoted so much time and effort to studying, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust, the genocide of the Jews during World War II?

Why Learn and Teach about the Holocaust?

Gregory Baum, the Canadian Roman Catholic theologian, edited volume of essays entitled Journeys. Baum asked various Catholic theologians and historians like Charles Curran, Monica Hellwig, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and David O’Brien to address the relationship between their personal lives and their academic interests and methodologies.[4] In Baum’s view, there is an “important relation, not always clearly recognized, between personal life and theological interest and methodology. . . . Research and thinking [he argues] are always based on personal concerns,” even if we do not always recognize that relationship. This is as “true in theology,” as it is in other disciplines. “[T]here are always highly personal reasons” why certain “issues mean so much to us.” I would add that there are also highly personal reasons why certain questions stalk our souls. And that is because they “shed light on issues that are personally important to us.”[5]

The Holocaust stalks my soul, and while I may not be able to finally articulate exactly why this is so, I can say this: from my perspective as a Roman Catholic Christian, as a Sister of Mercy, and as a teacher and scholar who has studied and thought about the Holocaust, who has tried to understand why some people helped Jews in their time of need and others turned their backs and did not want to see or know what was happening to the Jews during the Nazi era and the Holocaust, and who knows that there were still others, who were committed to getting rid of the Jews and every vestige of Judaism in Europe, the catastrophe of the Holocaust is also the catastrophe of Christianity. I am echoing Johann-Baptist Metz in saying this,[6] so I think I am on pretty solid ground. For me, the question is what does it mean to be Christian after Auschwitz? This is what I struggle with, if not every day, often. This is where I think my vocation, my calling to be both a Sister of Mercy as well as a scholar and teacher of the Holocaust converge.

I have spent nearly 50 years as an educator, trying to help “the ignorant” become knowledgeable, first in high schools, then in colleges and universities. Most of my efforts as an educator have been focused on teaching undergraduate and graduate students about the genocide of the Jews perpetrated by baptized Christians in Nazi German-occupied Europe during World War II and the Holocaust, but why teach and study about the Holocaust, and why do so in any college or university, much less a Catholic college or university? Before his death a few years ago, Franklin Littell was my colleague at Stockton University. He used to remind us that Germany had some of the best universities in the world, but he would ask, what in the world were students learning in those universities? The “death camps,” Littell would thunder, “were not planned and built, and their operational scheme devised by illiterates, by ignorant and unschooled savages. The killing centers were, like their inventors, products of what had been for generations one of the best university systems in the world. [Heinrich] Himmler [head of the SS in Nazi Germany] was always proud of the high percentage of Ph.D.’s in his officer corps!”[7] That should suggest at least one reason why we should teach and learn about the Holocaust.

Most of the students I have taught, whether undergraduate or graduate students, whether in a Catholic institution or at a state, public institution, overwhelmingly have been “baptized,” even if not practicing, Christians – Catholics and Protestants. Many of the Catholics even graduated from Catholic high schools. Still, most of my students, whether Catholic or not, have been notoriously ignorant of the nearly 2000 years of anti-Judaism in Christian theology. They also have been just as ignorant about the efforts of Vatican II to change all of that. One cannot understand that that while Christianity was not a sufficient condition for the Holocaust, it was, nevertheless, a necessary condition for that catastrophe. That statement does not mean that Christianity caused the Holocaust, but it does mean that apart from Christianity, the Holocaust is scarcely imaginable.[8] Why? Because Nazi Germany’s targeting of Jews cannot be explained apart from the anti-Jewish images (‘Christ-killers,’ willful blasphemers, unrepentant sons and daughters of the Devil, to name only a few anti-Jewish images) that have been deeply rooted in Christian practices.[9] I would argue that to struggle with what all that means is to live as a post-Holocaust Christian. To live as a post-Holocaust Christian, one must confront this underside of Christian theology so as not to pray with one’s back to Auschwitz.[10]

Why teach and learn about the Holocaust? A course on the Holocaust should enable students to think, really think about what they are studying, but then, lots of courses should do that – right? A course on the Holocaust should help students think before they act, to consider the consequences of their actions, and to act responsibly, but again, lots of courses should do that – right? So, then, why teach and learn about the Holocaust?

Let me conclude by quoting a letter the principal of a school once wrote to his teachers at the beginning of a new school year. Here is what he wrote:

Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no [person] 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 Eichmans. Reading, writing, arithmetic [and may I add philosophy, theology, literature, mathematics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and every other subject taught in our colleges and universities, Catholic or not] are important only if they serve to make our [students] more human, more humane.[11]

Is teaching and learning about the Holocaust enough to make our students, at whatever level, more human, more humane? Probably not, but it may help. For sure, however, I do believe such teaching and learning complements and enriches my vocation, my calling, to be both a Sister of Mercy and a scholar.


[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, The San 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).

© 2019 by Carol Rittner

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