by Dr. Eugene J. Fisher, Distinguished Professor of Theology, Saint Leo University
Recently, there has been a rise in antisemitic incidents and antisemitic rhetoric supporting such sickening actions. Here, I would like to focus on one issue which most unfortunately appears to be on the rise: the attempt to downplay the Shoah/Holocaust or to deny that it ever happened. This issue, it must be emphasized, is not political in any sense. Rather, it is a matter of properly remembering history. For, as has been said, those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.
Below, for those who wish to delve more deeply into this beyond tragic event, is a bibliography of websites and works on the Holocaust, many written by survivors of the death camps and Jewish and Christian witnesses to it. I personally knew a number of these courageous figures, including the Catholic Jan Karski and the Jew Eli Wiesel. At the end of my remarks is a statement issued today, July 17. 2018, by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which states clearly what is at stake. Below that is a bibliography for those interested in the facts, history, and contemporary challenges of the Holocaust. Finally, I reference an article on a contemporary California politician who is in denial from reality. Note in my bibliography the official statements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Catholic/Jewish relations and on the Holocaust.
Before going further, I would like to explain briefly why Jews, who originally used the term “Holocaust” for the genocide of six million Jews, now prefer “Shoah.” Both are biblical terms. A “holocaust” was an animal totally sacrificed, often by fire, to God in the Jerusalem Temple. “Shoah” in Hebrew refers to the dry, desiccating, desert wind that can literally suck the life out of any animals or humans caught up in it. It is the opposite of Ruah the life-giving Breath/Wind/Spirit of God that hovered over the waters of creation in Genesis 1, calmed them, and allowed life, animal and human, to be created by the One God. Jews could not and cannot see the death of six million of their kin in any way as an offering to God, and so have moved away from the term Holocaust to use, instead, Shoah, a term of total death and evil.
They do not, however, object to those who continue to use the term Holocaust, since that is now an internationally recognized term for the death of the six million Jews. I would urge readers to check out the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, through which one can find solid evidence of the reality of the Holocaust/Shoah and its significance for understanding human, not just European or American history.
As the reader can see from the Shoah bibliography below, there has been a tremendous amount of scholarly research and interviews with survivors (and, indeed, bystanders and perpetrators) involved in coming to grips with the scope of what the Nazis perpetrated against Jews before and during World War II. The Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council and in the teachings of the popes and the Holy See from the Second Vatican Council to the present has delved deeply and honestly into what happened, since Catholics were among the righteous who saved Jews, the perpetrators who rounded them up to send to the death camps, and those who stood by, knowing what was happening to their Jewish fellow citizens throughout Europe but feeling powerless to do anything about it. It is a mixed story of grey areas as well as clear black and white moments.
The Allies at the end of World War II liberated the death camps set up by the Germans and Austrians to “efficiently” murder millions of Jews as well as hundreds of thousands of other “undesireables” such as the Romani (gypsies, many of whom were Catholics) and others who did not measure up to the Aryan “ideal” and were, to the Nazis, subhuman and thus could be treated with contempt and slaughtered in order to preserve Aryan “racial purity”.
The attempt to deny the reality of the Shoah, in all its ugly details, is an exercise ultimately in futility. It is a refusal to see reality as it is. And holocaust denial is intimately interwoven with antisemitic racism, making spurious charges against Jews and Judaism. We Catholics must remember that Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the apostles and disciples, and St. Paul and the authors of the gospels were all Jews, and would have been sent to Auschwitz along with other Jews. Antisemitism is thus, as the Catholic Church has realized since the end of World War II, in its essence an attack on Christianity no less than on Jews and Judaism. Those who perpetrate Holocaust/Shoah denial today oppose and reject Jesus and his very Jewish teachings. They reject the will of God, Who chose a Jewish woman to bear a Jewish son, Jesus, and so spread the teachings of Jesus the Jew and biblical Judaism throughout the world. They are, to paraphrase St. Paul, choosing death and evil over life and goodness.
We Catholics, Christians, members of all faiths and, indeed, those who profess no faith, need to choose life. We need to remember and revere the victims of Nazi genocide, Jews and non-Jews alike. Again, this is not a political issue and politicians who use Holocaust denial must be rejected along with their teaching of hate. This is necessary in order to save humanity from another, and perhaps worse, shoah that could consume us all.
A statement written by USHMM Museum Director by Sara Bloomfeld, and issued on July 17, 2018 by its Office of Constituency Management, defines the Museum's purpose, states well what I have been trying to say here:
Because the Holocaust is the extreme case of the complete negation of morality and represents the ultimate violation of human dignity on a massive scale, it has become a singular event that stands as both a universal warning and a reference point. It is more than European or Jewish history. It is human history.
The US government mandated a Holocaust museum on federal land for these very reasons and because the Holocaust is a reminder that moving towards ever greater progress in human societies is not inevitable. The Museum sits on the National Mall alongside, and as a complement to, many important American institutions. The Smithsonian museums depict American progress and examine the struggles of our nation’s own journey. Many celebrate human achievement. Standing in stark contrast, our Museum is a painful reminder of the dark side of human potential.
USHMM also appropriately sits in between our monuments to Washington and Jefferson, reminding us that freedom is fragile. So the Museum’s location is essential to its identity and role as an American institution.
When one walks around the Museum, ones sees people from every part of America. They are often wearing t-shirts or baseball caps indicating their political preference or the name of their church, veteran group, school, scout troops, sports club, etc. At this time of increasing polarization, it is gratifying to see that the Museum engages all parts of our vast and diverse country, and beyond.
We believe that the Museum might even have the potential to bridge some of the divides our nation is experiencing. It enables people to pause. To step away from the problems and debates of the present. To be challenged by this catastrophic event of the past. That is what good history education does. It doesn’t preach. It teaches. It engages at a personal level. It promotes self-reflection and critical thinking about the world and one’s own roles and responsibilities.
It is therefore important to note that at this moment when the world needs the lessons of history more than ever and when trust in so many vital American institutions is declining, trust in museums is still high because they are perceived to be apolitical repositories of truth.
The Museum is not here to “preach to the converted.” It is here to reach everyone— especially those who might benefit most from its lessons. That’s why its ability to transcend political and cultural divides is so crucial. That’s also why its unique partnership among the American people, the US Government, donors nationwide and, especially, the survivors of the Holocaust is so fundamental.
For all these reasons, the trust the Museum has built with the American people over the past 25 years must be safeguarded. As must the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, whose tragedy gives the Museum its exceptional moral power.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum can never do anything that is offensive to Holocaust survivors or an affront to the memory of the victims.
This has led the Museum to take great care when we use our moral platform. We use our voice judiciously to address issues at the very core of who we are as our nation’s institution devoted to Holocaust remembrance and education as well as genocide prevention. This includes the following circumstances:
Significant threats to Holocaust memory/influential misuse or denial of the Holocaust
An action taken by a government or by an individual of significant influence that substantially distorts Holocaust history or uses it to advance another agenda.
Antisemitism that is state-sponsored/enabled or that has the potential to lead to violence against Jews.
High-profile neo-Nazi activity that has the potential for widespread societal influence or violence.
Contemporary targeting of victims of Nazi persecution:
When a group of people who were targeted for persecution by the Nazis are targeted by the state for systematic persecution or are victims of group-targeted mass violence.
When a group of people is targeted by the state or a non-state actor for systematic persecution that could lead to genocide as defined by the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.
Tragically, there are gross human and civil rights violations and humanitarian crises all over the world. And there are important organizations created to respond to these issues. We hope that some of the people working for these organizations might have been inspired to do so because of their Museum experience.
We reserve our moral voice for the most dangerous forms of Holocaust denial and antisemitism and for the victims of genocide and related crimes against humanity who are at the heart of our mission, and who often don’t get the attention they deserve. The Rohingya, who have been refused citizenship, restricted in where they can live, denied access to education and healthcare, and brutally attacked by the Burmese military. The 500,000 Syrians who have been murdered – some through gas attacks—by their government. This is why we used our voice when Muslim refugees fleeing the genocidal crimes of ISIS and the Syrian regime might have been refused entry to our country.
We recognize that thoughtful people who care deeply about the Museum will disagree with our approach. We are stewards of a precious institution that we inherited from the visionaries – Holocaust survivors and others—who built the Museum.
Our most important obligation is handing to our successors an institution with at least the same degree of trustworthiness, moral stature and potential for impact. Our aspiration is to make it even greater. Sara Bloomfield July 17, 2018 Diane Saltzman Director, Office of Constituency Engagement
202.488.2614 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Eugene Fisher, Distinguished Professor of Theology, Saint Leo University
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