My introduction to the Holocaust came in 1959 when, as an eighth grader at Benjamin Franklin High School in Rochester NY, I read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
My next encounter with the Holocaust occurred, at age 19, in 1964, when, a freshman at Columbia College in NYC, I attended “The Deputy,” Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial play about Pope Pius XII. As a devout Roman Catholic who, at the time, saw reality in black and white, I refused to believe the playwright’s contention that Pius, by his “silence” and inaction before and during the Holocaust, failed in his role as deputy (or Vicar) of Christ on earth. Meanwhile in the classroom, my professors were challenging me to think critically, question my belief systems, and open my mind to differing points of view.
In 1965, I saw “The Pawnbroker,” directed by Sidney Lumet, the first American movie to depict the impact of the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a survivor,
As student in Cornell Law School from 1967-70, I learned, among other things, how to analyze complex fact patterns according to legal principles; how to formulate conclusions based on facts; and how to advocate persuasively. Later, as a Monroe County (NY) Family Court Judge from 1986 to 2006, I honed my skills at fact finding, dispassionately weighing evidence through the lens of my life experiences, applying applicable legal principles, and rendering what I considered to be just decisions in thousands of difficult and sometimes controversial cases.
Midway during my first term on the bench in 1993, I saw “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s award winning film about Holocaust rescuer Oskar Schindler.
In 1998, at age 53, I earned a Master of Theology Degree from St. Bernard’s Institute of Theology and Ministry and was ordained a Permanent Deacon of the Diocese of Rochester. My graduate level courses included theology of Church and Church history. Some of what I learned, quite frankly, troubled me, particularly my Church’s attitude toward and treatment of Jews for 1900 plus years.
Accompanied by two Jewish friends in 2004, I saw Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” which some critics at the time claimed was anti-Semitic. After viewing the film detailing Jesus’ final hours and crucifixion, filled with excessively long and graphic violence and grossly exaggerated depictions of stereotypical Jews, I concluded the critics were right.
During our 41 years of marriage, my wife, Gloria, and I have enjoyed traveling throughout the world. When we were in Germany in 1970, among the sites we visited in Munich was Dachau concentration camp; while in Poland in 1983, we visited the Auschwitz and Majdanek death camps. In Italy last year, 2007, besides touring Vatican City, we toured Rome’s historic synagogue and Jewish ghetto. Earlier this year we visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and next spring, while in Israel, we plan to visit Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem.
All of my encounters with the Holocaust through the years have been sobering and formative experiences.
Eighteen months ago, I was invited to participate with others in planning, developing the curriculum for, and team teaching a multi session adult education course entitled “The 2000 Year Road to the Holocaust – An Interfaith Project of the Greater Rochester Community.” By that point in my life, since I had just retired from the bench and had both the time and desire to learn more about the Holocaust, I accepted the invitation without hesitation.
Eager to use my college, law school, and judicial skills to research a topic that had fascinated and disconcerted me for many years, I began the process. In identifying and weighing the historical evidence, I was determined to keep an open mind, while simultaneously hoping my conclusions would exonerate Pope Pius XII, in particular, and Christianity, in general, from complicity in the Holocaust.
The first session of the course occurred on Wednesday evening October 29, 2008, here at Temple B’rith Kodesh. What follows are some my facts and conclusions.
In the 1930’s and’40’s, religious affiliation in Germany, birthplace of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, was 94% Christian, 54% Protestant and 40% Catholic. Religious affiliation in Europe was likewise predominately Christian (200M). Organized into 25 dioceses, each with at least one bishop appointed by the pope, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany numbered over 20K priests for 20M Catholics. And there were over 16K pastors ministering to 40M Protestants.
Hitler and many of his top henchmen like Heinrich Himmler (SS chief and overseer of death camps), Joseph Goebbels (Propaganda Minister), Reinhard Heydrich (principle planner of the the Final Solution), and Rudolf Hoess (architect and SS Commandant of Auschwitz), were baptized Catholics, as were large numbers of the Third Reich’s security forces, military, civil service, judiciary, concentration/death camp personnel, and ordinary citizens. And those not Catholic were Protestant.
Catholic and Protestant churches were official state churches, the Reich collected a tax used to fund church operations. Religious education remained part of the state education system; chaplains served the military; and theological faculties remained active within state universities. Article 24 of the Nazi Party Program professed “positive Christianity” as the foundation of the German state.
The Holocaust was the systematic, state sponsored persecution and murder of 6M Jews from 21 European countries, including 1.5M children. Although Jews were the primary target of Nazi tyranny, other groups and individuals were targeted as well, including Gypsies, people with disabilities, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, intellectuals, Soviet POW’s, clergy, and political dissidents…totaling another 5M…intentionally murdered for racial, ethnic, or other reasons.
Christians in Nazi Germany and, indeed, throughout Nazi occupied or allied Europe went about their lives before and during the Holocaust attending religious services, receiving the sacraments, reciting creeds, reading Scripture, saying the rosary, wearing crucifixes around their necks, celebrating Christmas and Easter, while huge numbers of their neighbors were being forcibly rounded up, herded off in cattle cars, first to concentration camps, then to death camps, and crematoria smoke stacks were belching out thick, black smoke. The first concentration camp, Dachau, was established in March 1933, just two months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, in predominated Catholic Bavaria. only 10 miles outside Munich.
While tens of thousands of Christians during the Holocaust acted humanely, even heroically, toward Jews. sadly, many, many more did neither. Some were perpetrators, some collaborators, and the vast majority were bystanders who either looked the other way or pretended they knew nothing about what was going on. For the most part church leaders, yes, including Pius XII, were passive and in some cases actively complicit. All too seldom did Christians attempt to help victims through rescue or resistance. 20K Christians, who risked their lives to save Jews, have been recognized as “Righteous Gentiles” by Yad Vashem. Sadly, however, righteous behavior by Christians was the exception, not the rule.
Hitler’s rise to dictatorial power from total obscurity (within a republic) was by no means a foregone conclusion. There were plenty of opportunities along the way to stop him, if more people of conscience had been willing to do so. In his autobiography and political manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” (“My Struggle”) published in 1925, eight years before becoming German chancellor in 1933 and seventeen years before his death camps were at full killing capacity in 1942, Hitler clearly set forth his vision for the Greater Third Reich, including his plan for territorial expansion into Europe (lebensraum) and the creation of a “racially pure” Aryan society, dominated by die Herrenrasse, a Teutonic “master race.” In “Mein Kampf,” he minces no words in calling for the elimination of Jews from Germany and all of Europe, referring to them as vermin, parasites, maggots, polluters and destroyers of Aryan humanity, and corrupters of society. His virulent strain of anti-Semitism was readily apparent for all to see.
Disappointingly, churches throughout Europe were mostly silent while Jews were persecuted, deported, and murdered. Churches, especially in Nazi Germany, sought to act, as institutions tend to do, in their own best interests — narrowly defined, short-sighted interests.
Time and time again in Scripture, Jesus, who was born, lived, and died a Jew, made it crystal clear that to be his disciple required more than lip service, it required action, ethical conduct grounded in love of God and neighbor. “Love one another as I have loved you (unconditionally),” he commanded. (John 15:12) We Christians too are obliged to follow God’s commandment in Deuteronomy: “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof“,…”Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (16:20), most particularly justice for innocent victims of the worst forms of injustice like genocide. When secular law is intrinsically evil like the Nuremburg Laws of 1935, which stripped Jews of their civil and human rights, a Christian’s duty is clearly and always to obey God’s law .
Something then went terribly wrong for Christianity before and during the Holocaust. And what resulted from the obvious disconnect between Christian belief and Christian behavior was the worst catastrophe in human history… which began 70 years ago on this night, Kristallnacht (‘The Night of Broken Glass”), November 9, 1938,. Nearly 100 Jews killed, 25K arrested, many hundreds of synagogues destroyed, and Jewish businesses vandalized, throughout Germany and Austria.
Jews ponder the Holocaust and rightly ask, Where was God? Christians must do the same and, in addition, ask, Where was the institutional Church? And, just as importantly, Where was the Church as people of God? The sad truth is that the Holocaust would never have happened if more Christians at the time and for centuries before had genuinely practiced their faith.
Religion is as religion does, all the rest is talk. That’s why Ellie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, writer, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has said, “Christianity died at Auschwitz.” That is a most powerful indictment. The challenge for us post-Auschwitz, post Vatican Council II, Christians throughout the world is to prove that indictment wrong.
Deacon Anthony J. Sciolino
Temple B’rith Kodesh
November 9, 2008