Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Matthew 22:21
Not long after Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, a Polish public health nurse discovered the stark nature of evil. Forced to serve the regional government of Occupied Poland as it established a Jewish ghetto in her city, her duties included identifying the sick. She was assured that they would be treated in regional hospitals and reunited with their families. One day she was summoned to a wooded site where an SS mobile killing unit had slaughtered hundreds of Jews from the surrounding area. She recognized from among the dead several people she had identified in reports the week before.
The Polish nurse suddenly understood the awful truth about the Nazis. A devout, Catholic, apolitical and dedicated to healing, she had to make a choice, obey the Nuremburg Laws of 1935, which deprived Jews of their civil rights, or obey God’s law. She chose to obey God’s law, specifically to rescue young Jewish children by removing them from the ghetto and placing them in homes of a few trusted members of her extended family.
She sought the assistance of her parish priest, asking that he give her signed, incomplete baptismal certificates in order to protect the children by making it appear they were Christian. He refused on the ground that Scripture forbade the violation of secular law. She continued the rescue operation without her pastor’s support. Other priests in similar circumstances, however, did provide fake baptismal certificates.
The nurse practiced for days walking with a child hidden between her legs under the hoop of her dress uniform. Once convinced that a child could follow her movements without verbal commands, they set out for the two guard posts. At one she was required to leave a daily report and at the second to sign out of the ghetto.
Twelve Jewish children were saved in this manner. The last child, a little boy, was very sick. As they neared the first guard post he began to cough and the nurse could not mask his cough with her own. A Ukrainian militia man knocked the woman to the ground with the butt of his rifle, and the child was exposed. Other guards held the boy upside down and one shot him to death, then executed her as well. A Nazi officer ordered that the bodies remain in place for three days as a warning to anyone else who might consider helping Jews.
The nurse’s brother, asked why she risked her life for strangers, responded “Christians are commanded to love others.”
The term “Righteous Gentiles” refers to a non-Jews, like the Polish nurse, who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. There were Righteous Gentiles in every country overrun or allied with the Nazis during WWII. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem honors these heroes. To date over 22,000 of them from 44 countries have been recognized. The country with the most is Poland, which tragically lost 90% of its Jewish population. The figure of 22,000 is far from complete, however, as many cases were never reported, frequently because those who were helped, eventually died. Moreover, this figure only includes those who actually risked their lives to save Jews, and not those who merely extended a helping hand.
While tens of thousands of non-Jews acted humanely, even heroically, during the Holocaust sadly many, many more did neither. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches a lesson about Christian responsibility – responsibility to secular authority and responsibility to God’s authority. “Is it lawful,” Jesus is asked, “to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? If he answered “no,” he would have been reported to Roman authorities and arrested for treason. If he answered “yes,” he would have been branded a Roman collaborator and lost credibility among his followers. Aware of the trap, Jesus skillfully avoids it by answering: “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (22:21)
As citizens of political entities we have various obligations, for example, to pay taxes to fund public services. As Christians, however, we have important obligations that flow from the First and Second Great Commandments, love God and love neighbor. It is also our duty to pursue justice, most particularly for helpless victims of the worst forms of injustice like genocide. When secular law is intrinsically evil, as it was in Nazi Germany, when Caesar’s law clearly conflicts with God’s law, a Christian’s duty is always to obey God’s law.
How then could the Holocaust have happened in predominately Christian Europe? Jews ponder the Holocaust and rightly ask: Where was God? Christians need to do the same but also ask: Where was the Church? Where were the Christians? The sad truth is that it 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 winner said: “Christianity died at Auschwitz.” That is a powerful indictment. It is up to us post-Auschwitz Christians throughout the world to prove him wrong.
Deacon Anthony J. Sciolino
Church of the Transfiguration
Pittsford, New York