CNEWA

CNEWA Connections: Day of the Holocaust

Once again, this year on 8 April, we mark Yom Hashoah, or the Day of the Holocaust, which is observed every year on the 27th day of the month of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, 13 days after the beginning of Passover, in memory of more than 6 million Jews who lost their lives to the Nazis. CNEWA, whose history has deep roots in the Middle East, the home of Judaism, has published stories about the importance of remembering the Holocaust and on anti-Semitism before. And we will do it again this year.

“Day of the Holocaust: Why should I care? The Holocaust was before I was born. I am not even a German, much less a Nazi. What does all this have to do with me? Why should I, a 21st-century, non-European, non-Jew, care about the Holocaust?” These feelings are rarely expressed so baldly and openly. However, they are frequently just beneath the surface of what some Christians feel and believe.

Assuming these are honest questions — which is not always the case — they do require a response. It is important that several things be clear at the outset. What I call an “Olympics of Suffering” is to be avoided. There is no metric for human suffering. All suffering is overwhelming, painful, destructive and evil. Of course, my suffering is more immediate to me than is yours. However, this does not and cannot mean my suffering is greater or worse than yours. The suffering of one does not minimize the suffering of the other.

Yom Hashoah 2021 occurs while the planet is still in the grips of what can only be called a plague — COVID-19. Pandemic is the technical term for suffering and death on a planetary scale. To say that humanity is focused right now on something other than the Holocaust is understandable. To say there are other issues, such as Black Lives Matter, an increase in hate crimes in the United States and around the world, cannot be denied nor can they be minimized by Yom Hashoah.

However, I think there are two good reasons why all of us should care about this day. The first is the notion of Christian repentance and purpose of amendment. The second is what I call the “Pastor Niemöller Principle.”

Since the publication of “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the Catholic Church, along with other churches, has acknowledged the role Christians played in persecuting and de-humanizing Jews over many centuries. Popes since John XXIII have recognized what has been called the “teaching of contempt,” and the role it played in fomenting discrimination against Jews, medieval massacres, accusations of deicide and blood libel.

“Yom Hashoah reminds us that we, too, even almost 80 years after the Holocaust, still need to realize that any emergence of anti-Semitism has to be met with firm, principled and public rejection.” 

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.d.

The history of Christian-Jewish relations over the past 60 years has shown an increasing awareness of — and repentance for — the role Christians played in the suffering of Jews for centuries and in providing an ideology that could be transformed by Nazism and lead to the Holocaust.

In Catholic theology, repentance is especially important and it is connected with a “firm purpose of amendment.” This purpose of amendment — this attempt to make things right — makes it imperative for Christians to see a call to renewed repentance and increased vigilance against every teaching of contempt.

There is another more immediate reason for us to observe this day. Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was a German Lutheran pastor. As a member of the Lutheran Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), Pastor Niemöller was an ardent opponent of the Nazis. He is perhaps best known for his criticism of his overly cautious colleagues who chose silence vis-à-vis Nazi atrocities. He said:

“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Pastor Niemöller recognized that anti-Semitism is a pandemic of the soul and, like every pandemic, it tends to mutate, spread and infect as many as possible. In recent times in this country and around the world, especially under authoritarian regimes, there is an outbreak of hate crimes. These hate crimes are as varied as humanity itself. And they are vile, sinful and must be opposed. Realizing that indifference to the suffering of Jews in Nazi Germany was not only profoundly wrong but would also inevitably lead to the suffering of many others, Niemöller felt obliged to speak out. 

The emergence of anti-Semitism — oddly at times in countries with very few Jews — is often a bellwether of things to come. Thus, this day reminds us that we, too, even almost 80 years after the Holocaust, still need to realize that any emergence of anti-Semitism has to be met with firm, principled and public rejection, especially when it arises in our own communities. 

Thus, there are profound religious reasons to oppose anti-Semitism. For one thing, it is a sin and crime against the people of Jesus and Mary and all of humanity. It is simply wrong. It is contrary to the official teaching of the Catholic Church and other churches. But there are also more self-centered reasons to oppose anti-Semitism as the first signs of a pandemic of the soul that can spread with lethal effects throughout society.

A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.

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