Auschwitz Remembered among Acts of Hatred

Never again? Remembering Auschwitz amid enduring anti-Semitism and increasing acts of hatred


Bill LeonardIn his memoir, Night, the late Romanian Jewish writer and Boston University professor Eli Wiesel recalled his 1944 arrival “at Birkenau, reception center for Auschwitz”:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

Auschwitz didn’t just steal Eli Wiesel’s God, soul and dreams; it murdered them.

The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Russian soldiers occurred on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2020. The day before, the Washington Post published reporter Gillian Brockell’s account of the exploits of Witold Pilecki, “a Polish resistance fighter who voluntarily went to Auschwitz to start a resistance.” His secret reports to Allies were the first to describe the cruelties of what became the largest of the Nazi death camps.

Brockell writes of Pilecki’s 1941 arrival at the camp:

“Nothing could have prepared him for the brutality he found. As he leaped out of a train car with hundreds of other men, he was beaten with clubs. Ten men were randomly pulled from the group and shot. Another man was asked his profession; when he said he was a doctor, he was beaten to death. Anyone who was educated or Jewish was beaten. Those remaining were robbed of their valuables, stripped, shaved, assigned a number and prison stripes, and then marched out to stand in the first of many roll calls.”

“Let none of you imagine that he will ever leave this place alive,” an SS guard declared. “The rations have been calculated so that you will only survive six weeks.”

The gas chambers were not operative at that time, but the ovens were already at work. Brockell notes, “The only way out of Auschwitz, another guard said, was through the chimney.” Over a year later, Pilecki miraculously escaped, continuing his anti-Nazi resistance in Poland only to be executed by the post-war Soviet-controlled Polish government in 1947.

Few prisoners escaped Auschwitz. Some 1.1 to 1.9 million human beings died there, 90 percent of whom were Jews. Others included some 19,000 Roma (“Gypsy”) people, disabled and LGBT persons, and resistance fighters. The last generation of Auschwitz survivors is passing off the scene, even as “Holocaust deniers” promulgate their lies, not only throughout Europe, but also in the land of the free and the home of “alternative facts.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asserts that such denial is an anti-Semitic “claim that the Holocaust was invented or exaggerated by Jews as part of a plot to advance Jewish interests.” It is often closely linked to white supremacist and other racist theories (that are often accompanied by biblical citations and allusions).

These two irreconcilable statements must be heard as one: Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago. Yet, anti-Semitism endures, now unleashed with new vigor in the American public square.

“The last generation of Auschwitz survivors is passing off the scene, even as ‘Holocaust deniers’ promulgate their lies.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, Anti-Defamation League CEO, observes that violent “acts of Anti-Semitism are now the new normal.” On the decline from 2001, they have risen sharply in the years since 2014. These include a shooting in December 2019 at a New Jersey Jewish market in which two people died; a deadly firearm attack on Chabad of Poway synagogue north of San Diego in April 2019; and the death of 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018.

The horrific words, “Jews will not replace us,” chanted in that white supremacist torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017, continue to haunt the American psyche. A day later, African American scholar Jemar Tisby asked in a Washington Post op-ed: “Will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” At the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, might we add: “Will Christians finally take anti-Semitism seriously?” Certainly, many have – but, God have mercy, not nearly enough.

How might we extend those efforts?

First, let us confess to, and repent of, the church’s historic legacy of anti-Semitism by which medieval Catholics compelled Jews to convert to Christianity, often scapegoating them as sources of assorted social upheavals, and ghettoing Jews across Europe. (There were minority voices, like the 12th-century Doctor of the Church, Bernard of Clairvaux, who attempted to offer support for the Jewish community. Bernard wrote, “For us the Jews are Scripture’s living words, because they remind us of what Our Lord suffered. They are not to be persecuted, killed, or even put to flight.”)

We Protestants have many anti-Semitic burdens to carry, beginning with Martin Luther’s 1541 diatribe, “On the Jews and their Lies,” which declared:

“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy.”

Luther urged German Christians to “set fire to their synagogues or schools” and forbid their rabbis “to teach henceforth on pain of loss and limb.”

“Anti-Semitism endures, now unleashed with new vigor in the American public square.”

Closer to history and home, many Jews and Baptists of a certain age painfully recall Southern Baptist leader Bailey Smith’s 1980 assertion that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” And I’ve never forgotten Professor Glenn Hinson’s prophetic rejoinder: “Such is the stuff of which Holocausts are made.”

Second, American Christians, particularly evangelicals, should resist the effort to think of Jews and their place in the world primarily as vehicles in events leading up to the premillennial return of Christ. That attitude can conceal an implicit anti-Semitism that understands Jews, not as people of God, but as pawns of premillennial theories.

Third, 21st-century Christians must ever struggle to distinguish anti-Semitism from political critiques of certain actions of the state of Israel in responding to Palestinians and others in the endless conflicts of what seems the irreconcilable “Holy Land.” This is a daunting task, to be sure. (BNG columnist Wendell Griffen boldly walked this fine line in a critique that merits rereading in light of the so-called “peace plan” announced January 28 by President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.)

Finally, the memory of Auschwitz provides a stark reminder to 21st-century America, challenging us to confront this critical moment in history. In A Spirituality of Resistance, Jewish philosopher/environmentalist Roger Gottlieb writes that “the Holocaust ‘prepares’ us” to confront the evils of our own time by remembering “how well-meaning, passive bystanders helped make the Holocaust possible.”

Gottlieb continues:

“The slaughter of six million Jews and five million other victims, carried out coldly and ‘rationally’ by civil servants and professionals as well as politicians and soldiers, by a ‘legitimate’ government and with the sanction or passive acceptance of much of the rest of the world, is an omen for the environmental ruin we are creating now.”

This week I came across this Holocaust Remembrance Day adage: “If we were to observe a moment of silence for all the victims of the Holocaust, we would have to remain silent for 11-and-a-half years.” And I remembered the words that bridge the Bible’s two Testaments: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud laments; Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing all consolation, because they were no more.”

Never again, Yahweh, never again.


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Bring No Bitterness into the New Year

Many people regard New Year’s Resolutions with the same disdain they attribute to the much maligned fruitcake. I am a proponent of both. For several years now I have made the same New Year’s resolution and I ask God to help me to keep it.  I will take no bitterness into the New Year. Whatever has happened during the past twelve months that tends to sour my disposition, I resolve to let go. Whatever offenses I have suffered will not be dragged into the New Year.

Forgiveness is not as easy as it might sound. Partly it requires developing a thicker skin and realizing that I take far too many things personally. I need to lighten up. This is one of the concepts my friend, Dr. Monty Knight, discusses in his book, Balanced Living; Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weakness. Continuing with Monty’s philosophy, I don’t have to go to every fight to which I am invited. That is a major concept. Let it go. Tom Newboult, a minister of religious education, once told me that sin is giving more importance to the moment than it is worth. In other words, don’t dwell in the negative. I think Tom hit the nail on the head. What a great concept!

Turning a negative into a positive is another methodology for dealing with difficult situations. Since I administered a not-for-profit agency for most of my career, I would often be attacked with,”Well, Mitch, you are just an idealist.” My reply became, “Thank you. I hope so.” The main thing about forgiveness for those of us who are Christian to remember is that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven.

Bitterness is a terrible task master. It will ruin your life and suck all the goodness you receive into a dark hole. I recommend a proactive approach. Go on an active campaign to make those around you glad that you are there. Build them up by helping them feel good about themselves. Say something nice. Compliment him or her in a real genuine way. Call the person by name. Offer a specific compliment about a real accomplishment. On the other hand when you receive a compliment acknowledge it graciously with a simple “thank you.” In my book, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, I discuss the power of words, but I am by no means the first to come to that conclusion.

Practicing my resolution of taking no bitterness into the New Year has helped me live a more productive, less stressful life. I believe you will experience the same happy results if you give it a try. I warn you that this is not easy and requires a proactive intentional effort.

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A Visit to Madison Avenue Baptist Church with Rev. Susan Sparks

Sunday January 12, my daughter, Suzanne, and I were fortunate to worship at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. My friend, Susan Sparks is the senior minister. We were greeted warmly by the greeter outside the door on the street. The church is located within the Roger Hotel, but with a separate entrance. Rev. Sparks came through the congregation greeting and welcoming visitors. The sanctuary is beautiful. Susan says that she and the congregation will join in the celebration of Say Something Nice Sunday on June 7.

We also met a group of women ministers from Ontario, Canada. They also committed to joining in the celebration of Say Something Nice Sunday.

The service was wonderful. The choir and the soloist were outstanding. The call to worship was, “Surly the Lord Is in This Place.” The sermon by Susan was not what I expected to hear, but was exactly what I needed to hear. Her sermon was based on passages from the Book of   Ecclesiastes. Her sermon in a nutshell, “Life is tough. Get over it and serve God anyway. What other choice do we have other than to go it alone?” Of course Susan had some great stories to bring her point home which she did in a very few minutes. She has the ability to make her point without chasing rabbits. According to the book’s writer, “There is nothing new under the sun. The sun comes up and the sun goes down.” I have had a hard time dealing with my wife, Carol’s, death. Her sermon helped put things in perspective. The closing hymn was one of my favorites, “We Shall Overcome.’

The congregation is up to its ears in social justice ministries, a coat drive currently. Susan writes a weekly excellent blog, “Shiny Side Up.” It was good to have been there. If you are in New York City on a Sunday go there. You are welcome no matter what your tradition or circumstances. Susan is the author of two books: Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines. She is originally from North Carolina.

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Love and Hate – Charleston Post and Courier – Letters – 1- 5 – 2020

Hate is such a small word – only four characters, but the damage it does is enormous. Hate is contagious. It spreads like wildfire. If left unattended it will destroy an entire society. You are already shaking your head. I can hear you. “Impossible. You exaggerate. That’s too much.”

Love is also a small word. It too has only four characters, but its power is enormous. It can build relationships, build community, and overcome the effects of hate.”

Fourteen years ago a small group of us set out to create a better environment in which to talk with each other. Some applauded our efforts. Others ridiculed us and our intentions. The situation has grown worse. Violent speech leads to violent acts. In this season of peace in our country we have seen an increase in violence against our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Do not wait until June first Say Something Nice Day to Say something nice – not superficial, but heartfelt. Do not wait to do something nice for someone who does not expect it.

If we want a better world, it is up to you and me to build it. It may be by eliminating the word hate from our vocabularies and our thoughts. It’s worth a try.

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