Jewish Post

Interreligious Responses to the Holocaust:
Sixty Five Years After Liberation

Remarks by Daniel S. Mariaschin, Exec. VP B'nai B'rith Int�l, At the Annual UN Holocaust Commemoration

From left:  Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B�nai B�rith International; and Allan J. Jacobs, B�nai B�rith chairman of the executive.   Photo: Julian Voloj
From left: Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B�nai B�rith International; and Allan J. Jacobs, B�nai B�rith chairman of the executive.
Photo: Julian Voloj

Eminences, Excellencies, Reverend Clergy, Distinguished Leaders, Friends:

I'd like to first thank the eminent Christian leaders who have preceded me on this dais for having joined us on this occasion, and for their thoughtful and important reflections. These mean a great deal to us at B'nai B'rith, and in the Jewish community.

Allan, thank you for that introduction; it is good to be introduced by an outstanding partner and friend, someone whose lifelong commitment to B'nai B'rith, and to good causes, is second to none.

As Allan observed at the outset, my presentation on the Holocaust will inevitably be different from that of those with whom I am now privileged to sit. My career has been in communal service - which I'd normally say makes me, as distinct from our volunteer leaders, a professional, but in the terms of Christian clergy I might be described as a "lay" person, not a clergyman or a theologian. I am American-born, though a child of those who came from Eastern Europe; had they not come when they did, I might well not have been born or might have been caught up in the storms that were particularly terrible to Jews during World War II. And a Jew I am; a Jew born not too long after that war.

As becomes clear on hearing my own short biography read, the memory, lessons and legacy of the Holocaust have pervaded my life - in prompting efforts for Holocaust education, for material restitution (advanced most recently at the Prague Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets), for bringing remaining perpetrators to justice, and for the defense and welfare of the survivors and their progeny. The Holocaust has fundamentally impacted not just those who experienced the horror first-hand, but the next generation, and the next. Indeed, as the genocide that was not only the most systematic, and that is the most exhaustively documented, in history - but also one memorialized through the proliferation of Holocaust museums and monuments, study centers and films, and even this January 27th international day of remembrance that has been adopted by more and more countries and by the UN itself - the Holocaust, a massive crime committed in the modern era by an ostensibly advanced society, is poised to remain a singular point of reference not only for those who have lived during the 20th century but also those later to come; not only for Jews, but for all people. The hatred that focused on this tiny minority, the Jews - decimating a third of their worldwide number in just a few years - would come to envelop tens of millions of others: including all those evilly seen as "undesirable" and all those who stood, or were imagined to be standing, in the way of mad ideas and boundless aspirations for dominance.

Would that with all the senseless suffering imposed - and all that testifies to it - humanity might finally internalize the lesson that "those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

Sadly, this seems to remain unlikely. We, as a collective family - b'nei Adam, human beings called "children of Adam," who are taught of having been created b'tzelem Elokim, "in the image of God" - have not yet learned. At least one core imperative seems common to the world's major faiths as well as to those aspiring to a set of ethical principles for life rooted in simple rationalism and decency: v'ahavta l'rei'acha kamocha - "and you shall love your fellow as yourself." In Judaism, we are taught that this is the very essence of Torah, that the rest, follows.

From the vantage point of a religion with a famously long view of history - a bi-directional view framed by sacred scriptures and oral traditions, and by their prophetic forecast of things to come - it will probably not come as a shock that, in some ways, at least in retrospect, the Shoah was not all that "surprising" in the context of the long Jewish saga, even as it is unfathomable. In the Biblical tradition, there are well-rooted themes of Esav sonei et Ya'akov - Esau perennially hates Jacob - and of Amalek, that nation, real and/or figurative, of those ever committed to destroying the Children of Israel and that which they represent. In the Passover seder's recounting of the Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt to acceptance of the Torah at Sinai and delivery as a nation to the Promised Land, we are reminded: "In every generation and generation, there are those who arise upon us to destroy us - but the Holy One, Blessed is He, saves us from their hands." From the time of the exile from the Land of Israel nearly two thousand years ago, Jews throughout their dispersion have, too often, been subjected to suspicion, slander, hatred and persecution, whether on religious, racial, cultural, or economic and political grounds. Though most Jews themselves, particularly in Israel, commemorate the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah, marking the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (generally in April), some only do so formally on the fast day Tish'a B'Av, when the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is mourned and all subsequent calamities are remembered.

Of course, there are an untold number of Jews, including those earlier characterized by unstinting piety and devotion, who were spiritually broken by persecution, above all the Holocaust, and whose faith in God was shattered by the seemingly unanswerable question, like that of Job, of how bad things can happen to good people. Judaism believes in divine providence, in reward and punishment. In contemplating a truly merciful Creator, it is difficult indeed to simply accept Isaiah 55: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not Mine�." Yet, if only of necessity, Judaism focuses on the action of human beings - who are distinguished and elevated by freedom to choose between right and wrong - more than on trying to explain the divine. It is in this grounded spirit that many Holocaust survivors say that they ask not how God could have allowed the Holocaust, but how people could have perpetrated it. Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said in his extensive remarks during Pope Benedict's visit last week to the Great Synagogue, which sits in the old Jewish ghetto across the Tiber from the Vatican: "The silence of God, or our own incapacity to hear His voice in the face of the world's evils, are an inscrutable mystery. But the silence of man is on a different level; it makes us wonder, it challenges us, and it does not escape justice."

Ultimately, for Jews, the Holocaust may symbolize not only an attack on the followers of a particular monotheistic faith, its values and mission, but on truth itself; it is rooted in lies, and it yields lies - these amazing untruths that can spread so easily, again and again, in fertile soil. Jews, this tiny and generally vulnerable people, were made into threatening monsters, even the infants among them - one-and-a-half million children sent to death. A world of falsehood is reflected in the infamous sign above the iron gates of Auschwitz, which was stolen and recovered a few weeks ago: "Arbeit Macht Frei." In one more dose of cruelty and cynicism, the Nazi Germans sought to give false hope - to those who arrived at the extermination camp liberated 65 years ago today, promising "Work sets you free." Today, with continuously fewer first-hand witnesses to the atrocities - often feeble and of limited means, with enduring physical and emotional scars - Holocaust-denial, sometimes sanitized as "historical revisionism," competes with Holocaust-education on the internet. And it is not only anonymous extremists of all stripes - neo-Nazis, race-baiters, and the like - trading in this toxic material, but some people of power and prominence, including at least one state leader. That president, of Iran, an ostensibly religious person whose views have been made ubiquitous and popular across an expansive region, has managed at once to doubt and mock the truth of the Holocaust, while calling Israel illegitimate and solely a product of the Holocaust (rather than the focal point of millennia of Jewish prayer and civilization), and while accusing the Jewish state of perpetrating a new holocaust.

At the Reichstag in January 1939, Hitler was so brazen as to warn, "If international finance Jewry in and outside Europe should succeed in once again plunging the nations into a world war, then the result will not be the victory of Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" Today - from a Western diplomat in private salon conversation to a Hollywood icon made uninhibited by alcohol - we again hear echoes of the canard that Jews are responsible for all the world's wars, all the world's problems. Sadly, in this very building built with noble aspirations in the aftermath of the Holocaust, we have seen demagogues applauded for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and, in a political game that even ambassadors involved will acknowledge privately, one state, a lone Jewish democracy facing impossible circumstances, is condemned within this institution more than the rest of the world combined. Yet, once again, this reality is not just a problem for the Jews; ask the neglected people suffering unsurpassed ravages of man in Sudan, Congo, Zimbabwe, Burma, Sri Lanka, North Korea, and too many other places around the world. In 2010, the primitive and irrational nature of anti-Semitism is revealed in its manifestation in places with few or no Jews - whether Moldova or Mumbai - and in its being harbored by people entirely unfamiliar with Jews, who comprise 0.2% of the world's population. (The Nazis' targeting of German Jews - astoundingly assimilated, contributing and patriotic - before Polish and other Jews demonstrated that Jews could be hated when observant or secular, wealthy or destitute, numerous or few.) Certainly one critical and very practical lesson of the Holocaust, in my mind, is the potential consequence of demonization that begins in education - and the fact that incitement, and weapons in the hands of inciters, can prove deadly when mixed even with democratic processes.

Let me stress that none of this is to oversimplify or to neatly compare to the Nazi period contemporary circumstances - to the contrary, the quickness, within many circles, to make parallels and comparisons to Nazism and the Holocaust must be curbed. But, in the spirit of candidness, I would warn that, even if unintentionally, some people today are willing to recognize and deplore anti-Semitism, but only that of the past - while belittling its existence now or even accusing Jews of fabricating anti-Semitism for undeserved sympathy or of exploiting the Holocaust for political gain.

I feel obliged to say what should be apparent: in the face of growing resentment or apathy in some places over focus on the Holocaust, Jews do not enjoy talking about, or thinking about, that genocide. In fact - and this poses a pedagogical challenge to my colleagues and me, even if it is somewhat understandable - young American Jews in particular are largely weary of the topic of Jewish suffering in the past or the need to be vigilant to prevent it in the present and future. Jewish parents and grandparents have bequeathed the message of "never again" - and never forgetting loved ones, most of whom, whether shot or gassed and cremated, were denied a Jewish burial and resting place - but we are called to find a delicate balance, and to cultivate Jewish identity defined above all by life and by hope. The long-awaited rebirth symbolized, despite all the tragic challenges, by the creation of a Jewish, democratic state in our ancestral homeland has been a source like no other of optimism and inspiration for Jews and those able to appreciate the immense good in Israel. Motivated by our history, and perhaps by the sage Hillel's dictum - "If I am not for me, who will be for me? If I am only for me, what am I?" - Jews have also been in the forefront of so many social justice efforts: from the American civil rights movement to the struggle against apartheid to the campaign for an end to violence in Darfur to even opposition to the recent Swiss move banning Muslim minarets.

Though it is sad indeed that it took the Holocaust to spur reconciliation, we can take particular encouragement from the unprecedented, and growing, friendship that has emerged between Christians and Jews in the decades since the war. Though great sensitivity continues to surround the issue of what various Christian churches and leaders, as others, did or did not do in response the Holocaust - and, to this end, many of us have urged maximal access to historical records, to allow for their thorough, impartial study - we remember that not a few Christians and their institutions bravely rescued Jewish lives during the war, in many cases also protecting the Jewish identity of those in their care. (In the spirit of the Talmudic teaching that one who saves a life has saved an entire world, many of these remarkable figures are recognized in perpetuity as "Righteous Among the Nations" at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial authority in Jerusalem.) It is in large part the series of noble, introspective denominational and episcopal statements of regret for past teaching of contempt for Judaism - and their affirmation of the Jews' legitimacy, and essential rights, as a faith group and people - that has brought great healing in a very special relationship. We in B'nai B'rith aim to speak out when Christians' religious or other rights and sensitivities are undercut; we seek to engage in wide-ranging dialogue directly with Christians, both leaders and laity, in the United States, the Middle East, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere; and our humanitarian and other services provide Christians, among others, with medicine, shelter, vocational training, and more.

In 1843 - twenty years before the establishment of the Red Cross, and a full century before their native compatriots would be murdered by Germany over their Jewishness - twelve German Jewish immigrants in New York founded B'nai B'rith, whose remarkable charter undertook "the mission of� developing and elevating the mental and moral character of the people of our faith; of inculcating the purest principles of philanthropy, honor and patriotism; of supporting science and art; visiting and attending the sick; coming to the rescue of victims of persecution; [and] providing for, protecting and assisting the aged, widows and orphans on the broadest principles of humanity."

This modern expression of age-old Jewish values was reflected in the name "B'nai B'rith" - children of the covenant - which spoke to the bonds connecting Jews to each other but also to all people.

Anne Frank - whose unassuming, attempted protector, Miep Gies, a Dutch Christian, died this month at 100 - wrote in her diary: "It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet, I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."

With continued Christian-Jewish engagement of the kind in which we have participated today, we can continue, in our times, to nourish an example for all people of great divisions narrowed, and of tragedies yielding hope against all odds.

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