Commentary Magazine

Chritians and the Holocaust

To the Editor:

Unlike Christopher M. Leighton, I was not “vexed with doubts” about Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night, for her book club [“Oprah, Elie Wiesel, and My Fellow Christians,” May]. Mr. Leighton was concerned that discussions of the book, which focuses on life and death within the concentration camps while providing little insight into German society at the time, would ignore “the currents of Christian anti-Judaism that animated the perpetrators of the Holocaust and paralyzed the bystanders. ”Here he paints with too broad a brush. Indisputably, the perpetrators and bystanders were German, and the former harbored a genocidal animus toward Jews. But any generalizations beyond those are at best debatable.

Oprah was wise to leave the analysis and debate about the uniquely German origins of the Nazis and the Holocaust to the historians. Who knows—maybe scholarship will find a direct link to the Visigoths. Anyway, her contribution was not just about the intersection of Nazis, Germans, Christians, and Jews. By shining a spotlight on Wiesel’s book, she provided a stark and much-needed reminder of the universality of evil and the duty to oppose it everywhere.

Mr. Leighton frets that the horrific suffering of the Jews will be overlaid by his fellow Christians “with a theological significance that falsifies the very essence of a people’s catastrophe.” He notes that, unlike the Christian story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish story of the Holocaust tends to confirm God’s absence rather than His presence. He worries that the Christian tendency to look for hope and redemption in the wake of suffering—in short, a happy ending—will prevent them from fully confronting the monumental evil.

I doubt that many Christians other than theologians obsessed with the esoteric (few of whom are likely to be Oprah fans in any event) can conjure up a positive, resurrection-like outcome for the Holocaust—the subsequent creation of the State of Israel, perhaps? No, our problem is not that Christian theology precludes the faithful from coming to grips with genocide. It is much simpler than that.

Neither Christians nor others need a theological rationale for averting their eyes from human suffering. Indeed, the more dreadful the suffering, the more, it seems, we instinctively avoid it. And most of us, Christians and Jews included, have been doing that again and again in the years since Auschwitz, in response to genocide in China, Cambodia, East Timor, Uganda, Rwanda, southern Sudan, Darfur, and other exotic places.

Finally, Mr. Leighton worries about readings of Night “that end up enshrining the Jewish people as ‘victims’” and thus contribute to the willingness of some Christians “to welcome Jews only when they follow an ancient script, achieving tragic nobility through impotence and passivity—through sacrifice.” I share his concern that this stereotype partly accounts for the opposition from some otherwise sympathetic quarters to perfectly reasonable measures taken by Israel to defend itself against terrorists. But he fails to explain what is particularly Christian about this. Indeed, most Christians these days, including clear majorities of the rank-and-file of those mainline denominations whose leaders generally disapprove of Israeli militancy, rejoice at Israel’s vigorous defense of its sovereignty, its territory, and its people.

The only Christians I know who have a problem accepting Jews as other than helpless victims are those on the political Left. But their position has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with ideology. (Nor are their stereotypes applied exclusively to Jews; the Left has always had the same problem with blacks.)

In sum, rather than undertaking a retrospective quest for strands of Christian complicity in the Holocaust or finding fault with the inadequacies, real or imagined, of the Christian reaction to it, we are better off seeking to understand its universal significance so that “Never Again” will come to mean precisely that for all people.

Barry C. Steel

Phoenix, Maryland


To the Editor:

Christopher M. Leighton has written a powerful and insightful rumination on Christian responses to the Holocaust and how Elie Wiesel’s work might be misread by Christian readers. But it is a little unfair to criticize Oprah’s book selection based on how she and her viewers might misread Wiesel. Her effort to come to grips with the Holocaust deserves praise.

As for Mr. Leighton’s broader point—the failure of the Christian world to confront its responsibility for creating the moral and intellectual climate in which the noxious weeds of anti-Semitism could flourish—I think he needs to look more closely at the present-day theological landscape. In 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church confessed its sins with respect to the Jews; for decades, the Church has been working to educate the faithful about repudiating anti-Semitism. Surely we Jews must acknowledge and welcome such long-awaited acts of penitence. At the other end of the theological spectrum, the evangelical churches have simply leapfrogged the issue. They acknowledge the authenticity of the Jewish people, and have vigorously supported its right to live in a homeland in the State of Israel.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Leighton must ruefully reflect, it is only among his flock, the traditional mainline Christian community, that there has been neither serious acknowledgment of sins against the Jewish people nor any recognition of the State of Israel as a vindication of Jewish life. On the contrary, there are all too many voices in the Presbyterian Church and among the Anglicans, Lutherans, and Congregationalists who have traduced the legitimacy of the state of Israel and supported those who would destroy it. Sadly, I think Mr. Leighton has much more work to do in removing the beam from the eyes of his co-religionists before picking out the mote in Oprah’s eye.

Barry Augenbraun

St. Petersburg, Florida


To the Editor:

I was saddened to see Christopher M. Leighton suggest that François Mauriac’s musings in his foreword to Elie Wiesel’s Night “are indicative of a longstanding tendency to force the horror of the Holocaust into the contours of the Christian story” of the crucifixion. The offending passage, in which Mauriac cites Wiesel’s description of the hanging of a Jewish boy by the Nazis, asks, “Did I explain to [Wiesel] that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become the cornerstone for mine?” The first thing to notice is the rhetorical nature of Mauriac’s question. How does one, he seems to ask, offer such a Christian gloss to Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust? At the least, such a gloss might appear grossly insensitive; at worst, callously dismissive. Mauriac raises his reading honestly and openly.

While allowing for the legitimacy of each religion to “regard the world through its own narrative spectacles,” Mr. Leighton suggests that a specifically Christian gloss such as Mauriac’s “conceal[s] or distort[s]” this “quintessentially Jewish experience.” Mr. Leighton’s diction is revealing: Mauriac “forces” the incident into a Christian narrative; the boy’s suffering is “subordinated to the pain” of Christ on the cross; “any effort to squeeze the Jewish community’s pain into a Christian paradigm compounds the original violence with another layer of violation” (emphasis mine). Grave sins indeed. But nothing in Mauriac’s own comments suggests that he minimizes the suffering of the young boy or, to use Mr. Leighton’s regrettably overwrought characterization, “overla[ys] [it] with a theological significance that falsifies the very essence of a people’s catastrophe.”

I suspect that when Christians (myself included) read Wiesel’s account of the boy’s hanging, “an ingrained religious reflex” reminds them of another Golgotha. But such a reflex—instantaneous, momentarily uncontrollable—hardly violates the boy’s suffering or the Holocaust in general. On the contrary, in providing a context for the enormity of the evil, it is a way of understanding, not minimizing, the horrific death.

No doubt there are insular readings of the Holocaust from Christian perspectives, but Mauriac’s gloss deserves a more charitable interpretation, especially since he tries not to subordinate the boy’s suffering to that of Christ but to equate them. Mauriac seems genuinely interested in exploring a dialogue between Jewish and Christian understandings of suffering. In his humility, he does not presume to comprehend what he calls “the unfathomable mystery” of why Christ’s crucifixion has become the cornerstone of his own faith while the hanging of the young boy shattered Wiesel’s.

Sean Benson

Malone College

Canton, Ohio


To the Editor:

Christopher M. Leighton expresses the hope that Oprah Winfrey, in selecting Elie Wiesel’s Night for her Book Club, would “go beyond the confines of the book” to explore, among other things, the sentiments that “paralyzed the bystanders” during the Holocaust.

Actually, Night itself provides an appropriate point of departure for a discussion of the role of the bystanders. In an important but often-overlooked passage, Wiesel recalls seeing U.S. warplanes bombing German oil factories just a few miles from the gas chambers. He writes: “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!”

As David S. Wyman first revealed in The Abandonment of the Jews (1984), there were numerous such Allied bombing raids on German oil plants within striking distance of Auschwitz during the summer and autumn of 1944. Yet when Jewish groups asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of the death camp or the railways leading to it, the War Department replied that it would be impossible to do so except by diverting warplanes from vital military missions elsewhere in Europe. That assertion was clearly disingenuous given the fact that U.S. bombers were already in the vicinity.

Oprah has opened the door for many Americans to learn, for the first time, that U.S. warplanes were capable of reaching (and bombing) Auschwitz. One hopes they will now take the next step of exploring the reasons that the mass-murder machinery was not on America’s target list.

Rafael Medoff

David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

Melrose Park, Pennsylvania


Christopher M. Leighton writes:

Oprah’s selection of Elie Wiesel’s Night does not trouble Barry C. Steel, but I am not sure his equanimity merits congratulations. I have encountered few readers of Night who did not find themselves profoundly disoriented. By the book’s end, the certainties that once governed Wiesel’s young life are shattered, with the most searing trauma centering on the collapse of his faith. Wiesel’s odyssey calls into question core affirmations of both Judaism and Christianity, and the religious reader cannot avoid the theological challenges—vastly different for Jews and Christians—that lie at the heart of the book.

If Mr. Steel is uninterested in these matters, that is his own affair. He ought to know, however, that by being content to see Wiesel’s memoir as merely “a reminder of the universality of evil,” he unwittingly falls into the kind of facile generalization that he counsels us to avoid. He might find it more fruitful to examine the various forms that Christian and secular anti-Semitism have assumed over the centuries—including the present one—and the role they played in the background of the Holocaust. Not all genocides are the same. I have little confidence that we will achieve greater understanding of evil until we grapple with the particular ways in which ideas have been placed in the service of hate.

Barry Augenbraun may be right about the salutary effect of Oprah’s book selection. I share his hope that her program will foster empathy among Christians and Jews. The achievements of the Roman Catholic Church that began with Nostra Aetate are enormously promising, but I think that the theological revolution is far from complete and has yet to seep into the pews of all congregations.

As for the evangelical churches, they present a more complicated set of challenges than Mr. Augenbraun suggests. This is because Christians cannot “leapfrog” the issue of their supersessionism—which arguably has been the most unremitting source of Christian anti-Judaism—while simultaneously acknowledging “the authenticity of the Jewish people.” Evangelical support for Israel is built on a theological platform, and undercurrents of contempt for what some evangelicals call the “obsolete dispensation” of the Jews may render this foundation more precarious than Mr. Augenbraun believes.

I agree that the greatest burden falls on the mainline Protestant churches. The educational task is massive, but the shifts in attitude and direction that came out of the most recent meeting of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church may help to correct its hitherto myopic readings of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. The new overtures counter the debacle of the church’s earlier support for divestment from Israel and provide a welcome indicator of greater political and theological balance.

The disciplined practice of self-criticism entails habits of mind and heart that are essential to the health of Christianity. My comments about François Mauriac were not intended to single him out for censure. The tendency to layer the Christian story onto the Holocaust was most dramatically displayed in the controversies in the late 1980’s over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz. Numerous speeches and articles by eminent Christians—including great champions of Christian-Jewish relations like Cardinal O’Connor of New York—also illustrate the Christian impulse to read the horrors of the Shoah in a religious idiom that evokes “sacrifice” and “atonement.” As Sean Benson accurately notes, the reflex is “instantaneous” and “momentarily uncontrollable.”

Mr. Benson maintains that such a gloss does not minimize the death of the child in Wiesel’s narrative or of the countless others who were brutally murdered. About this I am less sure. If we Christians can understand “the enormity of evil” only by “equating” the hanging of a Jewish child with the crucifixion of Jesus, then we are locked into a religious paradigm that functions as a mirror; all we will ever see is the reflection of our own sacred story. This does not strike me as a charitable way of treating the suffering of our Jewish neighbors, or a fitting response to the questions of theodicy at the heart of the Shoah.

My thanks to Rafael Medoff for reminding readers of the Allied planes that were seen by Elie Wiesel and the inmates of Auschwitz flying to nearby targets. Indeed, fully to appreciate Wiesel’s musings one must supplement the reading of Night with further study. If Oprah’s audience has been inspired to take up this challenge, my overwrought imagination can in turn go take up other matters.

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