A friend’s post on Facebook alerted me to an article which appeared April 22 on The Wall Street Journal‘s web site and has since been reposted or commented upon on numerous other sites.
The article is about portrayals of Jesus in film, but the part that is most striking concerns the Holocaust and a story related by the filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. In 1928, a Polish man by the name of William E. Wallner viewed DeMille’s movie King of Kings. He thereafter became a Lutheran pastor in Prague. According to John A. Murray whose byline appears on the WTJ article:
Shortly after Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, a doctor in Wallner’s parish was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Wallner shared with DeMille how the doctor, a Jewish convert to Christianity, encouraged his fellow prisoners “to die bravely, with faith in their hearts.” As a result, the doctor became a target of Gestapo officers.
The doctor, DeMille relates, was brutally beaten to the point that a Gestapo officer said mockingly: “Take a look at yourself. Now you look like your Jewish Christ.”
This Messianic Jewish physician is then reported to have cried out, “Lord [Jesus], never in my life have I received such honor—to resemble You.” Continues Murray:
Distraught by the doctor’s proclamation, the Gestapo officer sought out Wallner that night. “Could Pastor Wallner help him, free him from the terrible burden of his guilt?”
After praying with him, Wallner advised, “Perhaps God let you kill that good man to bring you to the foot of the Cross, where you can help others.” The Gestapo officer returned to the concentration camp. And through the aid of Wallner and the Czech underground, he worked to free many Jews over the years that followed.
I have not been able to find out much about William E. Wallner. A brief online biography reads: “Reverend William Edward Wallner was born in Poland in 1904. He was the only survivor of eleven children in his family. The rest of his family lost their lives during the Holocaust.” He was known to be a photographer and his photographs are available in an archive at the University of California Santa Cruz. Eventually he relocated to San Bernardino, California, where he died in 1988.
I know nothing else about Wallner nor have I researched the story about the Messianic Jewish doctor or the Gestapo office to verify DeMille’s account. If it is the same William Wallner, we find him delivering a paper in 1964 at the Logumkloster Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People with the title, “The Jew in the church. Can a Hebrew Christian remain a Jew?“. Could an actual encounter with a Jewish believer in Jesus have interested him in the subject?
Taking the story at face value, on this Holocaust Remembrance Day we are reminded of three things:
First, there were many Hasidei Ummot ha-Olam, Righteous Gentiles who worked to save Jews during the Holocaust, of whom Wallner would have been one. These remarkable individuals showed true menschlikhkeit (Yiddish for true humanity) and the true nature of God.
Second, repentance and restoration are always possible. Did the guard who maliciously killed one Jewish person go on to assist in the saving of many others? Even King David, after all, orchestrated a murder, repented, and though there were consequences, Nathan the prophet announced to him, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.” (The full story can be found in the Bible in 2 Samuel 11–12.)
And third, there were Jewish believers in Jesus who died in the Holocaust and others who were (and are) survivors. (Read some of their personal stories here.) For them, the Holocaust was not a reason to disbelieve in Jesus but a place to embrace, as a Jew, faith in the Messiah who also suffered and died.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us remember the Six Million, along with the Righteous Gentiles, the power of repentance, and the Messiah who suffered and died for Jews and for Gentiles both. In this way we not only “never forget,” but also face the future with courage and hope.