Guilt, Action and Human Nature: Lessons from the Holocaust
Christian Guilt and the Holocaust
In the early 1980s, a dialogue was held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago between certain Jewish leaders and leaders of the evangelical Christian movement. Most of the meetings were conducted in closed sessions, but in one open session, an impassioned Jewish leader spoke to the issue of the Holocaust. His address was very moving, and in response, one of the audience stood to address himself to this act of genocide perpetrated upon the Jewish people and said, …I’m almost ashamed to say that I am a Christian.”
Undoubtedly there were other evangelical Christians in the audience who felt guilty. Thousands of books and tens of thousands of articles have been written to describe and try to understand what happened in Hitler’s inferno. This is a most perplexing aspect of life with which all Jews live. There is the recurring terror that it might happen again. There is a perpetual wondering, “Where was God when the six million died? What does it mean? What should I do in light of the Holocaust?” If every scrap of paper which described the Holocaust was destroyed, the museums leveled, and there was never another word spoken on the matter, the Holocaust and its terror would be yet forever gouged into the heart of the Jewish people—a wound that never heals.
Jewish Action for Holocaust Remembrance
The Jewish communities throughout the world have positioned themselves in a stance of vigilant confrontation with non-Jews, demanding an answer to the question, “What about the Holocaust?” Earl L. Dachslager writing in SH’MA said:
“The Holocaust is not just another historical event (speaking on the writing of history). This sort of subjective treatment of the Holocaust would perhaps to some degree be acceptable, even valid, were the Holocaust in fact comparable to other, similar, historical events. Most Jews as well as sensitive non-Jews…understand that the Holocaust is not the same as the bombing of Dresden or Hiroshima, that Auschwitz is not comparable to the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, that the calculated murder of six million Jews is not the equivalent of the deaths of millions of World War II or Korean War or Viet Nam War combatants and civilians.”
The thousands of lectures, books, and dramatizations try to speak the unspeakable, describe the indescribable, and explain that which no mortal mind can fathom.
What no person at the dialogue told the evangelical Christian who stammered an apology was that the Holocaust is something no one can apologize for except God, and that the King of Heaven, blessed be His name, has never asked forgiveness of mankind. As a response to the Holocaust, an apology from a man or all men is too banal to diminish the pain in the slightest.
This horror can never be dismissed or hidden away in a closet. Thoughtful and sensitive people will still want to know why. “Why? Why?” Psychologists give their answers. Sociologists propose their reasons. Philosophers who usually write in detached and abstract terms passionately struggle to unravel the riddle, but somehow the best reasons proposed by the wisest men of this age are disgustingly inadequate. They leave the hearer with another question: “How can life have any meaning in the face of such an orgy of torture and death?”
Human Nature: The Holocaust Within
Perhaps the answer to that question is so dreadful that those who study human behavior are unwilling to hear it because of what it says about the nature of man and the inadequacy of human standards of decency and religion. Perhaps the answers to the questions raised by the Holocaust are just too frightening to be faced, because ultimately it’s not just a matter of one race turned against another, one religion tryIng to exterminate a competing religion, nor of political expediency. Rather, the awful truth Iies in the very nature of all men at all times—the Holocaust within.
A History of Holocausts
The Holocaust serves as an example, but we must not deal with it as if it were an isolated instance, unrelated to war, greed and godlessness in general. We must face the fact that there have been holocausts before. In recent times we’ve seen the ugly dragon of genocide devour hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia, Uganda, Cambodia and a list of other countries that would be almost as long as the roster of the United Nations, which was founded to put an end to the curse of genocide.
Perhaps no one is facing the fact that the problem is not one religion, one political system, one philosophy which is so warped and perverted that it causes a holocaust. Perhaps the most horrible fact of the Holocaust is that it serves as further evidence that man’s very nature is warped and perverted, carrying within it mankind’s greatest curse. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “What’s wrong with the world? I’m what’s wrong with the world.”
It is generally argued that the Holocaust conducted under Hitler was unique in its scope and scale. The figures are horrifying. In the Polish-Soviet area, 4,565,000 were killed. From Germany 125,000 were killed. From Austria 65,000 were killed. From Czechoslovakia 277,000 were killed. Under Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s protege, 402,000 Hungarian and Transylvanian Jews were exterminated; from France 83,000; from Belgium 24,000; 700 from Luxembourg; 7,500 from Italy; from Holland 106,000; from Norway 760; 40,000 Romanian Jews; from Yugoslavia 60,000 and Greece 65,000; for a macabre total of 5,820,960  not counting those who died shortly after the war because of their tortures and debilitated conditions. Nor does it include the hundreds of thousands of Jews who died in the Resistance.
Jewish Theological Issues Caused by the Holocaust
What increases the agony of the Holocaust for Jews is the fact that rabbinic theology cannot explain how a just, loving, merciful God who declares Israel to be His chosen people could allow such a thing to happen.
The rabbinic doctrine of man, which states that we are all born with a good impulse and an evil impulse, differs from Biblical thought which teaches that man is innately evil and that we are born with a nature that, in order to fulfill itself, will inevitably sin. One could very mistakenly see the difference between the rabbinic view and the Biblical view as being simply a matter of the degree of evil of which each man is capable.
Sin Nature and Rabbinic Thought
But the basic difference between the Biblical view of man’s sin nature and the rabbinic view of man’s sin nature is much more radical! A. Cohen summarizes this teaching in Everyman’s Talmud.
“Mention is made of the evil impulse as a force which drives to wickedness and as an endowment of man which proves a formidable obstacle in the way to a righteous life. It is described as the leaven in the dough—the fermenting ingredient that stirs up evil elements in man’s nature which, unless suppressed, overrule the finer instincts and result in wicked actions.”
There is the presumption that somehow man can suppress this evil urge. The rabbis suggest that the study of Torah, the observance of mitzvot or righteous acts, the practice of prayer are sufficient to strengthen the human constitution in conquering the evil urge within. The teachings.of the rabbis would seem to suggest that there is something within man (the urge to do good) which can somehow subdue evil within the human heart.
Nevertheless, this was not the teaching of the prophets and of original Judaism. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Biblical Heroes of Faith, and Sin
When we look to those Bible heroes commended for their faith—Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David—we see that these men who are set forth as being righteous each committed vile sins. Isaiah, the courtly prophet, when he caught a vision of the Almighty, said, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and l live among a people of unclean lips…”
King David, who is described as being a man after God’s own heart, when he encountered the Almighty, cried, “Surely I have been a sinner from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
What the original Jewish religion seems to teach is that man, by himself, is hopelessly sinful, and even when he thinks he is doing right, his own heart can deceive him into committing the worst possible atrocities, like the Holocaust.
The Sincerity of the Nazis
One of the most disconcerting facts of the Holocaust is that many Nazis were supremely sincere! They believed they were doing the right thing for humanity. Though they knew they were causing a great deal of pain and tragedy, they explained it to themselves as being like a surgeon cutting away a cancer, for they believed the hatemonger’s rhetoric that the Jewish people were a malignant tumor which, unless excised, would cause the demise of the whole human race.
Man’s sincere belief that he is doing the right thing is simply not enough to ensure righteousness, for the greatest atrocities have always been committed in the name of truth, religion and nationalism.
Can Jews Forgive and Forget the Holocaust?
In speaking to the question of why Jews don’t forgive and forget the Holocaust, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum talks about “a moral ecology” in the universe which, for the sake of the preservation of mankind, dictates, “You shall not stand by while the blood of your brothers and sisters cries out to you from the earth.” Of course, this reason might be cogent for Rabbi Tanenbaum, but let us examine his assumptive metaphor. In what way is there a moral balance and climate in the universe? In what way does it resemble the ecological balance on this planet? One must see that there is no adequate counter-balance apart from God.
The tyrant shouts, “Might is right!” As long as he has the power and the means, he can continue to prove he is right until the day of his death when, in a moment, he loses all might and is denounced in the history books to follow.
The moral climate in the universe is not in balance. There is a perpetual tension between God and His creation. There is not a moral ecology in that creation which can be brought back into balance. The contamination of sin has infected us all, clouding our judgment.
Ridding the World of Jews
One of the hardest facts to face with regard to the Holocaust is the lack of reaction or response on the part of those who could have done something about it. Anyone who read Hitler’s blueprint, Mein Kampf, would have understood that Hitler was not speaking in metaphors when he talked about making the world Juden-frei (free of Jews). To him, the solution to the human problem was simple—get rid of the “corrupting” influence of the Jews and impose Aryan values.
Of course there was no way of making the world free of Jews without conquering the world and exterminating all of world Jewry. There was to be no room in the new moral order for the Jews.
However, in the rest of the Western world the Nazis’ statements were treated as though they were simply metaphor. As early as 1942 the United States Government knew conclusively of the death camps and the “final solution.” Nevertheless, though moves could have been made to possibly save the Jews of Hungary and Romania through Switzerland, the Allies turned a deaf ear to the tortured screams of the millions.
The church in Germany swore allegiance to Hitler, and those churchmen like Martin Niemoller who would not were sent to concentration camps. Hitler seemed supreme, invincible, and “moral.” Men and women in the countries occupied by the Axis as well as the Allies, hid behind protests of their own helplessness.
How easy it is for man to do nothing by pleading helplessness. Yet in God’s sight the wrong we tolerate is just as damning of us as the wrong we commit.
Christian Action (or lack thereof) During the Holocaust
There were, of course, lights in the darkness. The ten Boom Family of Holland and others hid Jews to their own peril and against the occupation laws. They were following the higher law of God. God said He loved lsrael, and they believed in the power of God more than the might of Hitler. Nevertheless, too few had the courage of their Christian convictions. Many church leaders did mental gymnastics to somehow divorce themselves from the anti-Christian actions of the Nazis.
What Can We Learn from the Holocaust?
We can never comprehend the full meaning of the Holocaust, but there are some meanings to both the Jew and the non-Jew, to Christians and those who are not Christians. Christians are haunted by certain questions like, “In the light of the Holocaust, what does it mean to love one’s neighbor as oneself? Who is my neighbor? What should Christians have done?” Whereas the whole meaning of the Holocaust will never be comprehended this side of eternity, there are some lessons for all of us.
Humans Are Capable of the Unthinkable
1. Man’s capacity to do evil and to tolerate the evil done by others far exceeds any humanistic philosophy’s ability to account for it. No one has any difficulty seeing Hitler and his Nazi cohorts as being totally depraved, but we must see that many were utterly sincere, stifling the sense of revulsion they should have felt at the torture and killing of a whole race, because of an imagined greater good. Therefore, we must conclude that man is most dangerous when he believes he is absolutely right. Sincerity is as loyal a servant of evil as it is of good.
Conviction Is Not Enough
2. Human righteousness and strong convictions are not enough. Well-intentioned people can be led to commit acts of evil, or at least tolerate evil even of such a magnitude as the Holocaust when they believe in the supreme authority of any person, party or unscriptural philosophy.
Opinion and Action are Not Synonymous
3. Adverse public opinion will do little to inhibit a despot from doing wrong. A murderous dictator is seldom influenced by what other nations think of his actions because he is filled with a sense of seIf-righteousness. A dictator respects only force and power that is greater than his own. Unless those who have the power are willing to take the risks necessary to do the right thing, genocide will continue to be an occasional but constant reminder to us of man’s depravity.
Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel Live
4. The Jewish people will survive in spite of Pharoahs, Hamans, Hitlers, and all of the demonic forces of this world. It is right to mourn over the six million destroyed, but one must see that, if the forces of evil could have prevailed, our Jewish people would have been annihilated three millennia before this time. The wonder of the matter is not that Jews have undergone so much persecution, but that, in the face of the forces of annihilation, we have survived as evidence that the Bible is true and that God does keep His word.
We Need to Be Saved
5. We need a Savior who is more powerful than all of the nations of this world put together. In the face of Hitler, the Jews could not save themselves. The Allies pleaded helplessness. The religious institutions which should have spoken for God were satisfied to express moral indignation and little else. When confronted by our own human eagerness to be seduced by the attractive and the powerful, no matter what banners they display, our crying need is for something far greater than mere good intentions and inward impulses. We need the intervention of the Creator Himself to save all of us from ourselves.
Earl L. Dachslager, “The Holocaust as a ‘subject’,” Sh’ma, 8/141 (November 11, 1977), pp. 181-184.
Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 8, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, Ltd.), p. 889.
Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc.), p. 88.
“Two-Thirds of Jews in Poland Held Slain: Only 1,250,000 Said to Survive of 3,500,000 Once There,” New York Times, December 4, 1942, p. 6, col. 1.
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.