Jews and Christians Remembering the Holocaust Together

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of participating in teaching and research workshops on various aspects of the Holocaust, together with Jews, other Christians, and non-religious academics. While some of these gatherings have included commemorative or reflective elements, only recently was I privileged to attend–and speak at–a Holocaust remembrance service. I was invited by the organizers of the annual Holocaust Remembrance Service sponsored by the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. My role was to add some historically-based comments that would serve as a kind of conclusion to the rest of the program, which included music, readings, silence, and other ceremonial elements.

For documentation of the quotations in the address or for more information from my research into the history of North American religious responses to the Kristallnacht pogrom, please refer to the following publications:

Kyle Jantzen, “‘The Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man’: Mainline American Protestants and the Kristallnacht Pogrom.” In American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht, edited by Maria Mazzenga, 31-55. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Kyle Jantzen and Jonathan Durance, “Our Jewish Brethren: Christian Responses to Kristallnacht in Canadian Mass Media.” Crisis and Credibility in the Jewish-Christian World: Remembering Franklin Littel. The Fortieth Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches. Spec. issue of Journal of Ecumenical Studies 46 no. 4 (Fall 2011): 537-548.

Here is the text of my address:

Response: Holocaust Remembrance Service, First Alliance Church, Calgary, AB, April 15, 2012, Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Tonight, we have all set aside some time to come together—Jews and Christians—in order to reflect upon the events and impact of the Holocaust. We have heard the stories of Christians Corrie Ten Boom and Maximilian Kolbe, reminding us that while Christian Europe was the place in which the Holocaust took place, some Christians opposed the National Socialist campaign to annihilate Jews and tried to care for the victims. Some Christians rescued Jews, entering into the danger and suffering of that time. We have also heard from a Jewish survivor, [name removed], who has born witness to the crimes of the Holocaust, shared his experiences, and testified to the lifelong impact of the Holocaust. And we have listened to beautiful, sometimes haunting, music, which gives praise to God and captures the deep longings of our hearts for a better world.

Over the years in which I have written and taught about the history of Christians in Nazi Germany, and of the long history of antisemitism, and of the Holocaust, I have found that this history never ceases to challenge me and to challenge my students with a tremendous moral crisis. Remembering the Holocaust always means reflecting on our moral responsibilities, whether as individuals, families, religious communities, or whole societies.

The Holocaust poses very hard questions—questions that scores of books, films, conferences, museums, and memorial events like our gathering tonight have not yet fully answered.

How did antisemitism become such a powerful ideology in Western Christianity and Western civilization?

What was it about Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist movement that enabled them to capture power in Germany and transform that state into such a deadly empire?

How come so many Germans and other Europeans participated in the killing of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust?

What kind of person did it take to resist this orgy of destruction, or to rescue Jews?

And where was the rest of the world? Why did borders remain closed? Why did immigration quotas remain unfilled? Why were Jewish refugees turned away?

Why did the Western world perpetrate—and allow to be perpetrated—such great evil?

As a historian, I have to say that most of the answers to these questions are profoundly disturbing. There is a relentlessness to studying the Holocaust, a grimness. It is important to hear stories of survival, of rescue. They give us hope for the future, hope for the potential of humankind to stand for what is good. But we must also remember that these stories are exceptional stories. They are unusual stories. They are not the main story. The main story of the Holocaust is the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. About six million Jews were murdered. There were other victims targeted for destruction as well: the Roma people we often call Gypsies, people with disabilities, Polish intellectuals and clergy, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, political dissidents, and other social outcasts. The main story of the Holocaust was grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.

It was because of the rising racial and religious tension of the 1930s and the tragic events of the Holocaust that the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews (CCCJ) was established. It’s members were motivated by their religious traditions—both Jewish and Christian—to combat antisemitism, promote inter-faith dialogue, and bring together diverse ethnic groups, with the goal of eliminating prejudice.

And it is in that spirit that I want to leave you with one story—the story of some Canadians who spoke out against the injustices that led to the Holocaust.

On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazi party sponsored an orgy of violence they later called Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”). It was a pogrom—an organized attack on Jews which led to the burning and looting of hundreds of synagogues, the smashing and looting of around 7500 Jewish businesses, and the marching off of about 30,000 Jewish men to various concentration camps. It was a watershed event, after which there could be no uncertainty about the deadly intentions of the Nazi regime towards the Jews.

Although Canadian and American public opinion was not well-disposed towards Jews and there was little public will to intervene in the Jewish refugee crisis unfolding across Europe, on Sunday, November 20, 1938, just over a week after the Kristallnacht pogrom, Canadian Jews and Christians turned out en masse to condemn the Nazi government and plead the case of Jewish refugees. Through the organizational efforts of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the League of Nations Society, Jewish and Christian clergy, community leaders, and lay people came together for inter-faith prayer and protest rallies held in most of the major cities in Canada. The largest took place in Toronto, where 17,000 Jews and Christians filled Maple Leaf Gardens and 3,000 more assembled in nearby overflow meetings. As the advertisement for the Toronto gathering explained, “citizens of Toronto, of all religious denominations, will meet … to express their grief at the misfortunes which are befalling the victims of Nazi brutalities.” The event was to feature, “Prayers and liturgical renderings, messages and addresses by Church, Rabbinical, and lay leaders.”

Next morning, in The Globe and Mail, the leading Canadian daily newspaper, front-page headlines read “20,000 TOLD ALL RELIGION THREATENED” and “Toronto Rally Expresses Sympathy With German Jews, and Hears Nazis Are Danger to Church.” Readers were informed how “Jew and Gentile, rabbi and Christian minister, made common cause yesterday with nearly 20,000 Toronto citizens of both faiths in expressing sympathy with the victims of Nazi persecution in Germany.” The Toronto Star echoed this message, noting how the rally “was one of the most cosmopolitan [gatherings] Toronto has ever witnessed. Seated side by side on the platform, financier and workingman, rabbi, Protestant clergyman and Roman Catholic layman voiced heartfelt sympathy for the hundreds of thousands crushed beneath the swastika.”

While the Toronto rally was by far the largest in Canada, interfaith rallies were attended by 5,000 in Halifax, 4,500 in Montreal, 2,500 in Hamilton, 1,200 in Kitchener, and 1,700 in Vancouver. Various newspapers also reported protest meetings in Kingston, Niagara Falls, London, Kirkland Lake, Winnipeg, and Lethbridge, and The Toronto Star claimed at least 60 meetings took place across the country. Other rallies were held in Calgary and Edmonton on the following Sunday.

Allow me to read to you from the note sent from the inter-faith rally at Kirkland Lake, ON, to then Prime Minister Mackenzie King:

“Our hearts go out in prayer for the persecuted, maligned, wretched Jews in Germany, to all those who are reduced to poverty and slavery and who are driven into exile from their centuries-old homeland because of religious and racial differences. No expression of sympathy without the alleviation of suffering can suffice in this tragedy. We therefore appeal to the government of Canada and to the people of Canada, that the doors of this great freedom-loving country, which helped many exiles to find happy homes within its shores, be opened to an appreciable number of German and Jewish refugees. Let Canada be a haven of refuge to all those whose treatment is a blot on our civilization, to all those who are hunted, slaved, and morally massacred. May God help them!”

My hope tonight is that our Holocaust Remembrance Service will remind us of the value of making common cause against prejudice and injustice—that it will be an opportunity to reflect on the moral responsibilities of individuals, families, religious communities, and whole societies. May God bless us and be with us in our common endeavour.

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