Stand Together - Holocaust Memorial Day 2020
On Sunday 26 January 2020, Dr Ed Kessler gave this sermon at Brasenose College (Oxford) Holocaust Memorial Service.
Tomorrow marks Holocaust Memorial Day, which commemorates the 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews who perished between 1933-1945. When the war ended in 1945, so had a whole way of life for European Jews; their numbers were decimated – of the pre-war Jewish populations of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany and Austria, less than 10% survived; 1.1 million, mainly Jews, perished in Auschwitz alone.
The Holocaust, the Shoah a biblical word that means destruction or desolation, implemented and facilitated by people baptised as Christians, raises deeply disturbing questions about the moral and spiritual credibility of humanity.
I would like to share with you a reflection on my first and only trip to Auschwitz. I have had time to ponder on an event so traumatic that it demands theological, ethical and spiritual thought. It also connects us to the theme, standing together. Like Nehemiah castigating his people, reminding them of their responsibilities, my visit forced me to confront some of my own.
Both Judaism and Christianity are grounded in revelatory affirmations of God as the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of the world. God is revealed not only in the natural order but also through the course of history, most especially in the election and covenantal formation of Jews and Christians whose destinies are indissolubly bound to God's ongoing involvement in the world. Since God is understood as the Lord of all history, the evil as well as the good is classically attributed to the inscrutable will of the Almighty. Disasters have, traditionally, been interpreted as punishment that serve to reorient the wayward, or as the necessary birth pangs of the messianic era. The logic of this generates an untenable conclusion: if God is not the Author of the Holocaust, God at the very least shares responsibility for the tragedy.
During my stay, I wondered whether it is possible to reflect on the Holocaust as a revelatory event, to discern in it God's relationship to humanity, and humanity's response. How are we to understand God in the context of such a catastrophe? The results of such inquiry can only be tentative and as one Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, has stated there can be no understanding of the Holocaust theologically: "One does not practice Holocaust theology for there cannot be such a discipline. There is only a theology that is threatened by the Holocaust and saves its integrity by self-exposure to it."
Among the places I visited, was the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer. An encounter with its director, a friend, Father Manfred Deselers, began not with prayer or dialogue but with silence and listening. A story is told about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. What did she say to God when she prayed, she was asked. 'I don't say anything', she replied, 'I just listen.' 'And when you listen', she was asked again, 'what does God say?' 'He doesn't say anything', she replied, 'He just listens.'
When you stand in Auschwitz, however different you may be as individuals and as nations, or in our case as a German Catholic priest and an English Jewish theologian, you cannot escape the longing to recognise each other as brothers and that while words of our prayers are different, our tears and our silence are the same.
During the visit, the BBC who were producing a documentary on Radio 4, asked to record me saying the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer of mourning – whilst standing in the ruins of the gas chamber. What was left were just blocks of bricks but you could still make out the chimney stack.
I couldn't do it. Saying Kaddish, with microphones and sound crew seemed shallow and insincere.
I returned to Manfred's Centre and told him what happened, expecting sympathy for being put into this position. Instead, I received a scolding that I hadn't experienced for many years. 'Who am I,' he said, 'not to say Kaddish for the 6 million?'.
'Don't you understand', he said, 'the Kaddish is not about you, it is about those who perished. It is an exaltation of God's name in the memory of those who were murdered.'
My spiritual pride had been pricked and the next morning, with a not a little humility but also a sense of foreboding, I told the BBC producer that I would chant the Kaddish and I did.
As the survivors of the Holocaust grow older and die, the legacy of the Shoah will suffer the loss of an exceptionally powerful voice. It is vital that Christians and Jews embrace the ethical demands of remembering this painful chapter in their history. We need to share the burdens of this legacy for our spiritual and moral credibility, which is inseparable from an honest reckoning with this past.
For many theologians, myself includes, the Holocaust continues to raise questions about God's presence or absence, God's power and freedom. Perhaps we should simply concur with Elie Wiesel: God was present at Auschwitz, hanging on the gallows; or another well-known Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Hugo Gryn?
'I believe that God was there Himself,' he said, 'violated and blasphemed'. He tells how on the Day of Atonement, he fasted and hid amongst the stacks of insulation boards. He tried to remember the prayers that he had learned as a child at synagogue and asked God for forgiveness. Eventually, he says, 'I dissolved in crying. I must have sobbed for hours... Then, I seemed to be granted a curious inner peace... I believe God was also crying... I found God.' But it was not the God of his childhood, the God who he had expected miraculously to rescue the Jewish People.
Hugo Gryn found God in the camps, but God was crying.
I think God was silent as well. I will be listening carefully to God's silence tomorrow. And I will be grateful to the friendship of Fr Manfred who, like the prophet Nehemiah, reminded me of my responsibilities. And, I will say Kaddish on Holocaust Memorial Day.
Dr Ed Kessler MBE is Founder Director of the Woolf Institute.
Back to Blog