Auschwitz: the triumph of evil in a society without God - Remi Hoeckman
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Remi Hoeckman

This millennium is on the verge of ending, but the memory of Auschwitz will never end. The memory of that reality which was absolutely nefarious, absolutely savage and in many singular aspects, and it scared this century for ever - the Holocaust, the systematic killing on the part of the Nazis of some six million Jews, men, women and children for whom Auschwitz became the tragic emblem - it must not end. «Many cried, then, and still today we hear the echo of their lament» said John Paul II to hundreds of people, Christians and Jews, including the survivors of the Holocaust, who were in the Vatican on April 7, 1994 «but their seed will not die with them. It will rise up powerful, agonizingly, it goes straight to the heart and says: "Don't forget us!"». We must really remember. It is necessary to remember. «But remembering is not enough», the Holy Father strongly affirmed. The end of this century, of this millennium must coincide with the end of Anti-Judaism, of the contempt that the Christians had for the Jews and for Judaism, with the end of anti-Semitism, of racial hate, sins against God and humanity which have afflicted history for a long time and contributed to create an atmosphere in which the holocaust - whose enormity and terror seem impossible to perceive - became possible. The beginning of a new century, of a new millennium, must signal the end of a long period on which we must not tire ourselves with reflection in order to extract the just conclusions. «Because in our time, deplorably, there still exist many new manifestations of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racial hate which were the seeds of those unnamable crimes. Humanity can not allow for all this to happen again. For this reason we remember Auschwitz». Auschwitz opened «our eyes», said the Pope in the course of his encounter with the representatives of the Episcopal Conferences on March 6, 1982, and it is the firm purpose of the Church, expressed in the Post-Council documents as well as in the teachings of the Pope - "through my person" just as the Holy Father emphasized in his address to the Jewish community in the Roman Synagogue - that keeping the memory alive, can open the eyes of everyone and of anyone, anywhere, to ensure that evil will not prevail over good just as happened at Auschwitz. In fact, the Holocaust and Auschwitz (and all the other names of the concentration camps which recall the memory of the cruelty perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War) have become a sort of an archtypical metaphor of the triumph of evil on a large scale.

With regards to the question of anti-Judaism (with its religious connotations) and of anti-Semitism (in its complexity and ambiguity) and the relations between what Jules Isaac described as "the teaching of the contempt" on the part of the Christians and the Holocaust, some authors have compiled an attempt to trace a straight and unbroken line which starts from the Christian teaching to the gas chambers at Auschwitz (1).

But these attempts have been denied by many historians, who affirm, like the famous Jew Yosef Yerushalmi: «There is no other question if not that Christian anti-Semitism throughout the various eras contributed to create the climate and the mentality in which the genocide, once conceived, could be carried out with scarce or no opposition. But even if we admit that the Christian teaching was without doubt one of the causes which lead to the Holocaust, it certainly was not the only one [...]. The Holocaust was the work of a State exclusively modern, neopagan (secularized)»(2). And Roland Modras comments «Like Yerushalmi, the scholars who wrote on the subject generally found themselves in agreement on the fact that there is a substantial difference between Christian anti-Judaism and racist anti-Semitism, that something new entered in the socio-historic sphere which rendered the Holocaust possible in our century, which could not even have been conceivable in the Christian Middle Ages. Here I refer to something which goes beyond modern technology and bureaucratic efficiency which rendered the Holocaust technically attainable. Modernity also corroded the traditional religious ties which influenced the human behavior and gave free reign to the uncontrollable ideologies which were not just anti-Jewish and anti-Christian, but were openly pagan. [CS1] [CS2](3). Thus, for the same reason that anti-Judaism and still more, anti-Semitism found a place in the thought and in the practice of many Christians in the course of history invites an act of contrition.

The Holy Father repeatedly insisted on this, and a Jew, Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, helps us to dig deep in its meaning. "The true meaning of repentance (Teshuva)" he said at the Eisenach Conference in 1993, "must not be achieved with a feeling of guilt, but it is necessary to learn from the experience and transform errors and transgressions in the passion for a new future».

Rabbi Irving Greenberg finds the "something new," of which Modras also speaks, in the same secularity when society is deprived of the respect of God for man(4). «In other words - Ronald Modras opportunity observes - there is a discontinuation between Christian anti-Judaism and Nazi racism which rendered the Holocaust possible, a discontinuation which passed completely unobserved and unexplored when both were classified with the same denomination of "anti-Semitism". Therefore we must go beyond these questions. In the words of John Paul II, "we must remember, but remembering is not enough". "We have a commitment [...]. We must redouble our efforts to liberate man from the spectrum of racism, from exclusion, from alienation, from the slavery and from xenophobia, to eliminate these evils which proceed in our society [...]. Evil always appears under new forms [...]. It is our duty to unmask its dangerous power and neutralize it with the help of God"»(5).

To unmask evil means to go to its roots. «Identify it and denounce the manifestations of evil, and be united against it, it is a noble act and it is a test of our reciprocal fraternal commitment», the Holy Father said to the Executive Committee of the International Council of Christians and Jews on July 6, 1984, «but it is necessary to go to the roots of that evil». And he emphasized the important role of education towards that end. In fact, all this would not be sufficient if it was not accompanied by a profound change in our hearts, of an authentic spiritual conversion, since «the ultimate source of violence is the corruption of the human heart», he said to a group of young Christians and Jews who visited the Vatican on July 2, 1993, and this corruption of the human heart is a consequence of the absence of faith in God. In fact, «the reflection on the Holocaust shows us to what terrible consequence the lack of faith in God and the contempt for man created in his image and likeness can bring», the Pope wrote in a letter for the then President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the US on August 8, 1987. «In front of these risks which also threaten the sons and daughters of this generation, Christians and Jews together have a lot to offer to a world which fights to distinguish the evil from the good, a world wanted by the Creator to defend and protect life, but so vulnerable to the voices which diffuse values which only bring to death and destruction»(6).

The words of the Holy Father remind us of the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel who said: «not one of us can do it on his own». Today, between Jews and Christians things are changing. The reciprocal stereotypes, the prejudices and the caricatures have slowly gone and disappeared. A new spirit is permeating our relations. As was established in the course of the International Catholic Jewish Liaison Committee gathered in Prague in 1990, good will and common objectives are taking the place of suspicions, resentments and indifference. This new spirit must now manifest itself in the work which our two communities of faith could accomplish together to answer to the needs of the world of today. This should be the "order of the day." After two millennia of distance and hostility, Christians and Jews have the sacrosanct duty to create an authentic culture of esteem and of reciprocal attention, so that our dialogue can become a sign of hope and of inspiration for the outer religions, races and ethnic groups to abandon the contempt towards the realization of an authentic human fraternity. As John Paul II wrote in his message to the people of his native Poland on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the revolt of the ghetto of Warsaw, «As Christians and Jews, following the example of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the entire world. This is the common duty which awaits us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be in the first place a "blessing" one for the other».

It is true to affirm that the Christians, and in a particular way, the Catholics, are well aware of our obligations to history and the challenges which we still have to face to heal the deep wounds of the past. We must also go further than the dream of a simple and peaceful coexistence between Christians and Jews, which is always fragile especially in times of crisis, to build something more solid, but not just for the aim of bettering our relations, but in this way to contribute to the well-being of the world in which we live and in the regards of - as much as for Jews than as for Christians who are convinced - we have a particular responsibility given to us by God himself. It is evident that the role of education for both, Christians and Jews, is of vital importance in this process. There, where the Catholic Church is involved, the intuition, the discovery and the vision of the Second Vatican Council(7) found a positive reply in our communities. They put up to inspection the wrong approaches, mentalities or attitudes and principles which were forgotten or hidden. They produced directives for a change and made available suggestions to put into act. The objective now is to render the contents of those principles and of those directives of the teaching of the Church truly effective by means of education, of a wider community and therefore, in the first place are educators of those communities, for example our theologians and priests, teachers and catechists. The tremendous need to go forward and develop the work already started for the building of "bridges" of respect and of reciprocal comprehension between our two communities, both which God loves, for the good of humanity, is today evident.

«Re-evoking the memory of Auschwitz, the memory of the triumph of evil, cannot but fill us with profound pain," reflected the Holy Father before the Angelus prayer on January 29, 1995. "Unfortunately, yet, our days continue to be signaled by great violence. God, will not allow us to shed tears for other Auschwitz of our time».


1) John Paul II during a visit to the Synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1994.

2 )from: Eva Fleischner (ed.) Auschwitz :Beginning of a New Era? New York 1997, by Ronald Modras, Christian Anti-Semitism and Auschwitz : some reflections on Responsibility in "New Theology Review," Volume 10, Number 3, August 1997, pp.58-71.

3) Ibid.

4) Auschwitz : Beginning of a New Era? op.cit.

5) John Paul II on April 7, 1994.

6) Ibid.

7) cfr. Nostrae Aetate, 4.