Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Remembering Who—and What—the Nazis Sought to Destroy

As we remember the great Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died yesterday at the age of 96, I would like to recommend the late Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher's essay "Auschwitz, the Christian, and the Council," especially this excerpt:

In 1938, I saw a photograph of the entrance to a German village that, like many others, had -- instead of the customary road sign or invitation to strangers -- a notice forbidding access to Jews: "Jews are not welcome here!" This dismal board was bad enough in itself. It may be that the village president had been told by higher authorities to erect the warning at the village gate, but certainly no one had commanded him to plant it next to -- a wayside cross. Obviously, neither he nor the other villagers were aware of the abysmal irony of this juxtaposition. Here hung the Crucified -- "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," the inscription above His head proclaimed --, imploring with arms wide open: "Come to me, all of you who labor and are burdened. I will give you relief" (Mt 11:28).There was the rejection, directed not only at Jewish passers-by but also at Him who, one might have thought, had found a lasting abode in the hearts of many villagers.

We must not read too much into a story like this. Yet, it shows how little the National-Socialist revolution was understood in those days. It shows how few realized that, to the masters of the Third Reich, Synagogue and Church were one and the same enemy. The really "final solution of the Jewish problem" was to be the doing away of the entire biblical heritage, of gospel and Church, of grace and mercy; the physical slaughter of the Jewish people was only a giant step toward this goal. To put it differently, Jews were made to "pay" for having been the instruments of God's revelation, Is it not appalling that rancor against salvation history should have made Adolf Hitler, Alfred Rosenberg and the rest pierce two thousand years of conflict between Christians and Jews, years of mutual recrimination and bitter hostility, to see their solidarity when, even today, there are still Christians as well as Jews who do not think or feel in terms of their common brotherhood? An inner mutual bond like this is not of our making, nor is it left to our choice. It exists whether we like it or not. For our own good, however, we had better like it.

I can understand that Jews find no comfort in the thought that the Nazis held them responsible for the coming of Christ, that the victims of Auschwitz were, therefore, unwitting martyrs for His sake. For centuries, they had been pursued as Christ-killers. Suddenly, they were attacked as Christ-bearers. Here is an antithesis, an irony a Jew cannot but find hard to take. It may even be offensive to him to think of his kinsmen tortured by the Nazis as forced witnesses to Jesus. A Christian, however, should go down on his knees. The thought that Jews were made to bear the Christian's burden should shake him into the realization of a kinship he has too long forgotten.