The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Gabriel Wilensky

From Egypt to Treblinka

By Gabriel Wilensky, author of the book, Gabriel Wilensky's "Six Million Crucifixions: How Christian Teachings About Jews Paved the Road to the Holocaust. "

These days Jews around the world not only celebrate their liberation from the ancient Egyptian yoke, they also celebrate Iom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date was chosen to commemorate the revolt at the Warsaw Ghetto, an event in which -just like in the past- a handful of Jews dared confront the all-powerful pharaoh. But the story of our brothers in the ghetto did not have a happy ending: neither did the Red Sea open so that the pursued could escape, nor were their enemies smitten by divine hand. Instead, the few survivors from the hell that was the ghetto ended their lives in the vortex of death that was Treblinka.

The Warsaw Ghetto was one of the many ghettos the Germans established in various European cities. The ghettos were created with the sole purpose of keeping the Jewish population locked in to prevent them from having contact with their Christian neighbors. The Germans forced hundreds of thousands of Jews to live packed in these places that would have normally held a tenth of the population. The Jews from the ghetto, as well as those that still lived "free" in other cities, were forced to sew a yellow Star of David on their clothes so that the Christians could clearly identify them. The draconian anti-Jewish laws the Germans promulgated in 1935, followed by similar ones in Italy in 1938 and then in France, Slovakia, Hungary and other countries, prevented the Jews from having sexual contact with Christians, from holding public office or academic positions, from working in professions such as law or medicine as well as many other restrictions, including loss of citizenship. These laws constituted grave human rights violations and were the first steps in a gradual process of dehumanization of the Jews that made the subsequent genocide possible.

Where did the Germans get all these ideas? Which Machiavellian functionary thought of this? When the Nazis came to power in 1933 they discovered they did not need to invent almost anything in their persecution of the Jews, because the Catholic Church had invented practically everything hundreds of years before. The yellow badge in the garments, the prohibition to hold public office, the prohibition to have Christian employees, the burning of the Talmud, the prohibition of living next to Christians, the prohibition from belonging to guilds or work in industry, the ghettos, all these violations to basic human rights of Jews that we associate with the legislation of the Nazi tyranny was promulgated by the Catholic Church between 400 and 700 years before the Nazis. During almost two millennia Christians learned that Christianity had replaced Judaism, and that Jews were evil, bent on the destruction of Christianity and that they were killers of Jesus.

We should not be very surprised then that when Hitler came to power he found that the population -like him- already deeply hated Jews. That hatred had been planted and cultivated by Christianity since practically the beginning of the Christian movement in the first century of the Common Era. A verbal hatred that began as an intra-Jewish fraternal fight, with time and the distancing of the Early Christians from mainstream Judaism (as Christianity gained traction among the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire) it transformed itself in violent, visceral and irrational hatred. The Christian movement accused Jews of killing Jesus and of rejecting his messianic mission. As a consequence, the Early Christians developed the concept of supersessionism in which Judaism was relegated to second plane as Christianity was replacing it. Christians believed at this time that God considered Christians the "New Israel" and the new "Chosen People." They began calling the Christian Bible the "New" Testament and the Hebrew Bible the "Old" Testament, once again suggesting that the Jewish religion had become superfluous. Despite oppression and hardship however, the Jews did not disappear. That and that they refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah led to an increase of Christian hatred toward Jews. The Church Fathers, whose writings make up the foundation of Christianity as we know it today, wrote things comparable to the things the Nazis wrote about Jews. As St. Ambrose, known as the "Bishop with the Golden Tongue" said in 374 CE,

"The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ. They worship the Devil. Their religion is a sickness. The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance, and the Jew must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews. It is essential that all Christians hate them."[1]

Saint John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch, was not that much better just a few years later:

"Where Christ-killers gather, the cross is ridiculed, God blasphemed, the father unacknowledged, the son insulted, the grace of the Spirit rejected. . . . If the Jewish rites are holy and venerable, our way of life must be false. But if our way is true, as indeed it is, theirs is fraudulent. I am not speaking of the Scriptures. Far from it! For they lead one to Christ. I am speaking of their present impiety and madness."[2]

During the Middle Ages Christians began associating Jews with the Devil. This association was a natural one to make for a population already used to reading in the Gospels things like "You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire." Christian thinkers asked themselves what kind of creature would reject the Truth and kill God, and concluded that only an inhuman agent of Satan could act that way. The descending spiral led the Christian people of Europe, most of whom had never even seen a Jew, to form a fantastic conception of them that had no basis in reality.

The French Revolution brought about the Emancipation of the Jews, who quickly left the ghettos and in large part assimilated to the Christian population of the cities to which they moved. The Enlightenment transformed the Christian theological anti-Judaism into something modern, secular and pseudo-scientific, sine qua non prerequisites for a population that was rapidly adopting a modern worldview detached from the yoke of their religion. It's in these cultural surroundings that antisemitism was transformed into something racial, and it's in the 19th and 20th centuries that the old accusations of deicide, of poisoning wells, of bringing about the Black Death, of killing Christian boys to extract their blood to make matzah and many other baseless accusations were transformed into modern accusations in which Jews were blamed for Germany losing WWI, of creating and fomenting revolutions, of modernism, of Capitalism, of Communism, of inflation, of unemployment, and many more.

The Nazis inherited this conception of the Jew. Hitler was raised as a Catholic and imbibed the traditional anti-Jewish teachings in Christianity, and he took maximum advantage of them to promote his agenda. As he told two German Catholic bishops in 1933:

"The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them into ghettos, etc., because it recognized the Jews for what they were. . . . I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented. . . . I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the church and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service for pushing them out of schools and public functions."[3]

Works Cited

1. Runes, Dagobert David, "The Jew and the Cross," p. 61. New York: Philosophical Library, 1965
2. Quoted in Goldhagen , Daniel J., "Hitler's Willing Executioners," p. 50. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1996
3. "Akten deutscher Bischöfe," vol. 1, pp. 100-102. Quoted in Friedländer, Saul, "Nazi Germany  and the Jews," p. 47. New York: HarperCollins, 1997

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