Thou Shall Not Be Indifferent
January 22, 2024
“Thou Shall Not Be Indifferent”
Remembering the Liberation of Auschwitz, January 27, 1945
January 27, 2024, marks the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of six Nazi killing centers in Poland during the Second World War. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, few envisioned his passion for Aryan supremacy would also result in the extermination of over six million Jews and others he deemed less than human. Nor could one forsee the relative silence of the Christian church writ large or its complicity in the ideology that fueled the Holocaust, or Shoah, the great disaster. In the words of Baal Shem Tov cited at the exit of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” The Holocaust is both history and a warning. In the wake of all that Auschwitz represents, what must the individual and the church remember and do differently going forward? In his 2020 speech marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation, Marian Turski, a living survivor evacuated from Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945, provides a compelling response: “Thou Shall Not Be Indifferent.”
Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany and Robert Erickson’s Theologians Under Hitler describe how the Deutsche Christen Church abandoned the church’s Gospel-centered teachings and embraced Hitler’s racist social-Darwinism. Their motive rested largely in securing a place in the dictator’s new Germany, a thousand-year Reich of unsurpassed greatness after its defeat in World War I. They followed Hitler in his hatred of Judaism’s foundational ethic of mercy and care for the poor which he found not only weak but unnatural. Such an ethic of communal care was not “manly enough” and antithetical to the ideas of an Aryan super-race. Not only Judaism, but Communism, traditional Christianity and other ideologies that interfered with the proliferation of Aryan supremacy were unfit for existence in the Third Reich.
The Deutsche Christen demonstrated their nationalism enthusiastically by conflating the cross of Christ with the mystical rise of Hitler as a messiah by draping the “swastika in the cross” Nazi flag over their pulpits. The Nazified church further stoked hatred of the Jews through eschewing texts and liturgies of Hebrew heritage and refashioning Jesus as the ideal Aryan. Those few pastors concerned about the wellbeing of Jewish converts to Christianity were unable to protect them from roundups, deportations, and finally extermination. It was too late.
The Confessing Church denounced the Nazification of Christian doctrines in the Barmen Declaration (1934) but not in time to avert the eventual extermination of Jewish men, women, and children. Gerhard Kittle, the well-known theologian and author of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, became part of Hitler’s research section how to eliminate all Jews from Europe (some 11 million in total). Vatican attempts at peaceful coexistence with Nazi Germany, from the Concordat in 1933 through the policies of Pope Pius XII, failed. Only the Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox people, courageously and prophetically denounced the virulence of Nazi policies and encouraged his congregants to do whatever they could to save Greek Jews. As a result, thousands of Greek Jews were saved.
Moreover, while Hitler and his leaders (Himmler, Göring, Goebbels, and Heydrich) provided the ideological scaffolding for the extermination of Jewry, much of the everyday machinery of that process—dehumanizing one’s neighbors, facilitating roundups, public violence, operating the trains to the killing centers, and beyond—was carried out by otherwise ordinary people. Christopher Browning’s analysis in his book Ordinary Men discusses how and why everyday policeman, law enforcement personnel, civil servants, and prisoners of occupied territories carried out the daily actions of genocide: survival and the lure of Nazi ideals of power and supremacy. New Yorker journalist Hannah Arendt, herself Jewish, German, and a student of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, coined the term “banality of evil” in her report Eichmann in Jerusalem to capture the unspeakable evil carried out by ordinary people who justified their actions by claiming they were simply “following orders.” Arendt argues the most virulent evil is often perpetrated by those who fail to think critically about what they are doing thus acting with indifference towards others.
A visit to the “work-to-death” concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria illuminates the depths of indifference. Standing at the entrance of Mauthausen, one sees clearly the soccer field where sports fans cheered for their teams on Sundays while prisoners passed by to their deaths. In the center of Warsaw, one witnesses where the public would have seen hundreds of Jews loaded onto cattle cars to be transported to their deaths in Treblinka. Jonathan Glazier’s chilling new film The Zone of Interest (theatrical release in New York on December 15, 2023) depicts the family life of S.S Officer Rudolf Höss, the Chief Commandant of the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Höss‘s wife, Hedwig, beautifies her home, organizes children’s activities, and frets over the condition of her vegetable garden. Meanwhile her husband carries out the systematic murder of over a million innocent Jewish men, women, children—just over the fence. Her distress is not for the victims. It is that her husband may be relocated to another camp thus disrupting the sort-of-idyllic life she has carved out for the family at Auschwitz.
How does one counter such indifference? How does one recognize when history may be on its way to repeating itself? Clearly the social, political, religious, and economic factors that underly any genocide are complex. However, Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch proposes ten recognizable signs: classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination, denial. These stages are displayed at Holocaust and Genocide museums and centers across the United States to educate visitors on how to recognize and counter such indifference early on. The first four stages constitute “systematic othering,” the critical start of a processes whereby those in power normalize discrimination against a target population. Classification and symbolization take many forms including hate speech by prominent public figures and the use of educational curricula, media, religious dogma, and/or economic policies to mark a group of people as undesirable because of who they are. Once in place, discrimination and dehumanization easily follow.
Stanton’s path illuminates the early groundwork for systematic othering. Propaganda appeared in newspapers such as Julius Steicher’s Der Stürmer as well as children’s books to classify Jews as “vermin,” carriers of disease, not fully human, and responsible for poisoning the purity of German blood. Such propaganda also coheres with anti-Jewish rhetoric in the American publication The International Jew in the 1920s (The Dearborn Independent newspaper owned by Henry Ford). Books by Jewish authors were marked for Nazi inspired book-burnings starting in 1933. The Nuremburg Laws codifying Jewishness followed in 1935 and accelerated the separation of Jews from professions, academic institutions, social organizations, municipal transportation and public events (segregation was also influenced by racism in America as outlined in James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model). A government sanctioned night of violence against Jewish establishments (Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass) followed and destroyed more than 7500 synagogues and businesses in November 1938. Wearing the symbol of the yellow star, marking of passports with a “J,” and altering Jewish names (adding “Israel” for men, and “Sara” for women) became compulsory for all Jewish people in 1939.
This first period of normalizing hatred of Jews made possible the extermination in German occupied areas from 1939-1945: the mass shooting over pits (e.g. Babi Yar), the Jewish ghettos, gassing in mobile vans throughout Eastern Europe, and finally the network of concentration camps and six industrial scale killing centers in Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Throughout, the church, both Protestant and Catholic, for all practical purposes (and self-protection) remained virtually silent.
The history of the Holocaust reminds that vigilance, not indifference, plays a critical role in identifying systematic othering that leads to humanitarian disasters. Today, what groups are being singled out, classified and marked for discriminatory practices? What groups are being dehumanizing by the hate speech of prominent public figures? What proposed policies make the news that benefit one group of people at the expense of another? Are there religious “firmly held beliefs and practices” that deny their right to “be” in the world as they are? In one’s circle of influence, who is it socially acceptable to joke about in a disparaging way or socially disenfranchise?
If individuals and churches recognize and courageously speak out against the systematic classification and marking of target populations, there is hope of stopping an eventual spread of injustice on a massive scale. If individuals, organizations, and especially the church learn from history and speak out when public figures demean target groups through hate speech there is a chance of arresting the dehumanizing behaviors that follow. One cannot justify social, economic, political, or religious practices that shame or diminish others, no matter how fervently held the reasons might be. The events of the Holocaust remind us of what ordinary human beings are capable of, and how a society, even the church, goes terribly wrong when the Gospel mandate for justice, mercy, and love is abandoned, perverted, or falls silent.
The mantra in genocide and Holocaust education is “if it happened once, it could happen again.” There is hope in the face of humanitarian threats when the church faithfully stands on the core ethic of both Old and New Testaments: to love our neighbors who are like us in our humanity, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. Marian Turski comes alongside the church’s prophetic call to justice as he closes his speech at the 75th remembrance of the liberation of Auschwitz:
“If I had to choose from among all the experiences, all the lessons, and all the words that describe them, just one or two, I would choose the following: empathy and compassion. These are the most important things in life.”
Thou shall not be indifferent.
–Rev. Charles M. Rix, Ph.D.
Director of M.A. in Theological Studies & Ministry Studies Programs
Resources for Further Reading and Study
Ambrosewicz, Jolanta, ed. The Holocaust: Voices of Scholars. Krakow: Austeria Publishing, 2009.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
Ericksen, Robert. Theologians Under Hitler. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Follmer, Moritz. Culture in the Third Reich. Translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Glazer, Jonathan, dir. The Zone of Interest. James Wilson and Ewa Puszczynska prod. Film 4, Access, Polish Film Institute, JW Films, Extreme Emotions. New York Theatrical Release, 2023.
Heschel, Susannah. The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Karwowska, Bozena, and Anja Nowak. The More I Know The Less I Understand: Young Researchers’ Essays on Witnessing Auschwitz. Oswiecim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2021.
Lanzmann, Claude, dir. Shoah. IFC Films. 2013. Criterion Collection, DVD.
Paldiel, Mordecai. The Churches and the Holocaust: Unholy Teaching, Good Samaritans and Reconciliation. Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2006.
Rix, Charles. “For the End of Time,” in The Bible, The Shoah, and the Art of Samuel Bak. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008.
Sanchez, Jose M. Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002.
Snyder, Timothy. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Dugan Books, 2015.
Whitman, James. Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Turski, Marian. Thou Shall Not Be Indifferent. Warsaw, POLIN: Wydawnichtwo Cazrne, 2023.