God and the Holocaust
Part 1: Where do you think God was in the Holocaust?
Faith for me is an intensely personal experience, and clearly there are many responses to the question, “Where was God in the Holocaust?”, but all I can do is tell you mine. The first time I went to Auschwitz, I was simply overwhelmed. I stood in Auschwitz- Birkenau on the train-tracks that brought Jews from all over Europe to be gassed, burned, and turned to ash. The Nazis actually endangered their own war effort in order to divert trains to this relentless evil for evil’s sake. I went through Stammlager Auschwitz, seeing the suitcases, the spectacles, the glasses, the hair, the Nazis kept everything. Everything was worth keeping except one thing, human life.
I could not believe that. They kept the suitcases, and they killed a million and a quarter people, quarter of a million children. And then I saw the photographs because in Auschwitz, the first people who were sent to Auschwitz, were photographed. Of course, they stopped that quite soon. But there were photographs of four-, five-, six-year-old children. I just broke down. I wept, and I asked myself, “God, where were You?”
And words came into my mind. I’m not claiming they were any kind of revelation, but this is what they said: “I was in the words, ‘You shall not murder.’ I was in the words, ‘You shall not oppress a stranger’. I was in the words that were said to Cain when he killed Abel, (the first murder in the Bible). ‘Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.’”
And suddenly I knew that when God speaks and human beings refuse to listen, even God is helpless in that situation. He knew that Cain was about to kill Abel, but He didn’t stop him. He knew Pharaoh was about to kill Israelite children. He didn’t stop it. God gives us freedom and never takes it back. But He tells us how to use that freedom. And when human beings refuse to listen, even God is powerless.
And then there is the second answer: This one came to me from Holocaust survivors, many of whom told me they felt that God was personally with them, giving them the strength and courage to survive. There were people who lost their faith at Auschwitz. There were people who kept their faith, and there were people who foundfaith in Auschwitz. To my mind, one of the most moving stories is the one Victor Frankl told about himself.
When he first came to Auschwitz they stripped him of everything, his clothes, his identity, and the one thing that was most precious to him, apart from his wife and family, which was the book he’d written. He said, “When they took that from me, my life was over.”
And of course, after they took their clothes, and they sent them all into a shower, and he was expecting that to be death. But he was one of the lucky ones. It was just a shower. And afterwards they gave him clothes, clothes of people who’d been killed. And he put on these clothes, and he found something in one of the pockets. He took it out, and saw that it was a scrap of paper. It had been torn from a Siddur, from a prayer book.
And it contained these words, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. “Ve’ahavtu et Hashem Elokecha…,” And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And Frankl said, “Those words transfixed me. They were saying to me, ‘Now, you must live every single thing you ever taught and practised. You must live that here, now, in Auschwitz.’”
And that gave him the courage to do what he did, which was give people the will to live. So that is where God was in the Holocaust. He was in the commands, in the sanctity of life that were so cruelly and devastatingly unheard, and in the hearts of some of the survivors who found God, giving them the strength.
Part 2: Do you have faith in humanity after the Holocaust?
After the Holocaust, I feel I must believe in God because I simply cannot believe in humanity. The Holocaust did not take place in some medieval century. The Holocaust did not take place in some benighted third world country. It took place in the very heart of Europe. It took place in the Germany of Goethe, and Schiller, and Kant, and Hegel, and Bach, and Beethoven. It took place in the country that held itself to be the most civilised in the world. In the century that was held to be the most exalted of the world.
It took place in enlightened, emancipated Europe. And don’t believe for one second that it was only Germany. If you had asked in 1900 which are the global epicentres of antisemitism, there could be only two answers. Paris, the Paris of the Dreyfus affair, and Vienna, the Vienna of the notoriously antisemitic mayor, Karl Luege.
Now Paris and Vienna were the most sophisticated cosmopolitan cities in the world, and yet they were world leaders in antisemitism. And the Holocaust was not driven, ground up by the masses. The fact is that more than 50% of doctors in Germany were members of the Nazi party. The greatest philosopher in Germany, Martin Heidegger, was an enthusiastic member of the Nazi party. The greatest legal mind in Germany, Carl Schmitt, was the legal theorist of the Nazi regime.
Jews were dismissed overnight, every single one of them from all the professions, from the courts, from the law, from medicine, from academic life, and nobody protested. And the truth is that had they protested, those protests would have been effective, because we know that actually certain doctors and certain Christian leaders protested the euthanasia programme and it was stopped. But nobody protested when Jews were simply, overnight, removed from the professions and declared to be, in effect, subhuman.
Now, these were the leading minds in Germany. The Wannsee Conference in January 1942, which resolved on Der Endlösung, the Final Solution… More than half of the people sitting around the table were doctors. They were either medical doctors, or people with doctorates and they were the ones who decided on the Vernichtung, the extermination of all 11 million of Europe’s Jews. That was the plan, that Europe as a whole should be Judenrein, free of Jews.
Now, I don’t know anyone who can have faith in humanity after that. It is shattering and shocking, and therefore I feel we have to have faith in the one Being who has lifted humanity towards the angels, and away from the demons. And that is God. For me, belief in God after the Holocaust is difficult, but necessary.
Part 3: Does God care about individual lives, or did He only ensure the Jewish people as a nation weren’t entirely destroyed?
We believe that God endowed His image and likeness on every single human being. Therefore, every single human being counts, matters, has dignity, is sacred. Every human being is unique. Even identical twins only share 50% of their characteristics. Therefore, no human being is substitutable for any other. God cares about us as individuals, and not as a totality, a class, or a group. That is what makes the Holocaust so unbearable to think about. The Sages said that every life is like a universe, and we as a people lost 6 million universes. Humanity as a whole lost, in the 20th century, over a 100 million universes as a result of man’s brutality against man. Every one of us counts.
- If God can be helpless, how does that effect our concept of what God is?
- If God is in the people, how do some seem so ready to ignore Him?
- Is it possible to have faith in humanity?
- Do you believe that belief in God, after the Holocaust, is necessary? Why?
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Death Camp the Nazis built. Initially opened in 1940 as a concentration camp with mostly Polish and Soviet inmates, in 1942 it incorporated a Death Camp where, as well putting people to forced labour, it became one of the primary sites for the murder of Europe’s Jewish population. By the time it had been liberated on 27th January 1945, approximately 1.1 million people had been murdered in the Gas Chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau with approximately 900,000 of these people being Jews, murdered for nothing other than their ‘race’.
On arrival, inmates would have their possessions taken from them. These would be sorted and used by the Nazis – for example, clothes returned to Germany for distribution to families, gold melted down and handed to the Reichsbank.
In the exhibition at the Auschwitz State Museum you can see hundreds of pictures taken of prisoners, wearing the now infamous striped uniforms. In nearly all cases, these people were Polish inmates who had been sent to Auschwitz as a result of them being ‘in the way’ or as part of the Nazis programme of removing Poles from their homes in order to settle German nationals into occupied territories.
As Rabbi Sacks mentions, Jews of all traditions and none were brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau, or murdered in other places during the Holocaust more broadly. In the Nazi world view, ‘Jewishness’ did not relate to religion, culture, nationality or any other characteristics. They saw Jews as a separate ‘race’, ignoring the fact that there is only one human race and instead creating a hierarchy at which Jews were placed at the bottom as ‘untermenschen’ or ‘sub-human’. As such, even Jews who did not practice any faith, and even those who had converted to other faiths were persecuted and murdered. There was no recourse they could take to avoid this fate (unlike, for instance, a Jehovah’s Witness, who may renounce their faith to avoid further persecution) since the Nazi racial ideology saw Jews as all the same, and conclusively ‘different’.
Rabbi Sacks tells a story about a survivor called Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, explores his life in Auschwitz and how he survived and helped others through that terrible time.
Rabbi Sacks refers to the Holocaust happening in the context of ‘The Enlightenment’. This term refers to a period in history also known as the ‘age of reason’ where theory and thought around philosophy, politics and science, which had been the realm of religion (more specifically the Church), were radically reoriented to reflect scientific thinking, evidence and logic. This promoted ideas of liberty, tolerance, progress, community and the separation of Church and State. In the context of a continent changed by liberal thinking and values it may seem all the more unfathomable that an event such as the Holocaust could have occurred.
Whilst Paris and Vienna were the centre of antisemitic thinking and rhetoric, they were not the only locations where it reared its ugly face. All across Eastern Europe antisemitic behaviour was not uncommon and in the late 19th century, murderous Pogroms against the Jews were perpetrated.
Having been appointed Chancellor of Germany on 30th January 1933, Adolf Hitler quickly set about segregating society and isolating Jews. Multiple laws were passed to prevent Jews from continuing in many of their chosen professions including teachers (in non-Jewish schools), doctors, journalists, lawyers, civil servants and others.
The ‘Euthanasia Programme’ also known as ‘Aktion T4’ (based on the address Tiergartensraβe 4, where the programme was organised from) was a policy carried out by the Nazis to murder people with physical or mental disabilities by involuntary euthanasia. From September 1939 it was carried out secretively, but when the public heard about it there were protests which drove the Nazis to temporarily halt the programme. It was later continued secretly. By 1945 some 275 – 300,000 people were murdered in psychiatric hospital across Germany and Austria.