Why I teach the Holocaust in Churches

Teaching the Holocaust at the Creekwood Christian Church in Flower Mound, Texas.
Teaching the Holocaust at the Creekwood Christian Church in Flower Mound, Texas.

Holocaust education needs to be different in a church than in a synagogue.

Although we like to think of Christians and Jews as similar, there are fundamental differences in our background knowledge of and emotional connection to the basic elements of the story of the Holocaust. These fundamental differences change how the story is heard, and therefore, how the story should be told.

For example, Christians may not have the background to understand why someone would risk their lives to light a Chanukah menorah in secret in a concentration camp. They may not see why one would risk starvation by trading a precious ration of bread for paper on which to write down the High Holy Day prayers. Without the deep, emotional connection to the rituals of the holidays, the psychological impact of those acts may be lost.

Christians, on the other hand, often have a deeper connection to the liberators and to the righteous gentiles who hid Jews. Some even have family history: relatives who fought in the war, who liberated the camps. Family photos or family stories that tell of the shock and horror of that first view of the concentration camp. European Christians sometimes have stories of relatives who helped in the resistance. Or who watched, horrified, not knowing what they could do.

What we are looking for

For Jews, the goal of Holocaust education is multifaceted: to remember the lost relatives and communities, to recognize the strength of our ancestors and therefore ourselves, to learn the lessons of the history so that no one ever has to suffer such a fate again. For some Jews, another goal of Holocaust education is to try to reconcile their idea of a just and loving God with the horror of the Holocaust. One of the most common questions I get asked by Jews about the Holocaust is, “Where was God?”

In my experience, Christians do not ask this question. They ask, “Where was America? Why did we not do more?” For many Christians, the goals of Holocaust education are simpler: to understand what their ancestors could or should have done differently and how they should respond if faced with a similar situation.

Stories that speak to us

When I teach about the Holocaust in a Jewish context, especially to young people, I spend a lot of time talking about the resilience of our ancestors. I tell them stories of their ancestors continuing to celebrate their Judaism and live their lives in the face of great adversity. I tell them stories of Jews helping Jews, even at the risk of their lives.

I also tell these stories to the Christians but to them, these stories are really curiosities. In many cases, they do not really understand why. Why would someone risk everything to approach a German soldier in a camp or trade a precious ration of bread for the scrap of paper with Hebrew writing wrapping the soldier’s sandwich? And then risk discovery by holding group study sessions over what turned out to be a tiny bit of Torah scroll? Why?

The stories that speak to the Christians are the stories of righteous gentiles. The story of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds who, when required as the ranking POW at Stalag 9 to turn over all the Jewish soldiers said, “We are all Jews.” The story of Mykola and Maria Dyuk who hid Roald Hoffman and his mother in their attic for 18 months, allowing Roald to grow up and to eventually win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. The story of Raoul Wallenberg and Per Angler, Swedish diplomats who followed columns of Jews on death marches and freed people, claiming they were under Swedish protection.

Teaching them what they want to know

Christians want to understand what could have been done differently, what should have been done. For this, they need to understand the choices and motivations of all the people involved. When I teach the Holocaust to Christians and other non-Jews, I spend most of my time talking about ordinary people. For them to understand how the Holocaust happened, and how to prevent a recurrence, they need to understand just how ordinary all the people involved were.

The Holocaust was not perpetrated by evil monsters coming from the depths of hell to afflict mankind, much as it may have seemed that way. The Holocaust was perpetrated by ordinary people, people who believed they were doing what was best for their country. And the Holocaust was allowed to happen by many other ordinary people, people going about their business and deciding that what was happening to other people was not their problem.

If the Holocaust was perpetrated and tolerated by ordinary people, then it can happen again. And we all want to know how we, as ordinary people, can prevent it.

We can take our inspiration from another set of ordinary people in the Holocaust: people who decided that what was happening to other people was their problem. People from all walks of life, all faiths, and all countries stood up to help where they could.

In some cases, whole communities stood up to protect the Jews. Communities like the town of Le Chambon in France, the island of Zakynthos in Greece, and the entire country of Albania protected not only their local Jews but any Jew who came to them for help. These are the stories the Christians most want to hear. The stories that help them understand how they, as a community, can make a difference.

Why I teach the Holocaust to non-Jews

In truth, our motivation is the same as theirs. The ultimate goal of all Holocaust education is to prevent a recurrence of any sort, whether we are the target or another community is. We Jews cannot do this alone. We need the non-Jewish community to understand how such atrocities can happen, and how they can be prevented.

Most American adults know the story of the Holocaust from the liberators’ view: lines of empty-eyed, emaciated captives standing at barbed wire fences; piles of dead bodies; antisemitic Nazi propaganda. They do not know the secrets that were hidden from the Nazis. They do not know the stories of strong Jews who, in secret, held on to life and love and faith with everything that was in them. They do not know about the righteous gentiles who, in secret, hid Jews and saved their lives. If we want to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, these secrets are as important as the murdered millions.

That is why I teach the Holocaust in churches, Baha’i centers, and Hindu temples, at interfaith gatherings and community organizations, to anyone who will listen. I tell them these secrets: that evil can be resisted; that the story of the Holocaust is a story of strength and goodness as well as hatred and cruelty; that working together, we can make a difference. I teach the Holocaust to non-Jews because only by coming together as a community can we make sure it never happens again.

To learn more about teach the Holocaust to non-Jewish community organizations, see www.teachtheshoah.org/communities.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. You can sign up to hear about her new blogs at www.teachtheshoah.org/#optin.
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