CAT | Religion and The Shoah
Fern Schumer Chapman
Your entry reminds me of a line I think Jimmy Carter once said when he was president: “Corporations are only as good as the people who run them.”
Organized religion, like a corporation, is an institution. While religious institutions have a moral infrastructure, people determine the church’s or synagogue’s political positions. Therefore, even these sacred institutions are limited by human nature. As you point out in the last sentence of your most recent blog, even the best intentions can be corrupted.
Nazi Germany, recent scandals in the Catholic Church, and even the celebration of Confederate History Month in this country are reminders that we must be vigilant, carefully analyzing the forces, from religion to politics, that shape us. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s right in front of us and what will develop. And history isn’t always a reliable guide.
Often, ugly chapters of history are revised to suit political perspectives or a country’s identity. In America, for example, a huge debate ensued recently because Virginia issued a state proclamation celebrating April as Confederate History Month. The governor’s declaration honored “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens” without ever acknowledging slavery.
The governor apologized only after his own black supporters and the media pointed out the insult and pressured him to recant. But one newspaper pundit, Frank Rich of the New York Times, claimed that this was not an innocent mistake; it was part of “the long trajectory of the insidious campaign to erase slavery from the war’s history and reconfigure the lost Southern cause as a noble battle for states’ rights against an oppressive federal government.”
What actually happens is one part of the story. Who interprets the story is another.
I’m reminded of the blurb Rabbi David Wolpe wrote for my first book: “Motherland is a beautiful act of reclamation. In these gripping pages, we learn again that how we remember determines who we are.”
How we remember determines who we are.
A few days after I sent you my last page, I dreamt I was standing in a room with two other men who sat at a table. One of them made bad remarks about Protestantism. I protested and put a microphone on the table, warning him that I would record his statements, if he went on. When he did not stop his attacks, I grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, pulled him out of his chair and pushed him out of the room.
So Protestantism may be a stronger part of my identity than I have been willing to admit. On the rational level, I sympathize with the rebellious as well as the individualistic parts in its tradition, and I see it more open to other philosophical and religious discourses than Catholicism. I know that there is a strong authoritarian element in Protestantism as well (see “The White Ribbon”). And Protestants were more likely to support the Nazis than Catholics, perhaps because Protestantism was doctrinally less cohesive and had less of its own strong supranational hierarchy. And of course I am also aware of the strong anti-Semitic current in the history of Protestantism.
On the other hand, “my” Church was among the first institutions, probably the first in post-war Germany to accept and admit that it had failed and burdened itself with tremendous guilt during the Nazi era, and it demanded reconciliation with “the East” very early, which also meant accepting the territorial results of the Second World War and the losses of Germany’s Eastern provinces. (Which would appear self-evident, but wasn’t at the time.)
While I still feel connected to Protestantism, I also consider myself a religious cosmopolitan who tries to see the good and the bad in all major denominations. I do not rejoice at the current crisis of the Catholic Church, but I tend to agree with critics who now consider it a “spent force” in the developed world, because of its inability to reform. Its sclerotic male hierarchy is quickly giving away whatever credibility it may still have had, the German pope included. I have always felt that Benedict XVI represented one of Germany’s unpleasant traditions: Teutonic rigidity.
I feel much closer to core elements in the Jewish religious and cultural tradition, such as you have described them, although Jewish orthodoxy is completely alien to my way of life and thinking. (There are other reasons for my empathy with the Jewish experience, political as well as personal.) Working for a better world is part of my post-war national German identity, too.
Even this is not without risk. “Good Germans” sometimes hold arrogant “Gutmensch” positions vis-a-vis others who apparently have not seen the light yet, which can be extremely embarrassing in criticism of Israel, e.g. And, as I had to learn in my own intellectual and political development, even ideas of improving the world may subvert the best intentions and turn into a murderous ideology.
Fern Schumer Chapman
Our conversation is giving me lots to think about, too. Any belief system must be instilled in children at a young age…otherwise, it simply doesn’t take. The idea of a loving or omnipotent God is completely foreign to me, simply beyond my understanding.
Therefore, I can’t even debate his (or her) existence. I see that religion and God play an important role in other people’s lives and I do not judge them. But for me, it’s simply not part of my worldview.
After I wrote Motherland and began to fully comprehend the accumulated losses of my life – family members, personal history and family stories, religion – many people asked me if I would join a synagogue and begin to practice Judaism now. That was too much of a stretch for me. I didn’t know where to begin and I don’t think I could feel authentic as a practicing Jew.
But, as I said earlier, I define myself through other aspects of Judaism. It is unfortunate that the Holocaust is one of those aspects. Yet, given that I am the daughter of a survivor/refugee and I have told her story in two books, it would be impossible not to define myself through that experience. Unfortunately, I have suffered the emotional fallout as well since that trauma has been transmitted to me. Consequently I have had to investigate and understand the history and psychology of this legacy. I try hard to keep this part of my identity in check since I don’t want to define myself through anger and losses. But, I am aware of these forces in my life.
I also embrace Judaism’s teachings. For example, I have tried to give my children some of what I value in Jewish culture. For example, nothing was more important in my family than education – from school to music. That is true in many Jewish homes. When my husband learned to read at the age of five, his grandmother dipped her fingers in honey and touched his lips so that he would remember the sweetness of learning.
In addition, my parents taught me that I have a responsibility to leave the world a better place. My father instilled the idea that I must make some contribution, that what matters is how I live my life on earth (since Jews are primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife.) That philosophy complements the Judaic concept that we must contribute to social justice. “Tikkun olam” is a Hebrew phrase that literally means “world repair” and serves as a call to social action for Jews, to make whole what is broken. For centuries, Jewish religious leaders have emphasized this philosophy. For example, Hillel, 30 B.C.–A.D. 10, is known for the “golden rule“ handed down from generation to generation: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.“ He also said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”
So you see I have cobbled together a philosophy and an identity from loose religious principles and a fragmented past. My husband, who was raised in a more cohesive Jewish home, often assures me that my “Judaic“ worldview is just fine.
“Judaism,“ he says, “is a big tent.“
Yes, we all need to feel at home somewhere. I see differences and also similarities in our relationship to religion and culture, yet some of the similarities have different causes. My parents, who were both baptized Protestants, left their Church in the late 1930s when they became active in the Nazi youth and student movements. In their passports they had “gottgläubig” (believing in God) as entries under religion, a common practice for Nazis at the time. My mother rejoined the Christian community after the war, but she doesn’t remember the exact circumstances.
My father never went back to his Church, and he left it to his three children from his second marriage (his new wife was a Catholic) whether they wanted to become baptized as grown-ups or not. None of them did, although they attended Religious Education at school.
My mother had my brother and me were baptized when we were boys in puberty. My brother later left the Church again. I am still a paying member and still feel sentimentally attached not so much to creed or ritual practice but rather to the cultural traditions. My wife, Irene, and myself both have a strong interest in history, and religion and its cultural manifestations are such a strong part of history everywhere that we just cannot and don’t want to ignore it; quite to the contrary.
I don’t consider myself an enemy of the Churches, although I am not a true believer in the traditional sense, as I have said. In my peace research days, I actually worked more with Catholic groups and experts than with Protestants. I know that major parts of the clerical hierarchies and very many of the rank and file Christians dismally failed in the Nazi period. But there were others, true believers in the good sense of the term, who risked or even gave their lives in protest.
I have now finished Ulla Hahn’s second volume of her autobiographical novel. Her protagonist Hilla Palm was raised in a Catholic working-class family, where the conditions for a young, intelligent and rebellious girl were harsh indeed, not far from the conditions in “The White Ribbon”. But when Hilla researches the Nazi period in her family, a task given her class by her teacher, it turns out that they – as good Catholics – had been against them. The family had even taken in a foreign worker, who had been beaten up by Nazi thugs, and cared for him and saved him. This is one of the very rare moments in the book, when Hilla is really proud of her parents and feels close to them.
One day, the village priest asks her why she is no longer coming to service. The true reason is that she was raped and that she cannot understand why God should be on her side and on the side of the rapists as well. She doesn’t want to talk about the rape, though; nobody knows about it. So she says she could not understand why God had let Auschwitz happen. The priest answers that God is like a large book and that we only have a few pages of it.
That is not a bad answer, I think. And I admit that my impersonal/personal God is not without logical problems either. Can we really conceive of a God who does not judge, who has no commandments, who does not ask for ethical standards? Who offers to connect with us any time, if we want that connection and under one condition only: that we accept that he is there for everybody? Does that mean, even for Hitler? Not for his deeds, to be sure. Our conversation is giving me a lot to think about.
Fern Schumer Chapman
The practice of religion has not been much of a factor in my life; but the sense of identity that I’ve derived from religion has been important to me.
I was raised by two parents who rejected religion for different reasons. My mother, who was raised in a religious German home until she was 12, did not practice religion once she came to America for some of the reasons you identified below. (She could not understand a God who would allow the Holocaust to happen.) Yet, she maintained a connection to Judaism by not working on Jewish holidays or fasting on Yom Kippur. But she did not send her children to Hebrew school, partly because my father opposed the idea. Consequently, my brother was one of the only boys in our largely Jewish neighborhood who did not have a bar mitzvah when he turned 13.
My dad, the son of two eastern European immigrants, saw himself as an American. My paternal grandparents were right out of “Fiddler on the Roof” and my grandmother brought the old country and traditions with her. (Visiting their home was like visiting a foreign country.) Consequently, my father was raised in an Orthodox home. But as the son of an immigrant, he wanted to distance himself from their values and their world. He wanted to assimilate. In addition, he grew up and became a surgeon and a renowned researcher, who made significant contributions to medicine. He viewed himself as a scientist and a pragmatist. He simply couldn’t square his understanding of the universe through science with the leap of faith that religion required.
Despite his rejection of religion, he sprinkled Yiddish words throughout his conversations, particularly in the last years of his life. I mention that to you because even though he rejected the religion, he couldn’t reject the culture. It informed him.
I feel that way, too. I wasn’t raised with religion or a maternal family history; for a long time, I lacked a sense of my own identity. Once I wrote Motherland, I began to see the larger picture and I began to grasp the importance of that identity in my life. Even though I had little exposure to religion, Judaism deeply shaped my family through the Holocaust and through the immigrant culture. I lost much of my own identity through the Holocaust so the culture became even more important to me. I didn’t have religion, but I could understand my narrative through the ways the Holocaust was transmitted in the family and the subtle ways the Jewish culture and values defined me.
Even today, I am not religious. It is terribly challenging to begin to believe in what Jung called the “afternoon of life.” But, I am Jewish. That is something I probably wouldn’t have embraced a decade ago.
In the material which I perused for our blog about trauma, religion was mentioned as a factor which may help people get through traumatic experience. On the other hand, a trauma may also take away one of a person’s pillars in his or her life: trust in god. Where was God during the Shoah? For some atheists, who don’t need God, the issue is fairly simple: A god that allows a quarter of a million children to die like vermin cannot exist, or if he does, must not be worshiped (see Avraham Burg, The Holocaust Is Over, p. 203). If you are religious and want to relate to God or a god, things become more complicated, namely to combine comprehensibility, benevolence, and omnipotence.
Burg goes on to quote Ephraim Meir’s Memory Act: Society, Man and God After Auschwitz, a book in which Meir explains Hans Jonas’ contemplation on the meaning of God after the Shoah: “Divine intervention did not come to Auschwitz, only silence. (…) God did not intervene, not because he did not want to intervene, but because he could not. (…) The advantage of Jonas’ story is that the question ‘Where was God?’ is no longer asked. The issue is displaced to the realms of human responsibility, where man can grow towards God.”
I can sympathize with that, but I am probably more radical. Actually, I think that the concept of an “Almighty God” is the greatest possible blasphemy. On a much, much smaller but personal level: When Sonja, my first daughter, died 18 months old, a distant relation of Irene’s and a member of a Christian sect tried to console me. She suggested that God had taken her away, because she might have become a criminal. That was not only a brutal insult to plain reason – why the detour or having her at all then – and to my child (she was born with a severely damaged brain and would not have been capable of any action), but to God as well, whoever he is. (The fundamentalists in this world have even more obscene stories. I once read that God let the Holocaust happen so that the Jews could go back to Palestine!)
I do believe that there is, behind all the joys and calamities of the human world, a deep order where everything is okay, unquestionable, meaningful and without meaning at the same time. To me, the universe, creation – which are so fascinating way beyond our comprehension (what do we really know, all scientific progress notwithstanding) – are the strongest proof of something we might call God. If this sounds too impersonal, I will admit to it.
Yet for me, God is also very personal. “He” is far out there, as far as we can imagine (and who can really fathom the depth of space), but strangely enough “he” is also deep inside me. I know, whenever I need “him”, “he” will be there and on my side, in very general terms, though. That’s all he promises, nothing else, and I can talk to him anytime. (Psychologists would probably call this a nurturing introject. I don’t mind and I don’t think it is important how we try to make sense of this kind of religion.)
“He” always insists that he does not and cannot intervene in our lives or history. And he will not recommend specific action. On one other fundamental point he does insist: that he is there for everybody.