Lea Spiro, a Holocaust survivor now living in Los Angeles, still remembers the taunts of Christian children when she was growing up in the 1930s in Radom, Poland.
"You could play with the kids in the courtyard, and all of a sudden they would say, 'Hey, you're a Jew, you killed Jesus,' " she said. From the taunts of children to the forced wearing of a star of David to five concentration camps, she told of the tightening net of isolation with the onslaught of Nazi Germany.
The taunts of children came from erroneous theology. But, according to theologians examining the Holocaust, such theology was taught for centuries in churches around the world, leading to pogroms, to persecution, and finally to the climate permitting Hitler's plan to kill the worldwide Jewish population.
Spiro was one of more than 10,000 survivors who came to the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors this week in Washington. Six million Jews--one third the world's Jewish population--perished in the Holocaust.
For Jews, the establishment and support of the state of Israel is one outcome of the Holocaust. Another is reexamination of Jewish theology and Jewish identity. Christians, meanwhile, are sorting through centuries of church-promoted anti-Semitism, trying to eliminate anti-Semitic teachings, and revising concepts of Christianity in relation to Judaism.
The Rev. Dr. Franklin Littell, founder of the Philadelphia-based National Institute on the Holocaust and a professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, said the Holocaust leads to a "credibility crisis" for both the modern university, which produced "technically competent barbarians," and Christianity. "This monstrous crime was committed by baptized Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, none of them rebuked, let alone excommunicated."
"One cannot escape the implications of the Christian responsibility, because Christians have taught for centuries, and preached, contempt for the Jewish people," said Littell, a United Methodist minister.
"The question also arises, why didn't Christians help the Jews more than they did? How did a terrorist movement like the German Nazi power come to power with the kind of ideology it was proclaiming without church leaders digging in and preaching against it ever coming to power?
"It was all there in perfectly clear writing in the party platform and in Hitler's 'Mein Kampf'. Some were afraid that the communists were going to take over Europe. Some were such fanatical patriots they would have supported the devil himself if he were German, and he was. And a good many of them were just naturally compromisers and accommodators, bureaucrats."
The Rev. Dr. John T. Pawlikowski, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said that "traditional, primarily Christian anti-Semitism served as an indispensable seed bed for the popular acceptance of the Nazi genocidal plan."
Faulty theology included the charge that Jews killed Jesus and the perpetual wandering concept, which said Jews were to roam the world without a state of their own as a sign of punishment for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, he said. There also were the fables: in the Catholic Church, there was the "blood libel charge" from the Middle Ages, that Jews killed Christian children and drank the blood during a seder. There are probably some who "still believe it," Pawlikowski said.
Lay Catholic Holocaust scholar Harry Cargas, professor of literature and language at Webster University at St. Louis and author of "A Christian Response to the Holocaust," called the Holocaust "the greatest Christian tragedy since the crucifixion . . . . "
"In history," he said, "we had ghettoization of Jews, expulsion from nations, the Inquisition . . . . Then it turned from theological anti-Semitism to racial anti-Semitism. That started in the 19th century.
"Hitler didn't just happen on the scene. He did what he did only because it was possible to do. In the middle 1930s, Hitler embarked on a 'euthanasia' campaign, killing the feeble, mentally unproductive, the aged. He killed about 50,000 people. The Christian churches spoke out, and Hitler abandoned the euthanasia program. What would have happened if there had been a Papal encyclical for the Jews? There's reason to believe it would have saved millions of lives."
Pope Pius XII was "silent," he charged.
"The annihilations went on, with impunity," Cargas said. Heinrich Himmler, "who insisted that members of the SS must believe in God, could thus, unchallenged by serious moral attacks, speak of the honor and decency of the work of slaughter: 'We can say that we have performed this task in love of our people. And we have suffered no damage from it in our inner self, in our soul, in our character,' " he said.
Among Cargas' suggestions are that the Catholic Church excommunicate Hitler, that the Christian liturgical calendars include an annual memorial service for Jewish victims of the Holocaust, that the Christian churches insist on the essential Jewishness of Christianity, and that the Christian emphasis on missionizing be "redirected toward perfecting individual Christian lives" instead.
Jews who tried to escape the Holocaust when it was still possible were turned away by many safe countries, including the United States.
The support of Israel as refuge is one result. The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel "mirror each other," said Rabbi Daniel Landes in the book of essays "Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust."
"As the Holocaust can be understood as Jewish powerlessness and victimization, Israel is the expression of Jewish power and self-determination," said Landes, director of research projects at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
"We lost 80 percent of all the rabbis, scholars, artists, poets, historians," said Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. "The Jewish people learned the perils of powerlessness and homelessness, and that's the reason for our deep commitment to Israel.
The Holocaust raises "questions about God, with the simple question, where was God during the Holocaust; about the nature of man, and about the nature of the people of Israel," said Rabbi Seymour Siegel, executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
One answer is that "evil in the world like the Holocaust is not created by God but is created by man," he said. "The evil of the Holocaust destroys all simple, optimistic views about human nature, and shows the depth of evil that persons can commit against other persons . . . . "
The Holocaust differed from other genocidal examples because of its use of assembly-line technology in the slaughter. "It's a warning," said Holocaust survivor Rabbi Arthur Schneier, rabbi of Park East Synagogue in New York and chairman of the American division of the World Jewish Congress. For "haven't we human beings now perfected our technology?" he asked.
"Above all," he said, "the greatest danger is silence and indifference, whenever there is any kind of injustice. The one important lesson of the Holocaust is the slumber of indifference on the part of many good people who played it safe."