by Mark Chmiel
In April 2004 Marc Ellis invited Hedy Epstein and me to come to speak at Baylor University. Marc had been my professor at Maryknoll and had supported my work on Elie Wiesel. During a visit a couple of years before when I had him speak at St. Louis University, he met Hedy, a Holocaust survivor who made it out of Germany on the Kindertransport in 1939, after Kristallnacht. [Although I may see if Hedy will let me use her world famous op ed, and ask her to clarify the writing of it…] Marc wanted us to speak of our ISM experiences in Palestine and have Hedy speak for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
We had an intimate gathering at the Ellis home for our sharing on Palestine on Sunday night. Over the next couple of days, Hedy spoke in Marc’s Holocaust class, introduced a documentary, The Arms of Strangers, and spoke at a luncheon for Holocaust Remembrance Day. One young Jewish student came up to Hedy afterward and was weeping profusely and being so grateful Hedy had survived to tell her story about what happened in Germany and England, before she arrive din the United States. After Hedy’s sharing at the luncheon, Marc asked me to offer a reflection.
As I was listening today to Hedy’s powerful and haunting testimony of growing up in Germany, I thought of the French writer Albert Camus. Meeting with a group of French Christians in 1948, the year Hedy arrived in the United States, Camus was dialoguing with these Christians about the still unnamed Holocaust that had taken place in Europe. Camus was troubled that the Pope had not really addressed what was happening to the Jews – we heard it from Hedy – Jews forced out of schools and professions, Jews who were ridiculed, Jews whose property was stolen, Jews who were terrorized, Jews who were deported, Jews who were exterminated.
Camus acknowledges that some people said the Pope did speak out, but, Camus, claimed “it was in the language of the encyclicals.” That is to say, dense, dry, without passion. Camus then shared with his Christian friends a simple challenge that remains true to us today:
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest [man or woman]. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of [men and women] resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally.
Also, as Hedy was sharing her story, I thought of the work by famed Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg entitled, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders. We can see clearly enough the innocent victims in Hedy’s stories, we can also easily identify the perpetrators, the Nazi officials and the soldiers. But what of Hilberg’s third category, the bystanders?
This is troubling to us – or should be – because we realize that in Germany, so many of these bystanders – neighbors, coworkers, classmates, acquaintances – were Christians. We may look at them and wonder, why weren’t they more Christian?
But consider, how many of these people – who saw their Jewish neighbors being deported – later went on to Mass or church services? How many read their Bibles? How many proclaimed their faith, while, week after week, the villages, their towns, their cities were systematically being emptied of Jews?
We try to imagine what went through their minds: How did they respond to the gossip and the putdowns of their Jewish neighbors? Did they avert their eyes? Did they say, with relief, “at least it’s not happening to my family”? Did they want to say something but then thought the better of it, because they didn’t ant to elicit a suspicious look form a coworker or a soldier in the street?
Surely, many times during those years, a central passage of Matthew’s Gospel was proclaimed aloud in church buildings or read silently in homes, and yet, for very few did this passage penetrate the hearts and minds and bodies of the Christian churches in Germany:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Having known Hedy Epstein these past few years, I know that she has placed herself in harm’s way, standing with people who are maligned, despised, and brutalized. She has called for justice for the Vietnamese, Central Americans, Palestinians, and Iraqis. She has spoken out clearly and continues to pay up personally. The title of her memoir is Remembering is Not Enough. We, too, as Christians, must remember the Holocaust and the Christian teachings of contempt that preceded it. But there are many challenges for us in the present. Will history books thirty years hence wonder about us “good Americans” who were bystanders while the innocent of today perish?
My friend Pat Geier, who, like Hedy and me, recently traveled to Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement, told me of a question that has haunted her since her youth. “If you were accused of being a Christian, would there by enough evidence to convict you?” It is not only Hedy’s testimony, it is her long practice of solidarity that instructs me on the exacting path ahead.