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Remembering the Past, Shaping the Future

Report on a Seminar at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, 19 - 29 October 2015

Earlier in the year I received an invitation to attend a seminar organised by the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) taking place at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I was immediately attracted to go and set about making the necessary arrangements. Why was I attracted? Just a few years ago I had written a dissertation about Edith Stein who was killed at Auschwitz and in writing that dissertation I had to engage with some of the issues in Christian Jewish relationships that the Holocaust raises. So I felt that this would be a good opportunity to further my knowledge of this difficult topic not only for my own personal knowledge but hopefully to be of service to the Church and wider community.

On the 19 October 20 of us gathered at Heathrow Airport. There were 18 of us from a variety of Christian denominations and traditions participating in the seminar plus two leaders from CCJ. After a full day of travel we rested overnight before beginning our seminar the following day under the leadership of Yiftach Meiri from the International School of Holocaust Studies.

I think the material we studied can be considered in three headings. Firstly we learnt about the history of Christian Jewish relations from biblical times until the beginning of the 20th century. Secondly we learnt about the specific history of the Holocaust. Finally we considered Christian Jewish relations from the end of the Second World War until the present day.

I am sure that people are aware that the history of Christian Jewish relations is not a happy one. Jesus and his disciples were all Jews but even the pages of the New Testament bear witness to the problems and divisions that began to emerge as Christianity developed its own identity and the two traditions began to go their separate ways. Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans speaks of God's continuing love for the people of Israel (see Chapters 9 -11) but later Christian commentators failed to take this up and a different way of thinking emerged. A good summary of how Christians viewed Jews through much of history can be seen in the pair of statues known as 'Ecclesia et Synagoga' (the Church and the Synagogue) which could be found in many medieval Cathedrals throughout Europe.

 

 Ecclesia_et_Synagoga.jpg

 

The figure representing the Church is looking down with scorn on the figure representing the Synagogue. The Synagogue figure looks away, her face downcast, her staff broken, and her book no longer of any value.

But did this attitude of contempt of itself lead to the Holocaust? Other factors were necessary too. The 19th century saw the rise of nationalism in Europe with people identifying with their country and this led to a greater sense of separation and isolation for Jews. Also a very specific ideology emerged which emphasised racial purity and this was taken up by the Nazis who came to power in Germany in 1933. Out of this racial ideology emerged a desire to subjugate other races and nations, seeing them as less than fully human. When the Nazis came to power they separated out the Jews of Germany and greatly restricted what they could do and especially how they could mix with Aryans. When World War II broke the Nazis original plan was to move all the Jews to territories that they intended to conquer to the east of Germany (Poland and the USSR) but as the war unfolded they began to kill all the Jews in the areas which they controlled firstly through mass shootings and then later through the death camps and the gas chambers. Between 1941 and 1945 some six million Jews were killed for no other reason than the fact that they were Jews. The museum at Yad Vashem has gathered much material from survivors and from Nazi records that recounts in graphic detail how this all unfolded. It is not easy matter to listen to and learn about, but our group stuck to it, recognising the importance of hearing and learning.

The third aspect of our seminar was what has happened after the Holocaust. We heard from both Jewish and Christian speakers how different philosophers, theologians, artists, and others had tried to make some sense of it all, or to at least express their feelings about the inability to do so. Some asked questions about 'Where was God?' others asked 'Where was humanity?'

It was a happy coincidence that whilst we were in Jerusalem we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Although I was already familiar with this Declaration I was pleasantly surprised to see how highly regarded this document is by Christians from other denominations and also by Jewish commentators. It was said that this is the most positive Christian statement about Jews and Judaism since the earlier mention letter of St Paul to the Romans.

If the old relationship was well depicted by the statues representing the Church and the Synagogue then the new relationship can also be depicted by a new statue entitled 'Church and Synagogue in our times'. This was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate and was blessed by Pope Francis on his recent visit to the USA.

 Ecclesia_et_Synagoga in our time.jpg

 

Here we see the two figures sitting side by side looking respectfully at one another's sacred books. It is an image which hopefully points the way to a better and happier future.

As well as the classroom studies we also were invited to attend a Friday evening synagogue service at a local Synagogue and then afterwards we went to various members of the community for a Sabbath supper. We all found this a very moving experience. We also visited various sites of religious significance in Jerusalem and also further afield in Nazareth and by the Sea of Galilee.

 
Canon Edward Jarosz
(November 2015)