The following was delivered by Deacon Anthony J. Sciolino at the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of Kristallnacht on November 9, 2008. Deacon Sciolino was ordained a Permanent Deacon of the Roman Catholic Church, Diocese of Rochester N.Y., in 1998, the same year he earned a Master of Arts in Theology degree from St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University in 1967 and his Juris Doctor from Cornell Law School in 1970.
A Christian Reflection on the Holocaust
My introduction to the Holocaust began in 1959 when as an eighth grader at Benjamin Franklin High School, here in Rochester, I read “The Diary of Anne Frank.
My next encounter with the Holocaust occurred, at age 19, in 1964, when as a freshman at Columbia College in New York City I attended "The Deputy," Rolf Hochhuth's controversial play about Pope Pius XII. As a devout Roman Catholic who, at the time, tended to see reality in black and white, I refused to believe the playwright’s contention that Pius, by his silence during the Holocaust, failed in his role as deputy (or Vicar) of Christ on earth. Meanwhile in the college classroom, my professors were challenging me to question my belief systems and to open my mind to differing points of view.
In 1965, I saw Sidney Lumet’s film about a Holocaust survivor, “The Pawnbroker.”
At Cornell Law School, I learned, among other things, how to analyze complex fact patterns according to legal principles; how to formulate conclusions based on facts; and how to advocate persuasively. Later, as a Monroe County Family Court Judge for twenty years I honed my skills at fact finding, dispassionately weighing evidence, applying legal principles, and fearlessly rendering what I considered to be just decisions in thousands of difficult and sometimes controversial cases.
Midway during my first term on the bench in 1993, I saw “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s film about Holocaust rescuer Oskar Schindler.
In 1998, at age 53, I earned a Masters of Theology Degree from St. Bernard’s Institute of Theology and Ministry and was ordained a Deacon of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester. My graduate level courses included theology of Church and Church history. Some of what I learned, quite frankly, was troubling to me, particularly with regard to the Church’s treatment, through the centuries, of Jews, God’s chosen people.
Accompanied by two Jewish friends, Jeffery and Rachel Wicks, in 2004, I saw Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” which some critics at the time claimed was anti-Semitic.
During our 41 years of marriage, my wife Gloria and I have enjoyed traveling around the world. When we were in Munich, Germany in 1970, among the sites we visited was Dachau concentration camp; while in Poland in 1983, we visited Auschwitz and Majdanek. In Italy last year, besides touring Vatican City, we toured Rome’s principle synagogue and historic Jewish ghetto. Earlier this year we visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. and next spring, while in Israel, we plan to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Jerusalem.
All of my encounters with the Holocaust through the years have been sobering and formative experiences.
Eighteen months ago, I was invited to participate with others in planning, developing the curriculum for, and team teaching a 12 session study course entitled “The 2000 year road to the Holocaust – An interfaith project of the greater Rochester community.” By that point in my life, since I had just retired from the bench and had both the time and desire to learn more about the Holocaust, I accepted the invitation without hesitation.
Putting off taking up golf to the future, eager to use my college, law school and judicial skills on researching a topic that had fascinated and disconcerted me for years, I began the process. In identifying and weighing the historical evidence, I was determined to keep an open mind, while simultaneously hoping my conclusions would exonerate Pius XII, in particular, and Christianity, in general, from complicity in the Holocaust.
The first session of that course began on Wednesday evening October 29th here at Temple B’rith Kodesh. What follows are some of the facts I have uncovered and some of the conclusions I have drawn.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, the religious affiliation of Germany, birthplace of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, was 94% Christian; 54% Protestant and 40% Roman Catholic. The religious affiliation of Europe was likewise predominately Christian. Organized into 25 dioceses, each with at least one bishop appointed by the pope, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany numbered over 20,000 priests for 20 million Catholics. And there were 16,000 pastors ministering to 40 million Protestants.
Hitler and many of his top henchmen like Heinrich Himmler (SS chief and overseer of death camps in the East), Joseph Goebbels (Nazi propaganda chief), Reinhard Heydrich (principle planner of the “Final Solution”) and Rudolf Hoess (architect and SS Commandant of Auschwitz), were baptized Catholics, as were large numbers of the Third Reich’s security forces, military, civil service, judiciary, concentration camp personnel and ordinary citizens. And those who were not Catholic were Protestant.
Catholic and Protestant churches remained official state churches throughout the Nazi regime, which meant that the state collected a church tax and funded various church expenses. Religious education remained part of the state education system; chaplains served in the military; and theological faculties remained active within state universities. Article 24 of the Nazi Party Program professed "positive Christianity" as the foundation of the German state.
The Holocaust, as we all know, was the systematic, state sponsored persecution and murder of approximately 6 million Jews from 21 European countries, including 1.5 million children. Although Jews were the primary victims of Nazi tyranny, other groups and individuals were targeted as well, including Gypsies, people with disabilities, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, intellectuals, Soviet prisoners-of-war, clergy, and political dissidents… totaling another 5 million people… intentionally murdered for racial, ethnic, or other reasons.
Christians in Nazi Germany and, indeed, throughout Nazi occupied or allied Europe went about their lives during the Holocaust attending religious services, receiving communion, reciting creeds, reading scripture, saying the rosary, wearing crucifixes around their necks, celebrating Christmas and Easter, while huge numbers of their neighbors were being forcibly rounded up, herded off in cattle cars to concentration camps, more appropriately named “death camps,” and crematoria smoke stacks were belching out thick, black smoke. The first concentration/death camp, Dachau, established in March 1933, just two months after Hitler came to power, was located about 10 miles outside of Munich, the approximate distance between Rochester and East View Mall.
While tens of thousands of Christians during the Holocaust acted humanely, even heroically, sadly many, many more did neither. Some were perpetrators and many were bystanders who either looked the other way or pretended they knew nothing about what was going on. For the most part church leaders, yes, including Pius XII, were silent and in some cases, complicit. All too seldom did Christians attempt to help victims through rescue or resistance.
Hitler’s rise to dictatorial power from total obscurity (within a republic, no less) was by no means a foregone conclusion. There were plenty of opportunities along the way to stop him, if more people of conscience had been willing to do so. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, (“My Struggle”) published in 1925, eight years before becoming German chancellor in 1933 and seventeen years before his death camps were at full killing capacity in 1942, Hitler clearly set forth his vision for the Third Reich, including his plan for territorial expansion into Europe (leibenstraum) and the creation of a “racially pure” society, dominated by die Herrenrasse, a Teutonic “master race.” In Mein Kampf, he minces no words in calling for the elimination of Jews from Germany and all of Europe, referring to them as vermin, parasites, maggots, polluters and destroyers of Aryan humanity, corrupters of society. His virulent anti-Semitism was readily apparent for all to see.
Time and time again in Scripture, Jesus, who was born, lived and died a Jew, made it crystal clear that to be his disciple required more than lip service. It required action -- moral and ethical behavior grounded in love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus, for example, said “Love one another as I have loved you (John 15:12). We Christians too are commanded to follow the Hebrew bible’s prescription: “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof”…”Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20), most particularly justice for innocent victims of the worst forms of injustice… like genocide. When secular law is intrinsically evil like the Nuremburg Laws of 1935, which stripped Jews of their civil rights, a Christian’s duty is clearly and always to obey God’s law.
Something then went terribly wrong for Christianity during the Holocaust. And what resulted from the obvious disconnect between Christian belief and Christian behavior was the worst catastrophe in human history, which began 70 years ago this night, on Kristallnacht.
Jews ponder the Holocaust and rightly ask: Where was God? Christians must to do the same and, in addition, ask: Where was Church? Church as institution and Church as people of God? The sad truth about the Holocaust is that it would never have happened if more Christians at the time and for centuries before had genuinely practiced their faith.
Religion is as religion does, all the rest is talk. That’s why Ellie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, writer, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has said: “Christianity died at Auschwitz.” That is a most powerful indictment. The challenge for us post-Auschwitz Christians throughout the world is to prove that indictment wrong.
Deacon Anthony Sciolino
“70 Years After Kristallnacht”
Temple B’rith Kodesh
November 9, 2008