by Christine Ege
Studying the Holocaust is far from a simple task. It is unlike any other brief period of history, as its roots are firmly anchored in the centuries and decades leading up to World War II, and its tentacles have continued to affect the world to the present day. Although any proper history scholar may well contend that the same could be said for all brief windows in time, the Holocaust impacted far more than the 11 million individuals murdered at the hands of the Nazis. Disturbing questions hang in the air today: Have we learned anything? Are we any different?
In Chapter 8 of her book, Journey to the Holocaust, author Dr. Susanna Kokkonen examines the troubling complexities of attitudes toward Jewish people and the God of the Jews that erupted in the slaughter of 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children, along with 5 million others deemed unfit to live. As she so aptly states, “…even though the acts of violence and mass murder are not a unique event in world history, the hatred towards the Jews makes the Holocaust unique. Racial doctrine and blood purity were less important elements in the Holocaust than the attack against the God represented by the Jews (p.232) .”
Beyond the religious animosity and the tangled circumstances that contributed to the ultimate industrialized slaughter of millions of people, the root moral problem seems to lie in the myriad of personal choices that contributed to the recipe for such a disaster. We assume that some of those personal choices were the result of careful thought. However, how many of those choices were simply made by default as the easier path to follow? Do we always consciously consider the impact of every choice we make, or do we let some things slide, opting for the path of least resistance, until somehow we end up somewhere we never actually intended to go?
In studying the Holocaust, and particularly the brutality and unspeakable horror of the Final Solution, Dr. Kokkonen observes that, “It is amazingly easy to point a finger at the past, but the problem is that we are not actually any better than our predecessors (p. 238).” As Christians, rather than focusing on where God was during the Holocaust or why He seemed silent, perhaps we should instead wonder what happened in the hearts of perpetrators and bystanders — and ultimately, what happened to men and women (to us!) as people who supposedly should have some form of moral compass. Are moral values and principles of any worth if we fail to exercise them when under pressure at critical moments?
Indeed, we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again if we blame the atrocities committed during the Holocaust on abstract wickedness and fail to examine our individual, personal accountability for making morally responsible choices. Are our attitudes toward the Jews truly any different today? Are we willing to consider the consequences of our choices? We must be careful not to stick our heads in the sand and assume we are any better than the perpetrators and bystanders of the past. We should, quite rightly, be disconcerted.