Why all people of faith need Yom Hashoah

By the Rev. John Zehring

Editor’s note: Yom Hashoah is marked on the 27th day of the month of Nisan, a week after the seventh day of Passover, and a week before Yom Hazikaron, a day commemorating Israel’s fallen soldiers. This year, Yom Hashoah begins at sundown on April 10 and lasts until sundown on April 11.


All people of faith need Yom Hashoah, the day each year when the Holocaust is remembered, because next time — and there could be a next time — it is possible that we might be on the wrong side.

In English, Yom Hashoah is commemorated as “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.”

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s online Holocaust Encyclopedia, the “Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.”

“Holocaust,” the website continues, “is a word of Greek origin meaning ‘sacrifice by fire.’ The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were ‘racially superior’ and that the Jews, deemed ‘inferior,’ were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.”

Others who were targeted “because of their perceived ‘racial inferiority’ included Gypsies, the disabled and some of the Slavic peoples [Poles, Russians and others],” according to the website. Others, too, the website says, “were persecuted on political, ideological and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.”

I served as senior pastor of a church in a state capitol and, as such, was invited to become a member of the board of directors of the state’s Holocaust Center. Around the table and beside me sat Holocaust survivors — men and woman with tattoos on their arms, not by choice, identifying them as Jews and marking them for extermination in concentration camps. All had lost homes, possessions, life savings and beloved family members. They were the few who survived the camps.

In the international news came reports from a nation ruled by an ego-driven authoritarian leader that ethnic cleansing and genocide was being practiced. I wondered what lessons we learned from the Holocaust that could apply to new threats. As a pastor, I was curious about what my congregation was doing during the time of Adolf Hitler. I wondered what it should have been doing. I was haunted by questioning what I would have done.

“When you were in the concentration camps, what do you wish our churches would have done?” I asked a Holocaust survivor.

He responded: “What we hoped was that someone would know what was happening to us, would care and would remember us.”

Just as some people deny that the Earth is round or that humans really landed on the moon, some deny that the Holocaust happed. They are known as deniers. “Fake news,” they claim. But it really happened, and the horrors were brutal. In the end, Holocaust survivors were liberated by Americans and allied troops known as liberators. Every Yom Hashoah, liberators are thanked.

According to “A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust” website, Lieut. Col. Lewis H. Weinstein, chief of the liaison section of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff, told of the April 1945 day when liberators entered the concentration camps: “I saw Eisenhower go to the opposite end of the road and vomit. From a distance I saw Patton bend over, holding his head with one hand and his abdomen with the other. And I soon became ill. I suggested to General Eisenhower that cables be sent immediately to President Roosevelt, Churchill, DeGaulle, urging people to come and see for themselves. The general nodded.”

Could it happen again? Genocide is happening today. According to Genocide Watch, genocide emergencies are occurring in Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Central African Republic, Myanmar and Nigeria. Worries are growing in other nations.

Even more alarming, in the United States, demonstrations occur where swastikas and Confederate flags wave to signal a frightening hatred and blind patriotism to wrong values. Consider early warning signs of Fascism, as listed in Washington Monthly, to see if they are creeping into American culture, even at the highest levels of leadership:

  • “powerful nationalism” (“my country first”);
  • “disdain for human rights;”
  • “identification of enemies as a unifying cause;”
  • “supremacy of the military;”
  • “rampant sexism;”
  • “controlled mass media” (claims of “fake news” about reports that name the evil);
  • “obsession with national security;”
  • “religion and government intertwined;”
  • “corporate power protected;”
  • “labor power suppressed;”
  • “distain for intellectuals and the arts;”
  • “obsession with crime and punishment;”
  • “rampant cronyism and corruption”; and
  • “fraudulent elections.”

According to “A Teacher’s Guide,” On April 12, 1945, Eisenhower wrote the following in a letter to Chief of Staff George Marshall: “I have never felt able to describe my emotional reaction when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. …I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.”

The Holocaust is not “fake news” and must never happen again. But it could. There are early warning signs and threats.

Next time — and God forbid there is a next time — the following might be true:

  • The VICTIMS might not be Jews but could be Muslims, Mexicans, Medicare recipients, LGBTQ individuals or others whom our country’s leaders have named as groups of people they consider unworthy.
  • The LIBERATORS might not be us and our allies but other nations upon whom the mantle of moral and humane responsibility has fallen.
  • The PERPETRATORS might not be Nazis. In the worst case, the perpetrators next time might be us.

We as people of faith need Yom Hashoah. We must never forget so there will not be a next time. Let us hold to the view that every individual is a unique wonder, created by God — never to be repeated in all of history — and, thus, should be treated as God’s most sacred creation. In the name of everything that Jesus taught about what God desires, let us remember the Holocaust and pledge to speak for and stand with any person who is oppressed.


A Prayer for Yom Hashoah

By the Rev. John Zehring

Almighty and Merciful God, King of the Universe,

We pause to remember. This is not something we enjoy. It is something we must do. We have a duty to remember your beloved children and the suffering and death they experienced. We have a sacred obligation to tell the story — and to pray that such evil may never again walk the face of the Earth.

We confess that there are times when the idea sneaks into our minds, questioning, “How could you let it happen? These were your children.” Then we remember that you never said there would not be the valley of the shadow of death. You never said that your table would not be in the presence of enemies. What you said was that, in our valleys of dark shadows, “thou art with me.”

Be thou our shepherd, and be present among us. Eternal God, you spoke to your people in Isaiah (43), saying: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. …Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. …Do not fear, for I am with you.”

What fear they must have felt, O God, when enemies did surround them and seek them out, when the rivers did consume them and the fire burned their bodies — all because of who they were. It is beyond our comprehension, and we can only trust that you were with them in their valley of the shadow of death, and that they dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

Grant that we may pledge ourselves anew:

to be your agents of love, compassion and forgiveness;
to speak out against the oppression of all people;
to labor for peaceful reconciliation among all people;
to oppose injustice and wrongdoing;
to encourage one another and to build one another up;
to unite in our conviction that nothing like the Holocaust should ever happen again;
to teach our young about what happened and what can happen;
to live as children of God; and
to speak a word of hope and trust in You.

Let those of us who proclaim “The Lord is my Shepherd” serve as a critical mass to teach and to model your ways.

Today, we remember.

Amen.


The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Beyond Stewardship: A Church Guide to Generous Giving Campaigns.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.