Holocaust (Shoah) | Encyclopedia.com

Posted By on February 21, 2024

The Holocaust (Shoah, Hebrew for "catastrophe") refers to the carefully planned genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazis, the "Final Solution," from 193345. It is the most extreme form of racism the world had known until then. The Holocaust differs from other mass murders and forms of brutality in the motivation of the perpetrators (the destruction of a human group for no other reason than that it was considered subhuman in Nazi racist ideology) and the means used (a long process of extreme dehumanization, culminating in gas chambers and death camps). Only with the total defeat of Germany at the end of World War II (May 1945) did the slaughter come to an end. By that time nearly 6,000,000 Jews were dead, among them more than one million children, and Europe's ancient Jewish communities had vanished forever. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, conducted by the Allies after the war, were an attempt to punish the criminals.

The Holocaust can be divided into two periods: from Hitler's rise to power (Jan. 30, 1933) to the outbreak of World War II in Europe (Sept. 1, 1939), during which time the foundations were laid for the eventual destruction of the Jews; and the wartime period.

Using "legal" means, the German government passed a body of legislation that defined a Jew (anyone with three Jewish grandparents), and progressively excluded Jews from civic life. They were deprived of citizenship and all constitutional rights, becoming pariahs. Emigration was still possible in those years, but was made difficult by the severe restrictions imposed by the Nazis and by the reluctance of the free world to take in large numbers of Jews. Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi official in charge of emigration (he was brought to trial by the Israeli government in 1961 and executed).

With the outbreak of war escape became almost impossible. The German government then developed an intricate machinery of destruction, which was constantly "refined" by modern technology. The shooting of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the Russian front by the Mobile Killing Units (Einsatzgruppen ) soon proved too slow and in efficient, and was replaced in 1942 by gas chambers and death camps. The largest of these was Auschwitz-Birkenau. A network of concentration, labor, and death camps covered Nazi-occupied Europe. The destruction was greatest in eastern Europe: in Poland alone 3,000,000 Jews perished.

The Holocaust became one of the dominant events of Jewish consciousness. The savagery and extent of the genocide prompted some Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers alike, led by concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel, to ask whether it is possible to do theology after the Holocaust. Christian reflection on the Holocaust in the second half of the 20th century focused on two points: the theological meaning of the event and Christian responsibility for its occurrence.

Church Statements. In 1975 the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, established by Pope Paul VI, published a series of "guidelines and suggestions" for implementing Vatican II's Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate. According to the Commission, "the memory of the persecution and massacre of Jews which took place in Europe just before and during the Second World War" provided the historical context for the section dealing with Judaism (n. 4) in that document. In 1985 the same Commission issued "Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church." After stating that "the permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God's design," the Commission directs that catechesis should "help in understanding the meaning for the Jews of the extermination during the years 19391945" (n.25).

In June 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz (Oswiecim), the site where millions of Polish Jews perished. He recalled that visit in several public declarations. In an address to the United Nations Assembly, Oct. 2, 1985, he contrasted the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights with the contempt for fundamental rights evident in Auschwitz and similar "extermination" camps scattered over the continent of Europe. "This declaration," he said, "was paid for by millions of our brothers and sisters at the cost of their suffering and sacrifice, brought by

the brutalization that darkened and made insensitive the human consciences of their oppressors and of those who carried out a real genocide." On his visit to Rome's main synagogue in April, 1986, again recalling his visit to Auschwitz, he expressed "abhorrence for the genocide decreed against the Jewish people during the last war, which led to the holocaust of millions of innocent victims." Speaking of the "terrible reality of the exterminationthe unconditional exterminationof your people, and extermination carried out with premeditation" to Jewish leaders in Warsaw in June of 1987, the pope stated: "I think that today the people of Israel, perhaps more than ever before, finds itself at the center of the attention of the nations of the world, above all because of this terrible experience, through which you have become a loud warning voice for all humanity. More than any else, it is precisely you who have become this saving warning. I think that in this sense you continue your particular vocation, showing yourselves to be still the heirs of that election to which God is faithful. This is your mission in the contemporary world before the peoples, the nations, all of humanity, the Church. And in this Church all peoples and nations feel united to you in this mission. Inyour name, the pope, too, lifts up his voice in this warning."

Receiving the first ambassador to the Vatican of the newly reunited Germany, the Polish pope raised with him "the tragedy of the Jews. For Christians the heavy burden of guilt for the murder of the Jewish people must be an enduring call to repentance; thereby we can overcome every form of anti-Semitism and establish a new relationship with our kindred nation of the Ancient Covenant." "Guilt," he reminded Christians, "should not oppress and lead to self-agonizing thoughts, but must always be the point of departure for conversion."

The pope's call for universal Christian repentance for the role of Christian teaching in preparing the way for the Shoah, and for the involvement of so many Christians in actually perpetrating it, led in the mid-1990s to a series of statements on the Church and the Shoah by bishop conferences throughout Europe as well as the U.S. These culminated in the 1998 document of the Holy See's Commission, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. The document concluded by expressing the Church's "deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age" and identified this as "an act of repentance (teshuvah ), since, as members of the Church we are linked with the sins as well as the merits of her children."

During the Jubilee Year, the pope lead a Liturgy of Repentance in which he articulated the Church's sorrow over seven major categories of pervasive Christian sin over the centuries. One was devoted entirely to contrition for sins against the Jews, including, as a statement of the International Theological Commission issued days before the liturgy explained, guilt for the sins of omission and commission by Catholics on all levels of the Church's life during the Holocaust. In March of that year the pope made the first extensive visit by a pope to Israel. He visited Yad Va Shem, Israel's memorial to the six million victims of the Holocaust, prayed there and met with a group of survivors which included people from his own home town in Poland. Finally, he went to the Western (or Wailing) Wall, the last remnant of the Jerusalem Temple.

There, like millions of humble Jews before him, he prayed and placed a prayer of petition to the God of Israel in a crack between the gigantic stones of the wall. The prayer reiterated the pope's prayer for forgiveness from the liturgy of repentance at the Vatican.

A 2001 statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Teaching on the Shoah: Implementing "We Remember," interpreted the Vatican document for American Catholics. The document makes clear the distinction and connectedness between the traditional Christian teaching of contempt and the modern, racial anti-Semitism of pagan Nazi ideology: "Christian anti-Judaism did lay the groundwork for racial, genocidal anti-Semitism by stigmatizing not only Judaism but Jews themselves for opprobrium and contempt. So the Nazi theories tragically found fertile soil in which to plant the horror of an unprecedented attempt at genocide. One way to put the "connectedness" between the Christian teaching of anti-Judaism (leading to anti-Jewishness) and Nazi anti-Semitism is that the former is a "necessary cause" to consider in explaining the development and success of the latter in the 20th century, but not a "sufficient cause." To account for the Holocaust, one must acknowledge the historical role of Christian anti-Judaism. But Christian anti-Judaism alone cannot account for the Holocaust. Semi-scientific racial theories and specific historical, ideological, economic, and social realities within Germany must also be taken into account to begin grappling with why Nazism succeeded in mobilizing virtually the entire intellectual and technological apparatus of a modern industrial state to its warped purpose of eliminating from human history God's People, the Jews."

Bibliography: Encyclopedia Judaica, v. 8, "Holocaust" (a lengthy article dealing with many major aspects of the Holocaust). n. levin, The Holocaust (New York 1974). d. wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (New York 1984). Non-Jews who tried to save Jews: c. rittner and s. myers, The Courage to Care (New York 1986). y. suhl, They Fought Back (New York 1967). e. wiesel, Night (New York 1958). e. flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, (rev. ed. Mahwah, N.J. 1985). e. fisher and l. klenicki, eds., Spiritual Pilgrimage: Pope John Paul II on Jews and Judaism 19791995 (New York 1995). j. m. sanchez, Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy (Washington, D.C.2001). Yad Vashem located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, contains extensive archives and a museum, as does the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

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Holocaust (Shoah) | Encyclopedia.com

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