Kristallnacht at 75: Christians need the Jewish witness

Kristallnacht at 75: Christians need the Jewish witness

Recently, I was preparing to preach for the 75th anniversary of a congregation with which I had little familiarity.  I wanted to get a sense of the historical context in which this body of Christians was organized into a congregation.

So I Googled “1938.”  Every listing of historical events noted:  November 9-10, 1938, Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass.  When I delivered that sermon, I made sure that I spoke about that massive coordinated attack upon the Jews of Germany and Austria by the Nazis of the German Reich, which marked the beginning of the pogrom of the Final Solution resulting in the Shoah, the death of 6 million Jews.

I began to ask myself, how will our diverse Christian communities mark this 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, particularly since November 9-10 falls on a weekend?  We Lutherans will probably sing at least one hymn by Martin Luther that Sunday since it is his birthday, though not an official commemoration on our calendar. I checked the liturgical calendars of several denominations, my own Lutheran Church (ELCA) included.  None included either Kristallnacht or Yom Hashoah as a cause for commemoration. Having begun to cull my library in preparation for retirement, I went to the stack of history books about American Christianity and Lutheranism.  Again, neither term could be found in the indices, only a reference to “Nazi.”  

We American Protestants of the 16th century Reformation tend to skip from the time of our reformers to our history on American soil, neglecting continental history and that of our confessional siblings over the centuries, which intervened.  One Lutheran commemoration is for Dietrich Bonhoeffer (April 6) whose theology of the cross and sacrifice we embrace, and whose execution by the Nazis we honor as an example of the costliness of discipleship.  But Bonhoeffer’s studies rarely lead into an extensive discussion of Lutheran quietism and complicity with the German Reich, or the Christian roots of anti-Semitism.

It’s been over a decade since I helped to plan a Lutheran-Jewish commemoration of the Holocaust.  Then we wanted to publically renounce Luther’s condemnation of the Jews as we acknowledged our tradition’s association with the genocide of the 20th century.  But a one-time gathering of the deeply committed with a handful of Jewish colleagues is not enough. Since then I’ve attended several Yom Hashoah commemorations with the Jewish community, but often felt less than welcomed as a Gentile.

I respect the desire to focus on the survivors’ testimony within the Jewish family, but wonder how we will keep their testimony alive, if Jews don’t aggressively seek to witness to not only their kinfolk, but especially to Christians about the horrors of the Shoah.  We Christians need a bolder, more intentional witness from the Jewish community so that together we can understand not only the historical record, but the deeper issues of anti-Semitism, and the continued use of religious differences as the justification for persecution and genocide (Sunni vs. Shia; Hindu vs. Sikh; Muslim vs. Coptic Christian; etc.).

In no way do I fault the efforts of the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, nor the Jewish-Christian Dialogue of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee (PAJC), nor CJEP between the Rabbinic Association and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.  These are worthy programs, but reach a limited audience. I’m appealing for more. I want Christian leaders, my fellow believers in the pew on Sunday morning, and me to hear and be confronted by the Jewish witness to the reality of Kristallnacht and the Shoah.

Breaking down walls, and changing habits and comfortable patterns are difficult. But if together as Jew and Christian we are committed to tikkun olam, we all need the witness of the Jews.

(Rev. Donald B. Green is executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.)