A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.
Thursday, January 24, 2013 – Dachau
Tomorrow we’ll hop a plane back to the States, but as a last experience of post-WWI Europe, we’re going to spend a few hours at the first Nazi concentration camp, built in 1933 outside the Bavarian town of Dachau. Initially meant for political prisoners, the Communists and Social Democrats imprisoned there who happened also to be Jews were treated poorly from the beginning (four were shot in the first month), and Dachau eventually became one of the many components in the machinery of the “Final Solution.”
If pressed, I can make an argument why a course on World War I should investigate the Holocaust. It can’t possibly be a coincidence that the two world wars of the twentieth century took place simultaneous with the first two European genocides: the Armenian genocide during WWI, and the Holocaust during WWII. A society willing to engage in “total war” (a phrase used to describe WWI, and then infamously employed by Josef Goebbels in a 1943 speech in Berlin) to crush an enemy easily dehumanized as Other may easily then turn to the murder of an entire people-group as a weapon of war. (Or, at least, under the cover of the fog of war.) Or, as I’ve already noted in my brief comments on what happened to the Armenians, the non-response of the Allies in the wake of WWI helped convince Hitler that he could get away with slaughtering Jews, Russians, Poles, Roma, left-wingers, gays and lesbians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, developmentally delayed children and adults, and the other victims of the Holocaust. Of course, it’s important that students not confuse the Germany of 1914-1918 with the Germany of 1933-1945; for one, thousands of Jews served willingly in the German Army in WWI — one of the factors that decisively caused Ernst Jünger to reject the Nazis was their treatment of Jewish Great War veterans.
But I don’t think I need even to attempt such a justification. The Holocaust is so significant an event in human history that if I find myself leading any group of students just a short trip from a concentration camp, we’re going to find a day to visit the concentration camp.
A friend of mine who spent a semester studying off-campus said that there was something about that experience that was deeply, and intentionally, wounding. In the sense that it stripped away much of what was comfortable and left him vulnerable to engage in learning that might not be especially pleasant, even wrenching or painful.
That’s certainly one of my goals in this course, both in studying a war that could kill over nine million people and in looking at the terrible aftershocks of the war. If this kind of history is done right, it should make us ask hard questions not only about the people we meet and the stories we hear, but about ourselves. Questions like: “What would I have done?”
And contemporary American Christians—rather than simply celebrating that their country fought a “good war” in 1941-1945—ought to be asking themselves what they would have done if they had been alive in Germany (or the rest of Europe—nowhere was one safe from the decision to collaborate, acquiesce, or resist) during the time of the Holocaust.
For example: what if you were working in a Polish factory ca. 1941-42 and your coworkers decided to turn in another woman at the plant, a woman they suspected was a Jew fleeing the “liquidations” of the Jewish ghettos? This was the question facing a certain Krystyna Zolkos, who recalled:
And they decided that they were going to follow her, and if they find out where she lives then they could register at the Gestapo and somebody will come for her. And they absolutely persuaded me that I have to come with them. And I did. And when we got into the second streetcar, I said to them, “This is wrong. If the Germans want to find the Jews, let them do it. But we as Christians, we shouldn’t participate in this.” And they let go. And I think—I’d like to think—that I saved her life, but I’ve never seen her afterwards again.
“…we as Christians, we shouldn’t participate in this.” As a Christian, I’m inspired by this story of integrity and—however small—heroism. But then I have to realize this:
“Krystyna” was actually Berta Weissburger, a German Jew pretending to be a Christian.
Now known as Betty Lauer (the name she took after emigrating to America), she has written a memoir, Hiding in Plain Sight, and recently recorded a podcast interview for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, from which the story above is taken. Forced from her home in Germany in 1938, she, her sister, and their mother were trucked to Poland, where they managed to escape the ghetto. Betty dyed her hair blond, studied the Catholic Catechism, and took Confession and Eucharist to avoid suspicion.
The great irony in this story, of course, is that millions of European Christians were, in a way, also pretending to be Christian: they called themselves followers of Jesus Christ, but when faced with the cost of discipleship, they chose to remain silent or even abet evil. While the non-Christian in this story did the Christ-like thing.
I don’t mean to imply that I would have acted any differently, or to single out the Christians of WWII Europe. On the contrary, no Christian can avoid the recurring suspicion that she is simply “pretending to be Christian.” Much as we talk about the “imitation of Christ” and profess ourselves to be “little Christs” (i.e., “Christians”), we invariably deny that same name by our actions. Especially those of us who spend much of our time in Christian communities like churches or Christian colleges feel the pressure to hide our failings and wear masks of perfection.
Which is not to suggest that we ought not to seek to grow in likeness of Christ, that there is only justification, no sanctification, that God leaves us to continue as hypocrites, subverting rather than proclaiming his Good News. Merely that we ought to pray that God grant us the honesty and humility to confess, as Paul does, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19). And then, with our next breath, profess, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v 25)
And as delivered sinners, perhaps we might then reflect on how God has given us the grace to share, as we are each called, in His mission of delivering others from bondage and death. Having come to the end of this particular course, we should have plenty of historical examples of the two to inspire such reflection…
Tomorrow: we fly home, and wonder if humanity can ever escape its love for war.