Explaining the Holocaust: How and Why It Happened

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Explaining the HolocaustHow can one transmit the enormity of the Holocaust to a younger generation? In this very sensitive and perceptive book, Mordecai Schreiber has achieved that goal. In two hundred pages he is able to provide not only an overview of the Holocaust, but also present a variety of Jewish and Christian theological responses to this time of madness and murder, which he reexamines now, seventy years after Auschwitz.
The author takes us through the First World War and its aftermath, particularly in Germany, the rise of Hitler, the key architects of the Shoah, focusing on Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Eichmann, and Josef Mengele. He follows with the evolution of the Holocaust, The Judenrat dilemma, and Jewish inaction during the Holocaust (yes, there were things that could have been done). This historical survey concludes with a chapter about the Righteous Gentiles, which shows that even in the midst of the greatest evil there were many throughout Europe and in all walks of life who did not lose the image of God.In the second section of the book Schreiber attempts “to examine several aspects of the question regarding the role of God or the absence of God in the Holocaust . . . from the Jewish, the Christian and other sides” (131). For Schreiber (and full disclosure, for me as well) “God operates beyond human knowledge. We don’t know why Auschwitz happened. And we do not know what God’s plan is or was. But we do know that we cannot blame Auschwitz on God. We, the human race, have to take responsibility for it, and that includes the Jews as well” (141). Further, referring to Emil Fackenheim’s imperative not to give Hitler a posthumous victory, Schreiber challenges us not to give up our faith, rather to “Choose life, a life guided by the teachings of the Torah and by good deeds” (ibid.) In the chapter titled “A New Language of Faith” Schreiber briefly discusses the theories of Martin Buber, Leo Baeck, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Richard Rubenstein, Eli Wiesel, George Steiner, and Ignaz Maybaum. He then turns to Irving Greenberg, Eliezer Berkovits, and the Israeli Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen.
A separate chapter considers “Christianity and the Holocaust.” The Christian world “assumed different roles by either perpetuating the annihilation of the Jews or standing by and letting it happen,” a crime that not only was aimed at the Jewish people, but ultimately at itself, for “during the Holocaust the Christian world lost its soul, and now – decades later – it is yet to find it” (157). Schreiber suggests that what is now necessary now is to “bring Christianity into the conversation of what is a patently Jewish topic, namely, the Holocaust” (165). Further, the “time has come for religion – all religion – [Jews, Christians, Muslims] with its new language of faith, to redefine God” (166).
Halfway through the book, Schreiber asks: did the Holocaust happen “because humans are capable of bottomless evil of which the Holocaust is the supreme example, or [can] we . . . say that the Holocaust was a perfect storm” in which a group of criminals took over a major state, and under unusual circumstances carried out a misguided plan which resulted in the murder and deaths of millions of innocent people (109)? Clearly Schreiber rejects the notion that we are all wolves in sheep’s clothing. He believes, and at the end of his book, he concludes that ultimately we humans are capable of bringing about our own salvation, or at least the prevention of further genocides. This will involve inspired spiritual leaders and political leaders, social thinkers and reformers, teachers of humanity, and simply ordinary people who, moved by the spirit of something higher than themselves, will work together to repair the world, in the image of the sovereignty of God.

David J. Zucker, Ph.D. serves as interim rabbi at North West Surrey Synagogue, Weybridge-London, United Kingdom. His newest books are The Bible’s Prophets: An Introduction for Christians and Jews, The Bible’s Writings: An Introduction for Christians and Jews and The Matriarchs of Genesis (with Moshe Reiss). www.DavidJZucker.org.