Explaining the Holocaust: How and Why It Happened


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.

6 thoughts on “Explaining the Holocaust: How and Why It Happened

  1. I , like many others, have studying about the holocaust for many years. The only aspect that still troubles/escapes me is the professed and real motives of the initiators and the prerpetrators, what they have said in their sefense, and whether there is any truth in their allegations. Nothing can excuse their actions, but I’d like to know if there is any semblance of truth in their arguments?
    I’ll very much value any thoughtful replies and suggested informatiin sources.

    • Maybe you could look in some or partial depth ( not that things are totally done in secrecy, its all out there for those who want to see) at what Israel, and most world Zionism have been and are still doing in Palestine/Israel,and the rest of the world ,so you can have som ideas of what the others could have been thinking or rationalizing their sentiments and attitude ! Its good to question and get to the bottom of things. One could only learn, if nothing more!

    • I’ve looked at those questions quite a bit too. What often strikes me is the banality of it, and the split-brain of it. Look in little directions: we’ve all heard that much chocolate is made with slave labor. But how many of us just look aside? I still do sometimes. We see it as a stunning evil when it happened in history, but it somehow doesn’t feel evil when participate at a remove, even in ways that we could off-handedly avoid doing (where freeing your slaves in early US history, or standing up for Jews in Nazi Germany, would have been life-definingly difficult). When we look back at the Holocaust, it seems framed as a moral choice of stunning consequence. But ordinary people, like soldiers following orders, just drift around in their lives like me deciding whether to eat probably-slave-grown chocolate or not, not focusing on the arguments. A lot of them did their jobs, their “arguments” in their heads were that their squad needed them to be a good member, or that whatever was happening outside of town wasn’t their business — they didn’t have “arguments” with future historians about the morality of allowing the Holocaust to happen. The key to whether people followed orders or resisted orders seems not to have been about arguments or conscious rationalizations, but about focus and attention.
      I’ve seen the Holocaust used both ways within my Jewish community, both as a form of navel-gazing that causes us to lose our present moment and forget who has the power and where in the present, and as a method of awakening a Never-Again fire. Both use the same history and almost the same arguments.

  2. Sam, I’m sure competitive jealousy, negative teachings in the home, and scapegoating,are three reasons. Perhaps some over-aggressiveness by individual Jews is another..What do you think?
    MonIr, while Palestinians have understandable grievances against Zionism and Israel, I cant see how that was a significant factor among either leaders and//or followers in Nazi Germany.

    • I am amazed of the claiming of 110% innocence of the Zionists and some of the rich Jews in their part of what took place before Germany targeted the Jews and the Jewish controlled financial institutions circa 1933! Germany did not forget the part that Jewish financiers played in WWI in having Germany lose the war and being bankrupted. Did any body care that they did not want that to be repeated to their country and people? Not to rationalize any crimes against humanity by anybody, but we have to acknowledge history and the players who contributed to such horrendous out comes. IF we want to hold someone responsible for what they do, then we have to hold all others too. Its only fair! Was it ok for world Jewry and Zionist organizations to boycott Germany and campaign against it industry , products, finance,and shipping? Hypocrisy is not a good thing,and I condemned all types of racism and persecution of innocent people. We should consider all facts of history and not just parts.

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