Winters in Rome can be grim. It is often rainy and gray. The outside is cold and damp; the rain falls at angles that defy the use of umbrellas. In buildings filled with rooms that have very high ceilings and marble floors, buildings from get a single poof of heat at 7 a.m. and the next at 9 p.m., the inside is not different from the outside. When I was a student at the Gregorian University in the mid-1990’s, I knew I had to find some courses that would engage me to such an extent that I would forget about some of the challenges of winter in Rome.
One day I saw a poster in the large atrium of the university advertising a course for the spring semester: “Jewish Thought Since the Holocaust.”
The course was being offered by a visiting professor from Lehigh University, Rabbi Lawrence Silberman. I signed up. It was seminar style. At first there were about 25 students in attendance; but one of the first things about the course that caught my attention was that soon after we began, students from Africa and Asia dropped out. Maybe it was that the course was taught in English, a second language for many at the university, and the many assigned readings were also in that language. Did this topic not interest them as much as it did the students from Europe and the United States? Or perhaps they had their own genocides to study.
Ten of us remained together for the semester: several priests and seminarians, lay Catholics and me; we were from Germany, France, England, Italy and the United States. Our ages ranged from the late 20’s to the early 50’s. Like most classes at the Greg, this one would be characterized by a rich diversity of perspectives. Unlike other classes, however, this class was taught by a Jewish rabbi who posed questions, assigned readings and led us in discussions of topics that were not totally new to us, but certainly probed in ways most of us had never before considered.
Rabbi Silberman was a model teacher, framing provocative questions and offering diverse responses from Jewish post-Holocaust thinkers. For him, the near destruction of European Jewry in the period 1933-45 was the event, like no other, that confronted Jews with a grave crisis in self-understanding and in faith. What is the appropriate Jewish response to the Holocaust? What does it mean to live “Jewishly” in the wake of the Holocaust? How can one speak about God in a post-Holocaust age? What is the impact of the Holocaust on traditional Jewish myths and symbols? What does the Holocaust indicate about the nature of modern Western civilization? What role should the memory of the Holocaust play in the life of today’s Jews? We learned a great deal about Judaism and its quest for meaning after the devastation of the Second World War. But for me and for some of the other students, the questions moved beyond the realm of Jewish life and belief.
One of the events that proved to be quite significant in the journey of understanding was our viewing of Claude Lanzmann’s film “Shoah.” This eight-hour documentary, mostly interviews of camp survivors and perpetrators of the horrors of the Holocaust, left us stunned. We saw and heard responses to the stark questions of the interviewer:indifference to suffering, coldheartedness that would not acknowledge the humanity of the masses led into Auschwitz. Rabbi Silberman told us later that after viewing each film segment, we arrived in class “bleary-eyed” and often late, needing to stop for a coffee at the Greg bar before we could do any more. We learned that “shoah” is the preferred term to designate Jewish annihilation during Hitler’s regime, since “holocaust,” in its Biblical definition, includes freewill offering. This genocide had no element of freedom; it was total destruction, devastation: it is “shoah.”
One of the students in the class was a German priest. Often he seemed burdened by the discussion, and occasionally he expressed his sense of guilt as a German. Several times after class he and I went for coffee. I tried to convince him that he was no more guilty for the German atrocities in World War II than I was. I got nowhere. History, he told me, had always been an important part of his family identity. This was his history, and he had a great need to own it. I asked myself whether guilt could be inherited.
An Italian student told the story of his uncle shot by SS officers in a public square in Rome as retaliation for the deaths of some Germans. Each day he walked out of his way to avoid going through that piazza. I began to think that we, as Americans, have no “firsthand monuments” in our land of the destruction of two world wars. War has been a distant reality for most of us.
Often I observed and occasionally had the courage to challenge the responses from some in the class, who took, at least in my opinion, very traditional positions in response to questions posed by Professor Silberman. One had to do with the issue of identity. Judaism, posed Rabbi Silberman, can be considered an ethnic, cultural, familial, political, religious reality. There are, he said, “secular Jews,” and then asked, “Are there secular Christians?” One classmate, a young priest from the United States, responded, “Certainly not, since Baptism effects an ontological change....”Silberman probed deeper, “And what about Christians who do not practice their faith?” The response: “They are a burden and embarrassment to the church.” I was horrified; this time, not by Holocaust realities, but by a student sitting next to me, an American, a priest. The scope of my questions grew to include our understandings of church and sacrament and ministry.
As the semester unfolded I began to understand that the Holocaust was not only an event for the Jewish world, but also one with tremendous significance for the Christian tradition. I began to understand how anti-Semitism had been embedded in Christian teaching, how religious teaching can go wrong, and how catechesis and liturgy contributed to a mentality that made this genocide possible. One Sunday afternoon during that semester I walked through the Roman ghetto. It was still early and people were finishing the midday meal or resting after it, as tradition dictates, so there were very few people in the streets. The ghetto is old and it, too, has its history. I stopped often, thinking I would hear stories even from the cobblestones. When I neared the new synagogue, the sight of the armed guards at the entrance struck me. This is a place of worship in a city with hundreds of places of worship. But this one remains a potential target. I stopped to read the plaque with the names of deported and martyred Roman Jews. I wondered about religious prejudice today and its many manifestations.
We read many testimonies of camp survivors, which held an importance that no others could claim. I noticed that as Christians, we were always trying to discover something redemptive in the experience described by the survivors. But more often than not, what we found was intense suffering, death and silence. There seemed to be no reason and no meaning. I wanted only to sit quietly with the dark mystery of the Holocaust and to try to understand what could possibly sustain the people of Israel. Why should this community continue to believe in God? What kind of terrible covenant had defined them for centuries? What does it mean to be “chosen?”
It became obvious that we should not move away too quickly from the descriptions of total destruction and utter desolation. One needs to stay there for a good long while even to begin to comprehend. The event is too profound for quick and easy responses. The trains in Lanzmann’s film moved slowly, almost with painful determination. “Take the time,” I thought, “take the time to absorb even a very small part of the experience; be saturated with it; let the trains take their time; don’t rush to any conclusions.”
And the questions continued; they began to crystallize: Where was God at Auschwitz? How is this the covenant? Is this the fate of the chosen? Are there no boundaries to human action? Is this where progress has brought us? I thought long and hard about the mystery of God’s silence. I was haunted, too, by the silence of the bystanders who watched each day as the trains full of people entered the camps and who saw empty trains leave the camps. If I were a victim or a survivor, would I be able to forgive? I read more and more about gas chambers and ovens.
In class we continued to read, to ponder and to stay with the questions. For me, the scope of the questions continued to broaden. Some Jewish thinkers hold that the Holocaust demands a rethinking of traditional belief about God, about people and about their relationships: another religious rite of passage. I began to see that no less is demanded of Christian belief, not only because of Christian anti-Semitism, but because Christianity shares with Judaism a strong belief that history is often a source of revelation about God, ourselves and our relationships.
Two faith traditions, Judaism and Christianity, both historically grounded: I began to understand the deep connection between history and revelation. The term “unique” as applied to the Holocaust of the Second World War became clear. Yes, this genocide could be studied from many perspectives—economic, racial, political—but more important for us, all students of theology, this genocide had religious roots deep in the past. I began to wonder how significant the elements of past teaching still were. And I began to articulate different questions, imagining theological implications for the future in both traditions. Who is Jesus for Jewish people? What role does Jesus play in the salvation of the people of the covenant? Today, years after that course at the Gregorian, these questions continue to be at the core of my thinking, my research and my prayer.
Ash Wednesday that year fell somewhere near the middle of the semester. I went to Mass in a Roman parish. The priest, instead of dipping his thumb into the ashes and making the sign of the cross on my forehead, as is customary in the United States, sprinkled ashes on my head. That day, and every Ash Wednesday since, the traditional ritual at the beginning of Lent has had a very different meaning for me. I feel signed with ashes of the Holocaust dead.