The Essence of the Holocaust
During the Holocaust the smoke from burning Jewish bodies bellowed into the air for a thousand days from dozens of chimneys. The winds cast the ashes of those millions of Jewish fathers, mothers, and children over the face of the earth. From that earth we now harvest our bread, and in our bread abide the ashes of the Jewish dead. They are woven into the fabric of humanity, body and soul: the essence of the Holocaust is part of our own essence.
How could the extermination of a people have taken place in the heart of Christendom, at the hands of the most “enlightened” people on the planet? As we ponder this question, we come to a devastating realization: the Holocaust happened precisely because the Jews were trapped in the heart of Christendom, where they fell prey to a way of thinking born of the Enlightenment.
In the early centuries of Christianity Jew hatred assumed theological dimensions. Christian saints such as Augustine and John Chrysostom labeled the Jews as enemies of God and deemed them guilty of deicide. The first of many mass murders of the Jews came with the First Crusade in 1096, when tens of thousands were slaughtered in the Rhineland. Over the subsequent centuries the Jews were expelled from every country in Christian Europe.
With the dawn of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, what had been a theological hatred of the Jews became a philosophical hatred. Almost every thinker in the Age of Reason wrote diatribes against the Jews. From the Enlightenment came a way of thinking that defined human beings and human values in strictly biological terms. It was a way of thinking that would define Nazi ideology. The annihilation of European Jewry is not merely a case of prejudice run amok. It has little to do with scapegoating, economic envy, xenophobia, or the Treaty of Versailles. Rather, it rests upon a murderous ideology that could not tolerate Jewish teaching.
Central to any ideology is a view of what imparts value to the human being. According to the Nazis, the value of a human being is determined by an accident of nature: one who is born an “Aryan” already has more value than one who is not. According to Jewish teaching, a human being has value not due to anything that can be measured or observed, but for having been created in the image and likeness of the Holy One. Judaism also teaches that all of humanity originated from a single human being, so that each of us is responsible for the other. Nothing could be more threatening to Nazi ideology.
Thus the Nazis set out to destroy souls before they murdered bodies. They used the Jewish holy calendar to plan their actions against the Jews. Biblical scrolls and synagogues were reduced to ashes, and, by degrees, the Nazis forbade all forms of prayer or piety. Pregnancy itself became a capital crime: if the sin of the Jew was being alive, there was no criminal more heinous than a Jewish mother. Slated for annihilation were not only mothers and fathers and children, but the very meaning of a mother, father, and child.
If in its essence the Holocaust is a radical assault on the soul, it is a radical assault on the face of the human being, the window to the soul. To gaze into a human face is to receive a divine commandment: thou shalt not murder. The Nazi must obliterate the soul within the face of the Jew, for the Nazi’s essential aim is to eliminate the prohibition against murder. Of course, the face not only forbids murder—it commands a kind word and a helping hand. In every such action there is a mystery, the mystery of the holy that abides in the face. That is what the Nazis set out to annihilate in their annihilation of the Jewish people. And there lies the essence of the Holocaust.