Emily Sierra Poertner
On Tuesday afternoon Dr. David P. Gushee, an ethics teacher at Mercer University, came to Roanoke College and hosted several lectures. He has published many books, including Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation, which was the focus of his first talk. He discussed the involvement of Christians during the Holocaust, providing aid and safe havens for Jews escaping Nazi death camps.
He argued that there were three major classes of people in Nazi controlled areas: the perpetrators, the victims, and the bystanders. About 90% of the “bystanders” identified themselves as Christians, but there were only estimated to be about 250,000 rescuers in all of Nazi controlled Europe. These rescuers were motivated only by altruism to help Jewish people escape Europe, claim a fake identity, or go into hiding.
Gushee attempted to understand the reasoning behind these selfless acts by evaluating the various interviews done by social psychologists. While there was no single reason, there were many reoccurring themes. Some rescuers were following the examples of family members or religious leadership, others as an act of patriotism in order to resist Nazi Germany, and still others were motivated by faith.
In the Calvinist denomination it was taught that Jews were kin to Christians and the Jewish people were well respected in their religion. French Huguenots had felt religious persecution themselves so were easily able to sympathize with the Jewish community. Many people from all denominations cited religious teachings, like The Golden Rule, and the tale of The Good Samaritan. Some gave the simple explanation that they “just did what anybody would do”, even though the vast majority of people in Nazi controlled areas didn’t help.
At the end of his lecture a student posed a question relating to Lutherans as rescuers. Dr. Gushee was very careful in his answer, knowing the school’s history as a Lutheran college. He first pointed out an anti-Judaism presence in the Christian religion beginning in the first and second century then he tackled the student’s question.
Martin Luther had hoped that his purge of Catholicism would attract Jewish people to the Christian religion. Towards the end of his life, when it was obvious that didn’t happen, he became bitter towards Jews. In his writings he expressed anti-Judaic sentiments that remained in the theology of many Lutherans in Europe during World War Two. Of the rescuers during the Holocaust, very few of them were Lutherans.
In Israel the Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial, recognizes those people who aided Jewish people during the Holocaust. Currently over 24,300 individuals have been recognized.
At the end, Dr. Gushee said “we study the Holocaust not to dwell in 1942, but to become sensitized to the injustices and recognize when people need help.” He urges people to, in situations like this, not be a bystander.
The Holocaust was not the first genocide in modern history, and certainly wasn’t the last. There have been genocides in our lifetimes including Rawanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995.