Printer Friendly

From holocaust to dialogue: Temple University Jewish-Christian encounter in Germany.

It was an extraordinary human gathering, by all accounts, considering the place and time and the physical and emotional wounds: an interwoven circle of Jews and Catholics and Protestants in prayer, at the surreal place called Dachau, in the summer of 1980. We were academics--graduate students and faculty from the Temple University Department of Religion (TUDOR) in the United States and from the University of Tubingen in Germany--absorbed in an encounter with Jewish-Christian dialogue. Almost thirty-five years later, images still sear my soul: the murmured offerings of prayers and songs and poetry in Hebrew and English and German, the long silences, the deep and meaningful embraces. The time remains an orienting memory, one that embodies the template for spirits freed to explore the shadowy depths and soar out of an abyss of hopelessness.

To prepare to write this essay for the special fiftieth-anniversary issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, I interviewed the TUDOR faculty who had joined us. Not surprisingly, their thoughts also centered on that summer day where we huddled together, arm in arm, at this hateful site of the longest-running Nazi concentration camp. All identified the dialogue encounter as the apex of an unparalleled interfaith academic program that took place during the 1979-80 academic year. Gerard S. Sloyan, professor and Catholic priest, had a spark in his voice when he recounted this prayer service as "a bright moment at one of the darkest places on earth." He described it as "the standard to measure all else that transpired since." (1) The singular Jewish faculty member, Reb Zalman Schachter, professor and rabbi, remembers how the prayer service had provided a safe framework that "gave him permission to accept and allow himself to be accepted" and to "open his heart to Germans again." (2)

Yet, for all its ultimate impact, the Dachau concentration camp was not originally a scheduled stop. Our seven-week trip originally did not include visits to Dachau or any other sites of Nazi atrocities. (3) Though I was a new graduate student, only recently invited to participate in this Jewish-Christian dialogue, I had made a plea for the inclusion of a visit to a concentration camp while traveling within Germany, believing that engagement in dialogue requires honesty and openness in our relationship, no matter how painful or difficult the conversation. Some of my Jewish and Christian colleagues protested. I found in a personal journal entry from March, 1980, some of the reasons for their opposition: "As American guests, we cannot impose our issues on the hospitality of the Germans." "What purpose could it serve?" And, more alarming, "What does [the Holocaust] have to do with Jewish-Christian dialogue?" (4)

Weeks of discussion put the visit on the schedule, but as an "optional" weekend outing. That free weekend would fall during our home hospitality with University of Tubingen host families, before continuing on to Freiburg. No one knew or could have anticipated what a transformative experience it became for us as a group--and even more inspirational for our German Christian colleagues.

With great humility, our German hosts asked if they could join us on our visit to Dachau. They were very excited about going, showing a keen interest. When they received our group's surprised affirmative, they quickly arranged a caravan of private cars to drive us there, while also offering every vacant spot in their cars to their graduate students. The "optional" tour became a centerpiece of the program, challenging every assumption about humans' inability to be courageous. The comments from the German participants were revealing; they thanked us for the opportunity finally to visit this hellish place. The Dachau concentration camp has major significance as the first concentration camp that the Nazi regime established, in March, 1933, soon after coming to power. It was set up specifically to target political opposition and resistance, regardless of origin. The Nazis incarcerated Pastor Martin Niemoller of the Confessing Church there, as well as the majority of incarcerated Catholic priests. By the time of Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938), the SS (Schutzstaffel) rounded up Jews to go there solely because they were bom Jewish. Dachau was a place of much suffering and despair, but it was only the beginning source of even more horror that followed.

Until liberation by the U.S. Army in April, 1945, Dachau operated as a concentration camp for the full twelve years of the Third Reich, functioning as a cornerstone in their policy to prevent any expression of human freedom. Ironically, Dachau continued to function as a displaced persons' camp for survivors and refugees for twenty more years. When we visited in 1980, it had been a memorial site and museum for only about a dozen years. Though German schools required later generations of German youth to visit those sites as part of their education, for our German colleagues going there was still a new phenomenon. Most of our German peers had never been to Dachau, which was just 90 minutes away. They were dependent on this German-American encounter to be given permission to set foot on this terrible ground. An expression of collective relief wafted among the German faculty, students, and spouses, as if they had crossed the Rubicon. They expressed gratitude to and a desire for personal atonement through the Jewish guests in our group. We were humbled and moved by their pain and obvious need to repent and reach out to their past and to us, the Jewish remnants post Holocaust. I will never forget the confession of one of the German students as we drove back to Tubingen. He pointed to a castle on a hilltop and quietly confessed, "I never told anyone this before, but my aunt was a mental patient who was murdered there by the Nazis. Thank you for allowing me to say this out loud." (5)

The American participants, Jews and Christians, bonded during the visit. Though our German counterparts changed in each of the cities and institutions, our own witness of active repentance and the cleansing experience of spontaneous acts of redemption carried us through the remaining weeks. The special issue of J.E.S. that included the papers that were prepared during this extraordinary summer experience was titled "From Holocaust to Dialogue" and then, only as a sub-heading, the phrase "Jewish-Christian Dialogue between Americans and Germans." (6) In my interview with Leonard Swidler, he concurred that the graduate student seminar participants would have rejected that title before the journey to Germany. However, after continuous encounters with East and West Germans of all ages who were yearning to confront the Holocaust, Antisemitism, and their Nazi past, the American participants acknowledged that "it was the '800-pound gorilla in the room' and needed to be named; otherwise, there would be no dialogue." Swidler reminds us that there is often a primary requirement for a "prolegomena, so that it may lead to future dialogue." (7)

In retrospect, it was apparent that by 1980 German yearning to participate in the Jewish-Christian encounter was ready for this international, interfaith academic experiment. Swidler sent out a proposal to hold parallel faculty-graduate student seminars on Jewish-Christian dialogue throughout the 1979-80 academic year, with an encounter between the two parallel institutions as the culmination. He broached the idea with an inquiry letter sent to sixty academic institutions in nations across Europe. Every institution said "no" (and Austria's refusal was an angry "no"), but thirteen separate German universities and theological faculties said "yes." In addition, the entire program was funded by the Federal Republic of (West) Germany and the two main Protestant churches, EKD and VELKD, along with contributions and support from the German academies and universities. An additional grant from the American Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, contributed to the publication of the papers in J.E.S.

The four faculty (one Jew, two Catholics, and one Protestant) and thirteen graduate students (seven Jews, six Catholics, and four Protestants) embarked on the seven-week journey to a fractured--two countries, two Berlins--and still unhealed Germany. For the seventeen Americans it was, in Swidler's words, "for all of us a peak experience. Not one of us was anywhere near the same afterwards." (8) Jewish-Christian encounter at that time was a dialogue without a partner; there were no Jews with whom to dialogue, no matter the desire. It was analogous to the proverbial "one hand clapping." We discovered that the Germans were eager to meet their Christian counterparts and to witness a functional and living dialogue that expanded beyond the shame and fear of historical religious Antisemitism. The depth and intensity of personal contacts, the exchange of ideas and scholarship, the sacred-text studies, and the presentation of a living and evolving Judaism were the great attributes of this encounter. We began to clarify responsible and honest partnership in this encounter.

Throughout our journey across Germany, I personally felt the weight of responsibility to communicate the Holocaust survivors' viewpoints, even though I could not actually represent them. I did, however, have a good deal of insight and experience. Prior to my graduate studies in Philadelphia, I had taught in the Education Department at Beit Lohamei HaGhetaot (Ghetto Fighters' House: Museum of Holocaust and Resistance [GFH]) in northern Israel. Almost all of the staff members were Holocaust survivors. Moreover, they were well-known national heroes; many had been resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto and other ghettos and partisan units in Poland and the former U.S.S.R. The resistance fighters were my spiritual guides, who had strong feelings of honor and duty for Holocaust victims. Most of their own family members and their entire Jewish communities in Europe had been destroyed.

The director of the GFH, the late historian Zvi Shner, was my mentor, almost like a grandfather figure. When I went back to the U.S. to pursue my doctorate, he provided a scholarship and requested that I represent the GFH overseas. I was its proud representative in forums and conferences during the next four years--but with one glaring exception. Shner specifically wrote to me, requesting that I not represent the GFH museum while traveling in Germany with the Jewish-Christian Dialogue Seminar. In clear handwritten Hebrew on a blue Israeli aerogram dated May 4, 1980, he wrote, "We do not have any formal relations with the German state. We do not participate in conferences there, and we do not invite them here [to Israel]." (9) His main point was clear: Not now; not with the country and people of the perpetrators--and, maybe, not yet. (10) Even as I read the words in this letter, all these years later, I still see his point of view. I imagine that, if we first carefully begin with some defined boundaries, then we will be able to recognize progress, because we will see the boundaries move or transform. In his carefully worded letter, Shner never recommended that I not go, nor did he offer judgment upon me for participating in this encounter. I was simply asked to respect his feelings and those of the people he served.

It occurred to me that, when we went to Germany in 1980, it had been only thirty-five years since the defeat of the Nazi regime and the end of World War II. The time for healing or transforming into a new generation is mandated to be forty years in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex. 13:17-17:16 and Josh. 5:6). The Jews wandered forty years in the desert before entering the promised land with Joshua, Moses' successor, for the "slave-mentality generation" to be replaced by a generation that was born free and did not know anything else. German-Israeli youth exchanges began at GFH around 1985, representing a willingness to engage the next generation that did not have blood on their hands and were understood to be without personal guilt. Today the GFH has relations with a united Germany and with German students, scholars, organizations, and institutional conferences and forums. In addition to waiting for time to pass and for a generation to die out, there must also be enough signs of hope through proactive acts of goodwill and trust-building to create the atmosphere for dialogue. Therefore, it is important to identify positive shifts and constructive acts and to envision them as signposts, thereby encouraging optimism and the belief that change can take place.

In 1980, when we began our Jewish-Christian encounter in Germany, there were some important positive shifts evident in recent and current events that helped change the climate of enmity and mistrust. I offer four particularly potent examples of positive change that were contributing factors to a heightened interest in our work: (1) In the realm of conflict-resolution in politics, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel courageously signed a peace accord which led to their shared 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. (2) In the realm of compassionate activism in religion, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. (3) In the realm of German religious leadership rethinking, the EKD, which enthusiastically supported our program, held the Rhineland Synod of the German Protestant Churches, which produced a major groundbreaking document "Towards a Renewal of the Relationships of Christian and Jews," while the Catholic Church continued to define and describe what it meant to make Vatican II a living reality after the centuries of the Adversus Judaeos tradition. (4) In popular culture of that era, the NBCTV four-part miniseries "The Holocaust" aired in the U.S. in April, 1978, and was translated into German and screened in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1979, where it received the highest ratings of all times and was the impetus for legislation to teach the Holocaust in public education across West Germany.

These positive trends in society were major assets. In addition, we also provided a powerful contribution to transformative thinking between Christians and Jews in the person of the celebrated Protestant faculty member of the TUDOR Jewish-Christian seminar, Paul M. van Buren. An ordained Episcopal priest and theologian, he had just published the first part in a three-volume systematic Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality' a few months before our arrival in Germany." A widely respected theologian, van Buren was received as a celebrity in the religious academic world. In that first volume, the keystones for the reconstruction of Christian theology are the Holocaust and the People and the State of Israel. He introduced Christians to Jewish concepts and Jews to Christian concepts. Van Buren became the director of the Center of Ethics and Religious Pluralism at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Judaic Studies in Jerusalem, working until his untimely death in 1998 to build bridges and new understanding between Christianity and Judaism. (12)

All of these factors seeded a positive climate for an interested and enthusiastic audience of German academics and laity in both Protestant and Catholic institutions. This was a transformative period in interfaith relations, as well as a venture into post-genocide relations and bridge-building. For many of us who participated in the 1980 Jewish-Christian dialogue, it has lasted a lifetime. There are several good examples. One Protestant graduate student, Glenn Earley, went back to Germany to the University of Marburg to complete his Ph.D. He spent the next twenty years in social activism with the National Conference of Christians and Jews, directing programs in Holocaust education and interreligious relations. (We still mourn his tragic death from cancer in 2001 at age 48.) Schachter elected to spend some of his sabbatical in Tubingen, teaching, preaching, and integrating this experience back into the Jewish Renewal Movement, which he was instrumental in founding.

Many of the participants in that seminar continued in the deepest and most dedicated ways to grapple with the anthropological, philosophical, and theological issues in the field of interreligious dialogue. The rabbinical students from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (Wyncote, PA) who were in the graduate seminar all pursued directions in interfaith studies. For example, Rabbi Dr. Nancy Fuchs Kreimer in the late 1980's launched and directs the R.R.C.'s Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives and has been involved with interfaith dialogue ever since our trip. She has pioneered innovative service-learning courses, internships, and unique opportunities for students to study sacred texts with their Christian and Muslim counterparts. Rabbi Dr. Alan Mittleman, Professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has been an active participant in interfaith dialogue throughout his career; he has continued his relationship with Germany through research at the University of Cologne and lectured widely there, making more than fifty trips to Germany. Earlier in his career, he helped to draft a resolution for the United Church of Christ, making it the first American Protestant denomination to declare that Christianity did not supersede Judaism. (13)

I have joined Swidler and others in the formation of a Dialogue Institute with a vibrant J.E.S. publication. Our goal is to educate and to train leaders in interreligious dialogue, such as the ones who went to Germany in 1980. Our hope is to see the field of interreligious studies thrive, providing a network for this growth well into the twenty-first century.

(1) Telephone interview with Sloyan in Washington, DC, December 14, 2013. Most of the quotes are from interviews taken by this author primarily during the winter months of 2013-14 in preparation for this anniversary publication. They were responses to the same few questions: What do you remember? What did you find most significant? How has it impacted your life/career in the field of religious studies?

(2) Telephone interview with Schachter in Colorado, February 5, 2014. Schachter is a Holocaust survivor. As a teenager, he escaped from Poland, then Belgium, but was caught and sent to a Vichy French internment camp, before successfully escaping to the U.S. in 1941. His presence in the group was a source of great nourishment for both Christians and Jews, and often he was the bridge to success in the German encounter with Jewish-Christian dialogue for the first time.

(3) Leonard Swidler, Catholic professor at TUDOR and founding editor of J.E.S., was the organizer of this ambitious Graduate Seminar on Jewish-Christian Dialogue. He organized the intense seven-week trip, piloting and managing a program for a diverse American contingent and a series of German hosts and institutional leadership, mostly drawn from the network of contacts that he personally assembled.

(4) Citations or quotes are from the author's personal journal of the academic year of 1979-80, the first year of graduate studies at TUDOR. The author arrived from Israel in the fall of 1979 to major in the inaugural program in Holocaust Studies in the field of religion, under the guidance of the great Protestant Holocaust scholar; the late Franklin H. Littell. Though not a member of this Jewish-Christian faculty-student seminar group, Littell was a prestigious and important presence in TUDOR during that era.

(5) Aktion T-4, with the misnomer "Euthanasia Program," was another aspect of the Nazi racial policy. Based on the pseudoscience of eugenics that promoted a super-race (ubermemchen), they murdered the disabled and institutionalized among the German population in 1939-41. Because of protests from the Catholic Church, the Nazis "officially" closed down the program, but it continued "unofficially" until their own demise in 1945.

(6) Leonard Swidler, ed., "From Holocaust to Dialogue," J.E.S. 18 (Winter, 1981): 1-142.

(7) Telephone interview with Swidler in Philadelphia, February 9, 2014.

(8) Leonard Swidler, "Introduction," in "From Holocaust to Dialogue," p. vi.

(9) Zvi Shner, May 4, 1980, personal correspondence to author. I had inserted it into the photo album for the Summer of 1980. The handwritten aerogram in Hebrew opens with the warm salutation, "Raizele," an endearing Yiddish way to say my name.

(10) "William Ury, The Power of a Positive NO (New York: Bantam Books, 2007). This book was written after twenty years of trying and failing in his prime assumptions in Getting to Yes for circumstances and relationships that are not yet ready to engage.

(11) Paul M. van Buren, Discerning the Way: A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality, A Crossroad Book (New York: Seabury Press, 1980).

(12) Van Buren concentrated on the theology of the relationship between the church and the Jewish people, since 1975. He wrote eight books, including the three-volume systematic theology (Part I: Discerning the Way: Part II: A Christian Theology of the People Israel: Part III: Christ in Context) (republished by University Press of America, 1995). In 1980. he became a member of the World Council of Churches' Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People. In 1987 he was Honorary Professor for Systematic Theology at the University of Heidelberg. Germany.

(13) "Christianity Didn't Rescind Judaism, Church Says," Lawrence [KS] Journal-World, July 1, 1987, p. 11A.
COPYRIGHT 2014 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Weiman, Racelle R.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Previous Article:Living dialogically.
Next Article:Breaking the silence: the beginning of holocaust education in America.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters