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Remembering the Holocaust

April 5, 2010

Clare and I were born in 1944, making us just a little older than Baby Boomers. Recently, we were thinking about the events that have occurred in our lifetime.  I recalled that the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, the same month I celebrated my first birthday.

Clare had been rereading The Diary of Anne Frank. The final entry in Anne’s diary was August 1, 1944, the same month I was born. My wife commented, “Anne Frank was deported to Auschwitz in September 1944.”  That was the same month Clare was born.

As a student at Furman, I purchased an inexpensive reproduction of Marc Chagall’s “The Praying Jew.” I taped the print to the wall in my dorm room. I imagined that the elderly Jewish man at prayer looked like one of the patriarchs or prophets of the Bible. The picture made me think that Jesus would have known the warmth of a prayer shawl around his shoulders. For Marc Chagall, “The Praying Jew” may have been a tribute to his father. For me, his painting was an introduction to Chagall.

In 1887, Chagall was born in the city of Vitebsk, Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire.  He was the eldest of nine children in a devout Jewish family. At the time of his birth, Vitebsk was a picturesque city of churches and synagogues. The population was half Jewish and half Russian Orthodox.

Chagall painted his life and his memories. Familiar subjects for Chagall were flying angels, his beloved wife, Bella, and his Uncle Noah, a storyteller and a fiddler. His body of work includes paintings, book illustrations, and stained glass. When I saw his stained glass windows in the Synagogue of Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, I was transfixed. The twelve large windows represent the tribes of Israel. Though I am colorblind, Chagall’s use of color is dazzling.

During his life, Chagall experienced many of the atrocities that affected Eastern European Jews. As a boy, he lived through the pogroms, systematic persecution of the Jews. During World War I, he lived in Paris as an art student. He returned to Russia three years before the October Revolution of 1917. He left Russia in 1923 to return to France by way Berlin to recover a large number of his painting he had left there ten years earlier.

After Adolf Hitler came to power in Berlin, anti-Semitism was rampant. By 1937, German leadership labeled Chagall’s art as degenerate. Chagall and his family left France in May 1941, when it was almost too late. They arrived in New York on June 23, 1941, the day after Germany invaded Russia.  Much of Chagall’s hometown was destroyed during three years of Nazi occupation.

Chagall’s painting “White Crucifixion” depicts the martyrdom of Jesus as a universal symbol for religious persecution. Jesus in Chagall’s picture wears a Jewish prayer shawl as a loin cloth. Mourning his persecution, are figures of the Hebrew patriarchs in the smoke-filled night. Around the cross, are horrific scenes of the Holocaust.  A soldier wearing swastika armbands opens the doors of a flaming Torah ark removed from a pillaged synagogue. One of the fleeing figures in the foreground wears a sign which bears the inscription Ich bin Jude (I am a Jew). In the background a ship loaded with refugees is trying to flee a burning village. “White Crucifixion” clearly connects the Christian faith with the Holocaust.

In a sense, it is ridiculous of me to talk about remembering the Holocaust. My awareness has come through others, both Christian and Jews. 

Dr. John Boyle, one of my seminary professors, served as an infantryman with the United States Army during World War II.  He was one of the first liberators to reach Nazi concentration camps. His description of that experience was horrifying.

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was a significant book for me during seminary. I heard Dr. Frankl, a Jewish psychotherapist, speak at the University of Louisville. He recounted the atrocities of his internment at Auschwitz and Dachau.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian Holocaust survivor. I read her book, The Hiding Place. Then, in 1978 she was a guest in my parents’ home.

I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. soon after it opened. I have been to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. I wept at the memorial for the 3.5 million children who died during the persecutions. I found comfort on the Avenue of The Righteous, a memorial to those non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews. Miep Gies, the Ten Boom family, Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, Dietrich  Bonhoeffer, Alfred Delp, and Martin Niemuller were a few among many.

At Morningside, we offer a ministry teaching English to speakers of other languages. A Jewish couple who wear the tattoos of Holocaust survivors are among our former students.

April 11 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. At Morningside, we will gather at 6:00 P.M. Congregation B’nai Israel will join us. Voices both Jewish and Christian will sing hymns of the Holocaust.  Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz will share with us his reflections on the role of righteous Christians during the Holocaust. Our gathering in the Sanctuary will be followed by a time of fellowship. You are invited to join us as we remember.

We dare not forget.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2010
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