LeFrak Conference’s Keynote Speaker Addresses Question Central to Holocaust Research, Study, Education

 

By Jennifer McGuiggan

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, Ph.D., delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Ethel LeFrak Holocaust Education Conference. Greenberg is a Modern Orthodox rabbi, Jewish-American scholar, author, and leader in Holocaust education. In 1975, he founded the Zachor Holocaust Resource Center with Elie Wiesel. He was executive director of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust, which led to the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Later, Greenberg served on the museum’s founding board and council. In 2000, President Bill Clinton appointed him to chair the council.

 

Rabbi Greenberg opened his address by remarking upon what he called the “heroic” 25th anniversary of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education (NCCHE) at Seton Hill University. He noted that we live in a unique time when people across religions can have images and spiritual heroes from other traditions. It's a moment of heroism to commit to such a center, he said, but it's more heroic still to persist in its work for 25 years.

 

In his keynote address, “But We Have Not Been Saved: An Unfinished Moral and Theological Agenda of 'Never Again,'” Greenberg addressed what he sees as the central question of all Holocaust research, study, and education: How do we prevent this from ever happening again? What is needed, he asserted, is not apologies or reparations, but an understanding of how to answer this essential question.

 

Progress and Setbacks

 

Before delving into what he sees as the key elements of “never again,” Greenberg emphasized the importance of recognizing the accomplishments of the past. He cited the progress made in Catholic-Jewish relations, beginning with Nostra Aetate and Vatican II, and then in the increasingly widespread presence of Holocaust education. As we look to the future, he said, it's important to remember the positive ways in which both Jewish and Catholic understandings of each other have evolved.

Despite this progress, religion continues be a source of violence in the world at large. How, then, do we prevent another Holocaust and further genocides? Greenberg offered three areas of inquiry by which to examine this central question: the role of the bystander; governments' responsibility to oppose and act against genocide; and the need for pluralism across societal, religious, cultural and institutional segments of society.

 

The Role of the Bystander

 

The Nazis tried to wipe out the Jews, and the Jews sought to escape and survive. This same scenario played out across Europe, but the outcome of this process was very different from country to country. Greenberg offered the examples of Lithuania and Poland, where 90-95% of Jews died, versus Denmark, where 90% of Jews were saved.

What made the difference? The attitudes and actions of non-Jews. In Lithuania, Greenberg noted, Jews were being killed even before the Nazis arrived. Likewise, antisemitism already had a stronghold in Poland before the war, making possible the death of 3 million Polish Jews. In Denmark, by contrast, the government and citizens considered the Jews there to be first and foremost Danish, which prevented Gentile Danes from labeling the Jewish Danes as “other.”  The result was the evacuation of Jews from Denmark.

This same thread of difference also played out in Hungary and Bulgaria. Although both countries were German allies, they responded differently to the Nazi directives. In Hungary, where antisemitism was already strong, Jews did not fare well. On the other hand, in Bulgaria, the king, the parliament, and the church stood against the Nazi order to round up the Jews, insisting that the Jews were Bulgarians. As a result, said Greenberg, 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. (Sadly, as Greenberg noted, this same attitude did not extend to the 12,000 Jews from the area of Thrace, which Germany had awarded as a territory to Bulgaria. The Bulgarians saw the Thracian Jews as Greek, not Bulgarian, and thus did not defend them in the same way they had their fellow Bulgarians.)

Greenberg pointed out the common trait among Gentiles who helped the Jews: They felt a human connection to the people they helped. Greenberg emphasized the importance of focusing on the image of God in each person.  Religion, he said, must seek out and root out any stereotype or image of inferiority or demonization of any group of people. We must approach each person with love.

The Responsibility of Governments

 

The actions of the different European governments and the varying outcomes among countries begs the question: What if more people and more governments had protested the Holocaust? This, said Greenberg, is the second key issue that must be addressed to prevent future genocides. Unfortunately, he noted, governments have considered the cost of intervention too high in recent genocides. This remains a problem that has not been solved.

Institutional Pluralism

 

The importance of pluralism across institutions is the most subtle and difficult of these elements, Greenberg said. With a centralization of forces in Germany during World War II, there was no counterforce to stop the Nazi agenda. In the absence of a counterforce, one institution can take over, which is why the pluralism of institutions—in society, religion, culture, the military, and education—is essential to the idea of “never again.”

Multiple voices strengthen a society, said Greenberg. Pluralism is not relativism, but rather an acknowledgement of our brokenness. Pluralism is a recognition of one's own limits and that we each need other voices to contribute to the whole. Healthy systems correct themselves, said Greenberg, and a healthy religion for example has counterforces within it. He acknowledged the inherent challenges of opening up to different voices without undermining the authority of tradition, but insisted that it must be done. In Jewish tradition, said Greenberg, some disagreements do the will of heaven (e.g. Hillel and Shammai).

He maintained that the moral and theological agenda of “never again” is unfinished. He said that he remains hopeful for the future, and asserted that Holocaust education plays a crucial role in this hope. God's love is pluralist and capable of entering into covenant with all creatures, said Greenberg, quoting Isaiah 40:31: “Those who trust in God will renew their strength.” Greenberg closed by saying, “To prove that love is stronger than hatred—that is the unfinished agenda of Holocaust education.”

 

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