As we observe “Yom Hashoa,” Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Day, I am
transported back several years to an intriguing visit I paid to Chambon sur
Lignon in southern France. This village has been granted the status of Righteous
Gentiles by Yad Vashem for the collective actions of its members in rescuing
Jews during the Holocaust. As many as 5,000 Jews, mostly children, were hidden
from the Nazis by this small community of mainly Protestant
The story of Chambon sur Lignon is the story of ordinary
people who displayed courage and uprightness when it was so desperately needed,
and yet in such short supply. Everybody in the village was aware of what was at
stake. If the Germans had discovered the Jews, the entire village would, most
likely, have been wiped out.
Weeks after my visit I watched a documentary
about this unique French town and its “conspiracy of goodness.” I well remember
the testimony of an elderly lady who had helped many Jews survive.
asked why she did what she did, she looked puzzled and burst out: “Isn’t this
what we were all supposed to do?” This dear woman had grown up with a sharpened
conscience that never had to think twice about what was right.
people in need, even at great risk to her own life, was simply what she expected
of herself. Listening to her story has made me think long and hard about what
went wrong in my native Germany.
How did so many millions of Christians
not know “what they were supposed to do” during the Nazi era? One reason was
because many Christians in Germany were Germans first, and then Christians.
Their ethnic and nationalist feelings overrode any biblical values that might
have been instilled into them.
That is why the official parts of the
church that collaborated openly with the Nazis called themselves “German
That is, first Germans and then Christians.
villagers of Chambon sur Lignon were largely Huguenot Christians with their own
history of persecution.
They saw their identity less in terms of
nationality and more anchored in the beliefs and values which had shaped their
community for generations.
But something else took place in Germany in
the decades before Hitler’s rise to power. German universities became the
breeding ground for what was known as “liberal theology.” Scholars actively
worked to strip the Bible of its divine authorship. According to them, figures
like Abraham or Moses were mere legends.
Miracles became myths, and they
developed a flexible concept of God as being shaped in each man’s own image,
rather than the biblical view that all humans were created in the image of God.
Both Tanach and the New Testament were stripped of everything supernatural and
This opened many doors to abuse and disbelief. With the
scriptures downgraded to a mere human document rather than God-inspired, German
theologians also purged the Bible of its Jewishness.
An entire institute
in the city of Erfurt was established called Entjudungsinstitut (“De-Judaization
Institute”) with the sole purpose of “de-Judaizing” the Bible. Christ was
transformed from a Jewish descendant of David to a blond Arian national
While most liberal theologians of that time did not necessarily
subscribe to Nazi ideology, they undermined the foundations of the Judeo-
Christian ethic which had served to safeguard society.
Today, we see
societies in Western Europe moving even further away from these biblical values.
This has even caused concern among some secular intellectuals of our day, like
the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas of the Frankfurter Schule. For him, the
very idea of man created in the image of God serves as a guarantor of freedom in
society, so that even the most ardent atheist can question and criticize God
publicly, but nevertheless enjoys dignity and respect from others as being
created by Him.
In my own family, these principles were at work during
the Nazi rise to power in Germany.
It was the strong biblical faith of my
grandmother, Rosa Bühler, which swayed her to engage in small acts of kindness
towards the Jews.
When shops in her hometown refused to sell to Jews, she
would go buy groceries for her Jewish neighbors.
When the Gestapo
eventually came to pick up Jews, my grandfather stood on the street and
declared, “We should be ashamed of ourselves that this is taking place in
As a consequence, the Gestapo frequently visited their home and
rebuked my grandparents for their Christian actions and for helping Jews. In
late 1944, the Gestapo came for one last time and warned, “If you don’t stop
your activity you will also end up in a concentration camp!” But my grandmother
boldly replied: “Mr. Schmid, you have an eternal soul and one day you will have
to give account to God for what you did to our country.”
never came back.
It was my grandparents’ strong belief in a God in heaven
which gave them the courage to make the right decisions.
thousands more German Christians who stood with the Jewish people. Some wound up
in concentration camps and also paid with their lives. But in the end, there
simply were too few of them.
When I look today to an increasingly
secularized Europe, I pray for a spiritual revival. In our Christian Bible we
read: “The purpose of the law [Torah] is love from a pure heart, from a good
(1 Timothy 1:5) In Europe, we need our conscience sharpened
The writer is executive director of the International
Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which has an official partnership with Yad Vashem
to help that institution carry its message about the universal lessons of the
Holocaust to the Christian world.
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