The value of a sharpened conscience

One person's reflections on Holocaust Memorial Day

Train to Auschwitz521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Train to Auschwitz521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Israel observed Holocaust Remembrance Day last month, I was taken back to an intriguing visit I once made to the French village of Chambon-sur-Lignon.
Yad Vashem has granted the entire town the status of “Righteous Gentiles” for their collective actions in rescuing as many as 5,000 Jews, mostly children, during the Holocaust.
The tale of Chambon-sur-Lignon is a moving story of ordinary people who displayed moral courage when it was in short supply. Everybody knew if the Germans found out, the entire village was doomed.
Weeks later, I watched a documentary about this unique French town and its “conspiracy of goodness.” The film contained the testimony of an elderly lady who helped many Jews survive.
When asked why, she responded: “Isn’t this what we were all supposed to do?” This dear woman had a sharpened conscience that enabled her to never think twice about doing what was right, even if it brought great risk to her own life. Listening to her story made me think long and hard about what went wrong in my native Germany. How did so many 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 only then Christians. Their ethnic and nationalist feelings overrode any biblical values they might have had.
The villagers of Chambon-sur- Lignon were largely Huguenot Christians who had their own history of suffering persecution as a minority.
They saw their identity less in terms of nationality and more in terms of their beliefs and values.
But something else took place in Germany in the decades before Hitler’s rise to power. German universities became the breeding grounds for “liberal theology.”
Scholars actively worked to strip the Bible of its divine authorship. Abraham and Moses were considered mere legends. Miracles became myths, and God was reshaped in man’s own image rather than human beings created in the image of God.
This opened many doors to abuse, as German theologians also purged the Bible of its Jewishness. An entire institute was established in the city of Erfurt, called the Entjudungsinstitut, with the sole purpose of “de-Judaizing” the Bible.
Christ was transformed from a Jewish descendant of David to a blond Aryan national redeemer.
While most liberal theologians of that time did not necessarily subscribe to Nazi ideology, they undermined the Judeo- Christian ethic which had served to safeguard society.
Today, we see Western societies moving further away from these biblical values.
In my own family, strong principles were at work during the Nazi rise to power. The strong biblical faith of my grandmother, Rosa Bühler, swayed her to act kindly toward the Jews.
When shops in her hometown refused to sell to Jews, she would go buy groceries for them.
When the Gestapo began picking up Jews, my grandfather stood on the street and declared, “We should be ashamed of ourselves that this is taking place in Germany.”
As a consequence, the Gestapo visited their home often and rebuked my grandparents for helping Jews. In late 1944, the Gestapo came for one last time and warned, “If you don’t stop your activity you also will 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.”
The Gestapo never came back.
Their strong belief in God gave my grandparents courage to make the right decisions. But in the end, there were simply too few like 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 conscience.” (1 Timothy 1:5) Indeed, we need our conscience sharpened once again. •
The writer is executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem;