The value of a sharpened conscience

As many as 5,000 Jews, mostly children, were hidden from the Nazis by this small community of mainly Protestant Christians.

Nazi display at German Historical Museum 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)
Nazi display at German Historical Museum 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)
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 Christians.
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.
When 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.
Helping 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 Christians.”
That is, first Germans and then Christians.
The 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 divine.
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 redeemer.
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 Germany.”
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.”
The Gestapo never came back.
It was my grandparents’ strong belief in a God in heaven which gave them the courage to make the right decisions.
There were 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 conscience.”
(1 Timothy 1:5) In Europe, we need our conscience sharpened once again.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.