The word “holocaust” derives from a Greek word that means “sacrifice by fire.”
The genocide known as The Holocaust refers to the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and killing of approximately 6 million Jews by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany and other occupied territories between 1933 and 1945.
While anti-Semitism had existed in Europe for centuries, the Nazi Party’s program of national socialism took notions of racial superiority, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing to horrific new levels.
When Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933, Jews in Europe numbered approximately 9 million persons, yet by the time World War II ended in 1945, two thirds of its population had been murdered.
Although the Nazi regime primarily targeted Jews, other groups were persecuted for their supposed “inferiority.”
Historians estimate that as many as 200,000 Roma (Gypsies) and 200,000 mentally and physically disabled persons also were killed, along with millions of Poles, Russian prisoners of war and others.
Many other groups were persecuted and murdered as well, including political dissidents, trade unionists, journalists, religious minorities and homosexuals.
Several years ago, I was invited to participate in an ecumenical conference of North American ministers and denominational leaders in Berlin.
The program was held at the Evangelical Academy, a conference center of the Evangelical (Protestant) Church of the Union located in the upscale Berlin suburb known as Wannsee.
We learned that on Jan. 20, 1942, at a villa just a few kilometers away, the Wannsee Conference had assembled 15 high-level Nazi Party and government officials to coordinate “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Their goal was the physical annihilation of all European Jews.
At our weeklong conference, we heard guest lecturers describe political and economic conditions in Germany following World War I, Hitler’s ultimate rise to power, and several factors leading up to the Holocaust.
One middle-aged Lutheran pastor displayed a collective sense of guilt and shame for the decisions made by a previous generation of Germans. “How could the country that produced Bach and Beethoven,” he asked, “also produce the Holocaust?”
In addition, we met an elderly German pastor who lived at the conference center in retirement.
He had been a member of The Confessing Church that stood in opposition to Hitler and the Third Reich; he regaled us on more than one occasion with personal stories of the Barmen Declaration, Karl Barth, Martin NiemÃ¶ller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Our host for the conference was Renate Obst, who served at that time as the head of the Visitors and Information Service of the Evangelical Church of the Union.
She escorted us one day to PlÓ§tzensee Prison, where political prisoners and members of the German and Czech resistance were housed throughout World War II.
During the Nazi regime, approximately 3,000 persons were executed there. Grieving family members later were forced to pay a fee for each day the inmate had been incarcerated as well as an execution charge of 300 Reichsmarks.
We also toured the nearby Regina Maria Martyrum Church, built in 1963 as the Commemorative Church of German Catholics “in honor of the martyrs to freedom of faith and conscience in the years 1933 to 1945.”
The church’s walled courtyard evokes a domain of menace, captivity and death, and its bell tower resembles a watch tower of a concentration camp.
It makes a striking impression upon visitors and reminds us that the sins of genocide are ever with us and not to be forgotten.
Christian congregations do well to learn from the tragedy of The Holocaust and to ask in the Prophet Ezekiel’s words how to become a “watchman” on the gate (Ezekiel 3:17) in order to prevent future acts of genocide.
Gregory Stanton’s “The Eight Stages of Genocide,” originally presented as a briefing paper to the U.S. Department of State in 1996, may prove helpful here.
Among the things we can watch for are attempts to divide the one human family into classifications or categories, creating false notions of “us” versus “them.”
We can be alert for any type of hate speech, including the coerced use of symbols upon minorities, like the yellow Star of David that was forced upon unwilling Jews.
We can condemn the dehumanization of any group of persons when they are referred to as a lower form of life, such as animals, insects or diseases.
And we can take bold measures, whenever necessary, to support human rights groups in defending the powerless and to demand that our government leaders and the international community stand for peace and justice.
Christian disciples and their congregations should remember and understand the tragedy of The Holocaust in order to be able to say: “Never again.”
John M. Finley serves as senior minister of First Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia.
Editor’s note: Two dates commemorate The Holocaust each year. Jan. 27 was chosen as International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The second is connected to the anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It begins on the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, which falls on April 24 this year.
This article is part of a series focused on genocide for Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month (April). An introduction to and overview of the series is available here.
The previous articles in the series are: