Each year, more than 200 students — most of them not Jewish — enroll in Holocaust-related courses at Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia's Jesuit school that has offered such courses since 1990. These students, along with thousands like them around the country, start out with little knowledge of Judaism or the crimes of the Third Reich, but are drawn by curiosity and word of mouth that this is a subject they should learn about.
Why should Christian students — whether at public, private or church-related institutions — show concern for an event that, in the perception of their generation, occurred in the distant past?
Rather than "a Jewish event," Elie Wiesel has described the Holocaust as "a particular event with universal ramifications." When those of us who teach the subject succeed in our efforts, students find themselves agreeing with the words of Franklin H. Littell, known as the father of Holocaust studies in America, who said: "Once you truly understand the Holocaust, nothing is ever the same again."
This weekend, scholars from around the globe will convene at Saint Joseph's for the 40th annual Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches. The conference will pay tribute to Littell, the Methodist minister, co-founder of the conference and long-time Temple University professor who passed away last year.
As Holocaust scholars, we expose our students to sights they should not have to see and ideas they should not have to discuss. The Shoah revealed humanity's capacity for evil. Humans, not monsters, perpetuated the Holocaust — men and women who went to school, married and raised families, had friends, loved their pets and enjoyed music. The evils they performed were not the result of violent fits of emotion, but were cold and calculated, mobilizing the complete resources of a modern technological society.
Beyond the diatribes of Hitler, Goebbels and the rest, beyond the unjust laws and the tainted schoolbooks, the expulsions, restrictions and boycotts, our students' greatest shock often comes from the discovery that this was done in full view of the free world.
Religious leaders, including Pope Pius XII, maintained a public silence, and even today many archives, including the Vatican's, remain closed.
World leaders erected great barriers to prevent Jewish refugees from entering their lands, culminating with the 1938 Evian Conference on Refugees, at which only one country — the Dominican Republic — was willing to increase its immigration quotas.
For 50 years, historians discussed the "tragic failure" of Evian, until an Australian historian, Paul Bartrop — who will attend our conference — discovered the smoking gun in British government archives. He found correspondence with member states in the British Commonwealth of Nations, assuring that their participation in the Evian Conference would not result in their having to take any actions. It had all been a sham.
But along with these failures, students learn of pockets of light — men and women who said "no" to death and "yes" to life, no matter the risk. These included religious leaders: Catholics like Angelo Roncalli — the future Pope John XXIII — who forged baptismal certificates; and Protestant Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of the Confessing Church, who left the safety of the Union Theological Seminary in New York to return to Germany to become part of the 1944 assassination plot against Hitler.
And ordinary people, like the Polish woman who for years hid Felix Zandman, a prominent local businessman.
Increasingly, the task of teaching courses on the Shoah becomes more problematic; those who were witness to the events pass away, the horror recedes in human consciousness, and new tragedies compete for attention. This makes more imperative the challenge to ensure that the catastrophe we know as the Great Annihilation is never forgotten.
Rabbi Richard Libowitz teaches the Holocaust at Saint Joseph's University. Hubert G. Locke, of the University of Washington, co-founded the Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches with the Rev. Franklin H. Littell.