Although Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom Hashoah, has become an important annual commemoration in many places, there is a danger that remembering the Holocaust can be regarded by the wider community as primarily a Jewish concern.
Clearly, the Shoah is uniquely significant for Jews who have to deal with the enormity of the devastation it wrought. Yet it is also important for Christians.
The Vatican's 1998 "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" — though open to criticism for being defensive in parts — did pose a crucial question: "The fact that the Shoah took place in Europe, that is, in countries of long-standing Christian civilization, raises the question of the relation between the Nazi persecution and the attitudes down the centuries of Christians towards Jews."
This may seem obvious to those who know the complex story of Jews in Christian Europe. "There can be no denial of the fact that from the time of the Emperor Constantine on, Jews were isolated and discriminated against in the Christian world," said Cardinal Edward Cassidy, former president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. "There were expulsions and forced conversions. Literature propagated stereotypes; preaching accused the Jews of every age of deicide; the ghetto, which came into being in 1555 with a papal [edict], became in Nazi Germany the antechamber of the extermination."
In the 19th century, antipathy to Jews was augmented by pseudo-scientific racialist notions, producing the monstrous anti-Semitic engine that drove the Nazi's genocidal agenda.
But this long history is largely unknown to ordinary Christians, which helps explain how they often react to announcements of Holocaust observances. Many are staggered when they first learn that Jews were collectively blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus and ostracized for hundreds of years as an accursed people.
"For Christians, the heavy burden of guilt for the murder of the Jewish people must be an enduring call to repentance," wrote Pope John Paul II in 1990. "Thereby, we can overcome every form of anti-Semitism and establish a new relationship with our kindred nation of the Old Covenant."
The late pope's words point to a major difference between Jewish and Christian responses to the Shoah. Speaking in general terms, Jews have to cope with terrible loss, with trauma, fear and victimization. Christians must confront the reality that, despite the inspiring efforts of heroic rescuers, too many Christians — some surely influenced by the age-old teaching of contempt — were complicit in the Nazi genocide through their actions or inactions.
As the Catholic bishops of France declared in 1997: "The time has come for the church to submit her own history … to critical examination and to recognize without hesitation the sins committed by members of the church, and to beg forgiveness of God and humankind."
Catholic and other Christian universities have a special duty to conduct this critical examination of history and theology. Moreover, educational institutions have a vital role to play in building the new relationship between Jews and Christians of which John Paul spoke.
For these reasons, many universities mark Yom Hashoah with special observances. On Sunday, April 18, at St. Joseph's University, for example, Catholic and Protestant scholars will explore "Why Christians Must Remember the Shoah," explaining how their own work has been shaped by the horrors of the Holocaust. This panel will be followed by an interfaith prayer service of memory and commitment to Christian and Jewish amity.
Remembering the Shoah is essential for both Jews and Christians. One powerful way of honoring the victims, as well as those who risked their lives for them, is to work together toward a world of inter-religious respect.
Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of St. Joseph's University. For information on the interfaith Yom Hashoah observance, go to: www.sju.edu/ijcr.