This text is based on the unedited transcripts of lectures given in the series "The Catholic Church and the Jewish People from Vatican II to Today" delivered at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome between October 19, 2004 and January 25, 2005 under the auspices of the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies. The full collected texts of the course of lectures will be published during the first half of 2005 by:

Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana

Piazza della Pilotta 35

00187 Rome 


The Shoah as a Shadow upon Jewish-Christian Dialogue and as a Stimulus to It

Massimo Giuliani

Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome – November 16th, 2004

Prof. Massimo Giuliani teaches Jewish Studies and Philosophical Hermeneutics at the University of Trent, Italy. 

He has authored several books and articles on contemporary Jewish thought and the Holocaust.


I do not believe it is excessive to claim that the Shoah or Holocaust (the term used to indicate this event in the English-speaking world), inasmuch as it represents the climax of a centuries-long history of discrimination and persecution against the Jewish people in the West, constitutes the most painful issue and the most unsettling problem among those Jews and those Christians who are involved in serious and sincere interreligious dialogue. This pain, however, which flows from a historically enlightened memory, and this anxiety that emerges in our consciousness and in any ethically formed consciousness are already an integral part of the dialogic commitment. In other words they are already constitutive and constructive elements of that readiness to listen and to interact with the other, without which no dialogue, no encounter is possible. Indeed, in the reciprocal attention of Christians and Jews the memory of the pain that was inflicted and was endured during the Shoah, and the anxiety induced by the gradual realization of the first and the more remote causes that made that tragedy possible, truly represent necessary conditions to ensure that our attention is authentic and the dialogue is sincere.

It is of course true that the Jewish-Christian dialogue does not have to focus only on this memory, nor stop in front of this anxiety. Nevertheless, in this dialogue Christians “begin” from this memory, well expressed by the document of March 16th, 1998 called We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, signed by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews: "While bearing their unique witness to the Holy One of Israel and to the Torah, the Jewish people have suffered much at different times and in many places. But the Shoah was certainly the worst suffering of all. ...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."[1] The honesty of raising this question and in assessing all those attitudes implies a readiness to subject oneself to the judgment of the historians, if not of history, and effectively it has meant working on oneself, on one’s own Christian self-consciousness, which has in turn led to suffering and anxiety. More than one voice, in fact, has questioned the belief that ‘history,’ even that entirely written in lower-case letters, can be used as a criterion to evaluate faith, or to assess the behavior of the Christians in the past, taking away from God the right to read human consciousnesses and to judge all events. To answer this objection, which is legitimate but excessively spiritualistic, one must reflect on the unique character of the Shoah and the meaning of the witness to which both Jews and Christians have been called by God at different times and in different ways.


1.      Cheshbon Ha Nefesh: examination of conscience and historical assessment

Christian wisdom has always taught the value of the so-called “examination of conscience,” the pious practice with which the Christian, until not so many years ago, used to close his days as if, finding himself in front of God, he had to give an account of his own actions and omissions, in the certainty that his conscience was a sufficiently authoritative tribunal to evaluate and to judge, as if indeed he were facing God. But what would be the value of listening to our conscience if we ignored the words of warning and the judgments upon our conduct coming from our neighbor? It is a commonly accepted psychological-hermeneutical truth that we are and that we grow thanks to the acknowledgment and the constant dialogue with our family as well as with our social, professional and political environment. Our life is constantly under the judgment of our parents, of our superiors, of our colleagues, of our dependents… and for a believer, our life is constantly under the judgment of God, already at this very moment. That which eschatological theology calls “the day of judgment” is effectively anticipated in every prayer, or is celebrated in liturgical form at different moments of the religious year. 

Once more, let us take as our paradigm the experience of Israel. In Judaism, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called ha-yamim ha-nora’im, the “days of awe,” during which every Jew feels called to judgment and thus must give an account of himself and undergo teshuva (return/repentance). This calling to judgment, however, does not merely have an individual value. It is even more evident at the level of the community, through the experience of the fasts that recall the collective tragedies (the destruction of the two temples, the threat of Haman…), in other words the acts of God’s punishment and mercy. The mission of Israel is constantly under the judgment of God, but in an equally constant and urgent way it is also under the judgment of the nations, which are the ultimate beneficiaries of Israel's mission  (Gen 12,3: “In you [Abraham] all the families [the nations] of the earth shall be blessed”). This is Israel’s universal vocation, the deepest meaning of its testimony, and it is what Hitler intended to uproot: the memory of Israel’s election and its duty of witness. Now, this condition of being under the constant judgment of the nations is almost existential, an examination that never ends, the price of its very election. Called to be “light to the nations,” (Is 42, 6; 49, 6), Israel must in a certain sense give an account of itself it ought to be responsible, as Levinas says; the director of human resources (to echo the title of the latest novel by Abraham Yehoshua, Shlichuta shel hamemune al mashabei enosh) must respond to the rest of the nations who look towards Israel as one looks towards the East in search of light. What does this mean? Perhaps that the testimony of Israel must “pass the exam” of the nations? No, because the source of this witness is God’s summoning Word. Nonetheless, Israel is not free to avoid this exam since the fixed gaze of the nations preserves the very truth of that mission and is the cross-check of the value of that testimony. In the Biblical and rabbinical conscience, God does not hesitate even to use the nations against Israel, to remind the bnei’ Ysrael of their calling, and to call them back to their responsibility.

Some contemporary thinkers have even applied this traditional paradigm to the Jews who lived under Nazi rule and saw in Hitler an instrument of God’s punishment. This is not the place to discuss or to question this theological paradigm, but this shows the distance to which the consciousness of being constantly under the two-fold judgment of God and of the nations can go today we would say of God and of history. In other words, the truth about us is not and cannot be merely self-referential, but it becomes a “call to our truth” to the extent to which we open ourselves to the Other. We accept his perspective and agree to remain under his gaze. Simply put, we become ourselves when we accept that the other looks at us and thereby passes his judgment upon us. The self-consciousness of Christians and in general the testimony of the Churches are no exceptions. Their truth is not mere self-reference but openness to divine alterity and to responsibility towards those who are destined to receive this truth. Why then should we be surprised if the words and the acts and the omissions of the Christian community are observed, scrutinized, judged, critiqued, and sometimes even marginalized or ridiculed? Is this not the order of things, the order of that diakonia that offers without imposing [its point of view], which gives without worrying to receive a compensation, which scatters seeds on every soil despite knowing that neither the growing of fruits nor their gathering ultimately depends on us? The request of pardon made by John Paul II after having recognized that the Jews were discriminated against and persecuted in the name of the cross of Christ is emblematic of this “maturity” of the testimony and the consciousness of the Christians, who do not fear the judgement of history, but, on the contrary, deliberately subject themselves to it to get rid of their self-referential excesses and to deepen their understanding of the truth about themselves. This gesture, whose climax was the visit to the kotel ha-ma’aravi (the Western Wall) of Jerusalem and which is one of the highest symbols of the message of the Jubilee in the year 2000 of the Christian era (5760 of the Jewish calendar), is a major event in the history of Jewish-Christian dialogue, together with the Conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate (1965), the visit of the Pope to the Synagogue in Rome (1986), the official establishment of diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and the Holy See (1993), and the already mentioned document We Remember (1998).


2.      Shoah: Bankruptcy of Christian teaching?

It is in this readiness to live under the gaze of the Other, subject to his judgment, that Christians can and must listen to the critique of Christianity that some important thinkers of contemporary Judaism have developed in light of the tragedy of the Shoah. These critiques, unlike the polemics about the “silence” and the alleged “sins of omission” of Pius XII, are not very recent but date from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when, among many Jews and Christians, in Israel as well as in Germany and in the rest of Europe, people preferred not to talk of the tragedies that had taken place out of a deep-seated need to forget the horrors of the war and the hell of Auschwitz. I shall only quote a few authors, beginning with Emmanuel Levinas, who in 1950 wrote without any anti-Christian feeling but with a detached sense of European history:

“Amidst many other horrors, the extermination of six millions defenseless human beings, in a world that two thousand years of Christianity have been unable to improve, subtracts from our (Jewish) eyes much of the prestige enjoyed by Christianity in virtue of its having been able to conquer Europe. Certainly, we shall never forget the purity of the individual acts of those Christians- a very impressive number- who saved our lives –the lives of survivors- in those terrible years. Neither shall we forget the courage of the French [Catholic] hierarchy. But one cannot fail to see the utter failure of Christianity from the political and the social point of view.”[2]

And two years later, in 1952, speaking about the “poor” 19th century, when “a European social consciousness truly existed,” he defined it in opposition to the 20th century as “a happy time when centuries of Christian and philosophical civilization had yet to display, in the events of Nazism, the fragility of their achievements.”[3] Even harsher is the critique of the Orthodox Jewish thinker Eliezer Berkovits, who goes as far as talking about “moral and spiritual bankruptcy of Christian civilization and of the Christian religion”. In the 1979 volume With God in Hell, Berkovits writes,

After nineteen centuries of Christianity, the extermination of six million Jews, among whom there were a million and a half children, carried out in cold blood in the very heart of Christian Europe, encouraged by the criminal silence of virtually all members of the churches (including the infallible Holy Father of Rome), was the natural climax of this bankruptcy. A direct line leads from the first act of oppression against the Jews and against Judaism in the 4th century to the Holocaust in the 20th century.[4]

And even the philosopher Emil L. Fackenheim, who never failed to emphasize the courageous actions against Nazism on behalf of the persecuted Jews by Christians such as the Pastor Julius van Jan of Württemberg, or Canon Bernhard Lichtenberg of Berlin, or the theologian of the Confessing Church Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could not, despite everything, stop himself from asking: what could Christians have done? His answer was: maybe in 1942 it was too late, but it was not too late in 1935:

... when the Nuremberg Laws attributed the status of ‘Aryan’ to everyone, except the ‘non-Aryan’ Christians, and the Church accepted this at the cost of abandoning the ‘non-Aryans’ to their vogelfrei destiny. Truly – if the term kairos designates for the Christian those moments when faith is at stake truly 1935 was an authentic kairos. But the Church missed it.[5]

These judgments, harsh, but morally legitimate if one accepts a dialogical view of interreligious relations, show how the Shoah has been perceived from the very beginning as the emblem of the failure and of the bankruptcy of the Christian message and how the memory of such an event – which the Pope has called “indelible stain” and “unspeakable iniquity”[6] can become, at a psychological, but also quite often at a more religious level, an obstacle to a balanced relationship between the two communities of faith, as well as a hindrance to the dialogue. At the same time, however, the growing awareness of this obstacle has been the occasion of a profound change in Christian praxis and doctrine, a change that led to an effective epochal transformation. Before dying, this was acknowledged even by Fackenheim himself with words that launch, so to speak, a way in which both Jews and Christians can look at that event. According to the German-Canadian-Israeli philosopher:

... after the neo-pagans had perpetrated such an assault upon our two faiths, Judaism and Christianity, it was unavoidable that whatever had divided us in the course of almost two millennia had to come to an end. A new Jewish-Christian reality had to be born, a new link between the two covenants, the Jewish and the Christian one, between what, decades later, the Protestant theologian Roy Eckardt would call the elder and the younger brother.[7]

Today, as if by a miracle, we live this new reality a different historical relation between Judaism and Christianity a reality that has been shaped by the growing awareness of the moral and religious meaning of the Shoah, and that has been able to transform that tragic event from the supreme obstacle [to amity] into, so to speak, a privileged instrument to understand what had to be changed and what had to be emphasized and appreciated anew. It is almost impossible in a brief space to summarize the various, different and complex stages of this process of transformation (caused largely by the Shoah) that, using religious language, we call a Christian "path of teshuva." So as not to pass over everything in silence, I shall select a few passages that I believe are among the most significant, and that, if read collectively, can justify the summative phrase of Francesco Rossi De Gasperis, S.J., one of the living protagonists of Jewish-Christian dialogue and a guide of this agenda of teshuva: “never before” in the church, in the different churches of the Christian oikumene, “have people talked in this way” of the Jews and of Judaism. In fact, “the hard work, the slowness and the effort of the journeys followed by the different Christian communities to correct their path and once more to discover, appreciate and acknowledge with gratitude their holy root, testify how far we have departed from the previous two millennia of Christianity”[8]. Would the Shoah have taken place if such self-correction in the institutions and in the Christian consciousnesses had begun earlier? Mi yodea’- who knows?


3.      “Never before have people talked in this way."

To document the general impact of the Shoah on Christian self-consciousness in general, and, in particular on the theological reflection that accompanies it, one ought to give a critical assessment of the entire history of recent Jewish-Christian relations, especially from the 1980’s onwards. It is during these decades, in fact, that special attention towards the tragedy of the Jews in the Second World War developed worldwide. It is in those years that a debate takes place concerning the uniqueness of that event in relation to history in general as well as to three-thousand years of Jewish history. It is at that moment that all churches – including the Catholic Church begin to include the Shoah in the agenda of colloquia, conferences, or study days devoted to Jewish themes. I am not saying that previously the issue of the Shoah was not considered at all, but only that in the 1980s, it becomes the central theme of Jewish contemporary self-consciousness, and as a consequence, acquires a crucial role in the religious and cultural relations between Jews and Christians, especially in North America and Europe. I would like to mention here a number of emblematic episodes that took place in the Catholic Church, and I apologize for the arbitrary nature of my samples, which I hope however shall be historically illuminating. In August 1987 John Paul II wrote to the President of the American Bishops Msgr. John L. May on the eve of his trip to the United States, stressing how “the sufferings of the Jewish people and the Shoah are today before the eyes of the Church, of all peoples and of all nations, as a warning, a witness, and a silent cry…[showing] what can be the consequences of lack of faith in God and a contempt for humanity created in His image”[9]. At the same time, the Protestant Churches also become more ready to re-assess their own “theologies of Judaism,” with very innovative documents and positions. In the United States, in addition, the foundations had been laid not long before for the new Holocaust Memorial Museum, which, thanks to its position on the Mall in Washington, D.C., effectively includes the Shoah among the elements of the pluralist civil religion[10] typical of American society. These seeds of reflection on the Shoah would mature at pastoral, as well as at more properly theological levels in the course of the 1990s when a number of Catholic episcopal conferences made similar pronouncements concerning the question of the Shoah (thereby effectively obviating the failure of the newly printed Catechism of the Catholic Church to refer to this tragedy). From these points, one ought to remember the special determination of the text composed in 1994 by the Hungarian bishops and signed by them together with the Ecumenical Council of the Churches of Hungary, where the Holocaust is defined “an unpardonable sin” an expression that ranks among the harshest ever used by the Catholic hierarchy to condemn the Shoah. In 1997 it was the turn of some members of the French episcopate to make a “declaration of repentance” towards the French Jews at the memorial of the Drancy camp. In this declaration one can read something that, in an ecclesiastical context, is both unprecedented and remarkably brave:

Today we confess that this silence was a fault [on our part]. We also acknowledge that in those years the Church in France did not fulfill its vocation, which is also that of educating the consciences [of the people], and for that reason, together with the Christian people, it bears the responsibility of having failed to lend its help from the very beginning, when protest and protection were possible and demanded, even if later there were innumerable acts of courage. This is a fact that today we acknowledge. The weakness of the Church in France and its responsibility towards the Jewish people are a part of its history. Today we confess our guilt.

If there were not this multiplicity of acknowledgements of responsibility, some less emphatic, like that of the Polish episcopate, some more explicit, as the one just mentioned, the very words of the Pope would be less credible and the solemn request of God’s forgiveness made on March 12th, 2000 would appear merely perfunctory. On this occasion, John Paul II, in the name of the whole Church, declared his sorrow “for the behavior of those [Catholic Christians], who, in the course of history, made these sons and daughters of yours [the Jews] suffer,” thereby making a request of forgiveness that was immediately followed by a commitment to work towards “genuine fellowship with the people of the Covenant."

How can we not hear in these words an echo of the equally brave reflection of the Protestant pastor Martin Stoehr: “We Christians shall never be able to leave Auschwitz behind, nor shall we go beyond Auschwitz alone, but only in the company of the victims”? Truly, never before in the two-thousand year long history of the Church, or better, of all Christian Churches, had such things been said. The fact that the magnitude and the gravity of the Shoah, made explicit in an irrefutable array of documents and historical studies, are here reflected in public gestures and pronouncements on the part of the Catholic Church, clearly signals the truth of what Levinas had written as early as 1950: “The religious magnitude [of the Shoah] is destined to mark the world forever”[11]. In the context of an interreligious symposium of representatives of Judaism and different Christian communities held in Jerusalem in 1994, similar words were used by Cardinal Ratzinger, who claimed that “Auschwitz represents a point of no-return for any contemporary reflection on the relations between Jews and Christians”[12]. This idea is also taken up by the Cardinal in another authoritative document, the Preface to the text of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on “The Jewish People and Its Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” published in the summer of 2001. Here, the Cardinal remarks that the Shoah has also modified the traditional Christian approach to biblical exegesis and Scriptural hermeneutics:

The drama of the Shoah has placed the whole question [of Christian Old Testament hermeneutics] in another light. [The Pontifical Biblical Commission] faced two main problems: After all that has happened, can the Christians continue in their untroubled claim that they are the legitimate heirs of the Bible of Israel? Can they continue with a Christian interpretation of this Bible, or should they rather, respectfully and humbly, abandon a claim, which, in the light of all that has taken place, necessarily smacks of presumption? And here we also find a second problem: Is it perhaps the case that the presentation of the Jews and of the Jewish people in the very text of the New Testament contributed to the creation of a hostility against this people, which favored the ideology of those who wanted to suppress it?” (italics added)[13]

These are questions, therefore, that induce Christians – provided they have understood the deep significance of the greatest tragedy in Jewish history, and in virtue of the link that spiritually and forever ties the people of the Bible and the Talmud to those baptized in the name of Jesus Christ to rethink their very identity and their own interpretation of revealed Scripture, and thus to rediscover “the holy root that supports us,” that Israel “after the flesh” (in other words, in history), which the Apostle Paul discusses with the highest theological and existential pathos. The Shoah, from being an obstacle to Jewish-Christian dialogue, has become not only a stimulus to rediscover and to reappraise Israel, its texts and its traditions, enabling Christians to dialogue with the Jews, but also a sting and a key for an analysis and a “work on oneself” that somehow encompasses all components of Christian identity: from the hermeneutics of Scripture to Christology, from ecclesiological reflection even to liturgy.


4.      What are the implications of the “great teshuva” of the Church in the light of the Shoah?

      Before pondering the theological and pastoral implications for Christians and Jews of the fact that the Shoah was the climax of the long history of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism of Christian Europe, it is perhaps necessary to stop and reflect upon the religious significance of the attempt of total extermination of the Jewish people. It is only by gazing into this abyss of evil – independently of our theodicies and our philosophies of history from the common root of our Abrahamic faith, that perhaps we can understand the radical nature of those implications. It is once more Fackenheim who helps us in this effort of “gazing into the abyss of evil” without getting lost in it, as happens to those who stare at the Gorgon for too long. In his intervention at the international symposium on “Good and Evil after Auschwitz” held in Rome in these very same rooms of the Gregorian University in September 1997, Emil Fackenheim said:

The Holocaust was an attack against Abraham’s covenant, the only truly comprehensive attack that ever took place. […] But what does it mean to attack Abraham’s covenant, which represents the starting point of all Heilsgeschichte, and what does it mean to threaten to put an end to it forever? This has no historical precedents and theology was not prepared to it. But is the God of Abraham not also the God of the Christians? And Ishmael (the ancestor of all Muslims), is he not a son of the patriarch? The attack upon the Jews was also their trial, a trial for all Christians and Muslims, but the latter did not recognize it a such and abandoned the Jews.[14]

      In this passage, Fackenheim alludes to the episode of the great trial in Bereshit/Genesis 22, where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the beloved Isaac. An extremely harsh trial, but one for which Abraham proved to be ready, and because of this readiness, Isaac was saved from the knife of his father by the intervention of God. This very story, known as ‘akedat Yitzchak or “the binding of Isaac,” enabled Jewish theology to lament how, at Auschwitz, millions of young Isaacs, equally innocent and equally ignoring the significance of this “divine trial,” were not saved like the beloved son of Abraham. None of those ‘akedot had the happy end[15] of the Biblical story, and more than a million Jewish children died a martyr’s death without even being able to choose martyrdom. Now Fackenheim goes beyond this complaint against heaven for the miracle that did not take place. The Jewish philosopher goes so far as involving Christians and Muslims in the terrible scene of the collective ‘akeda of Auschwitz, accusing them of indifference if not of complicity with the murderer’s knife. In this way, these “younger brothers” of the Jewish people, whose revelations – New Testament and Koran are deeply rooted in the common Biblical-Jewish milieu, have in some way failed the test, and, unlike Abraham, they risked – using Wittgenstein’s famous metaphor cutting the branch on which they were sitting, or, if you prefer, uprooting the olive-tree into which they were grafted. If we turn this reflection into its positive counterpart, Fackenheim seems to suggest that only those wise enough to defend the Jews from similar aggressions, only those who do not abandon the Jews in the moment of danger, are defending the covenant of Abraham to which they have been admitted through God’s grace.

            As it goes to the root, or in other words to the covenant which originated humanity’s Heilsgeschichte [salvation history] and as it connects, and effectively short-circuits the three symbolical locations of Sion, Sinai and Auschwitz, this reflection enables us to understand better how, in the shadow of the Shoah, there are a number of religious and theological implications for the Christian churches. And there is no doubt that the “great teshuva” – the request of pardon but especially the overcoming of the “teaching of contempt” towards the Jews, changed into a teaching of esteem and reciprocal dialogue represents the first and the most important of these implications. Nonetheless, starting from this reform, new questions have arisen, and new hermeneutical horizons have opened. To these questions and to these horizons, Christian theologies are still struggling to respond, and this is certainly understandable. If indeed, while most theologians and Christian thinkers agree that, after the Shoah, it is no longer possible to “do theology” as if Auschwitz had not taken place, nonetheless only few have been able to indicate a direction for a theological itinerary integrating the lesson of the Shoah, able to rethink the identity of the Christians in light of the teaching of esteem for the Jews, or ready to articulate the uniqueness of Christian redemption with the acknowledgment of the autonomy and the legitimacy of the redemptive/salvific economy of the Jewish people.

            If the Shoah has forced Christians to rethink the role of the Jews in the context of the Christian economy of salvation and redemption, and to reassess in a new perspective the different meanings of the Scriptures inherited from the Jewish tradition, it is unavoidable to pose the following questions, as was done by the inter-confessional group Teshuva in Milan:[16]

1.                  Once we accept the principle of the enduring validity of the Sinaitic covenant, how are we to redefine our Christian identity?

2.                  What are the consequences for Christian faith once we acknowledge the autonomy of the Old Testament in relation to the New? How are we then to establish a hermeneutical relationship between the two Testaments?

3.                  What are the ecumenical opportunities for the Churches to process and redefine together their identity in relation to Israel?

Of course, to answer these questions and to explore the new horizon of “religious sense” disclosed by the Shoah is an arduous and troubling task because one is starting from a crisis, a “historical judgment” that for Christianity, as we saw above, has proved to be very harsh. But it is the Biblical tradition that teaches us that starting again is an experience typical of the covenant with the God of Israel, that to undertake teshuva means reforming at the core, that to move into the desert of our certainties leaning on the sole strength of the Word is at the very heart of the experience of faith. Very relevant here are the words of the evangelical pastor Martin Cunz, a European protagonist of Jewish-Christian dialogue, who alas left us far too soon. Cunz was not only a practitioner[18][17] of this dialogue, but also a theoretician, a critic, a theologian, in the full sense of the term, of the new relation between the living Israel and those who believe in the Gospel of Christ. In his words he castigates the theological laziness of those who fear letting themselves be questioned and who think it easier to defend the fortress of their identity; but in his words we also find the balm of true intuition, of the purified vision, of the intelligence that goes beyond itself. In the words of Cunz:

... after Auschwitz, we are like the people of Israel, who, under the guidance of the highest official of their religion (Aaron) had danced around the golden calf, in front of the Word of God shattered into a thousand fragments. Jews and Christians today must ascend Mount Sinai to encounter again the God of Israel and to re-write the Torah, no longer written by the hand of God, but by our hands.[18]

As I already discussed elsewhere, we do not have to write a “theology of the Shoah,” and not even, it appears, a “new Christian theology of Judaism” (although, perhaps, of such a theology one senses the need, exactly because it would be new). To put the Shoah in the agenda of every future theology does not mean adding one more theme to Christian [theological] reflection, but to adjust the whole perspective of doing theology: the encounter with Israel and with its suffering, caused by centuries of Christian anti-Jewish hostility, forces the community of Jesus’ followers to rethink itself at the very root, or better to rethink the root itself that bears it, according to Paul’s expression (Rm 11,18). In this sense the Shoah is truly a Jewish, as well as a Christian event. It belongs to the one history of salvation of humanity which is believed, though in different ways and on the basis of different Scriptures, by Jews, by Christians, and by Muslims.


5.      Towards a “religious memory” of the Shoah: some suggestions for the Christians

In recent years Europe has given strong signs of wanting to prevent the Shoah with its burden of suffering and its warning that something similar must not happen again from falling into oblivion and becoming only one of many memories of our past. Thanks to the testimony of the survivors, the work of the historians and the intensified “critical consciousness” of the whole Western world – a consciousness sustained by the acknowledgement of our responsibility and guilt towards that past the Shoah is remembered every year with public ceremonies, school lessons at all levels, with articles and books. The institution of January 27th as day of memory is a fact that clearly evidences this acquired sensitivity. The Shoah is a part of our history, and its “sad lesson” is by now part of the civil identity of the citizens of Europe. But this very fact, which is so politically new and so culturally forward-looking, necessarily leads to the following question: is there not the risk that the civic memory obscures and removes the equally demanded religious memory of the event? Or that the necessary and universalizing cultural dimension obscures the more specifically theological dimension of this event, forgetting in the end the essentially religious –and thus Jewish dimension of the victims of Nazism? Of course, it is not the duty of the civil authorities to remember this dimension or to work towards the development, next to the civil one, of a religious memory of the Shoah. It is instead the urgent task of the religious authorities, and especially of the pastoral and theological leadership[19] of the Churches, to make sure that a new awareness is developed about the deep link between Jews and Christians in the wake of that terrible attempt to sever forever, at the root, the plant of Israel. In Italy, January 17th is a day deliberately set aside to make Jews and Judaism better known to Catholics and is thus an appropriate occasion to also remember the tragedy of the Shoah. But perhaps there is something else that ought to be done so that a religious memory is also developed next to the civil memory, which could strengthen the link of affection and esteem uniting the diverse world of Christianity and the equally diverse world of Judaism.

            In this regard, it is always useful to re-read the suggestions given, twenty-five years ago, by Alice Eckardt in an article that warned Christians of the dangers implicit in a wrong manner of constructing the memory of the Shoah. The very history of the two-thousand year old relations between Christianity and Judaism (and not the current obsession with political correctness applied to the life of the Churches) suggests that there exist appropriate and inappropriate ways of presenting and of talking about the Shoah and of Jewish suffering. After explaining how this event ought not to be separated from the return of the Jews to an autonomous national life in the land of Israel with the re-establishment of an independent state (1948), Eckardt insists that both these historical events affecting the life of the contemporary Jewish people are considered “faith-orienting experiences,”[20] in other words experiences capable of orienting, or re-orienting, the Jewish but also the Christian faith. Keeping this in mind, what are suggestions for Christians, who, having understood its importance, are about to construct a memory – a civil, but also a religious one of the Shoah, in the course of educational encounters and during ceremonies or liturgical acts in sacred places? In this context I would like to emphasize at least three suggestions given by Eckardt suggestions that I believe have not lost their value with the passing of time.

a) First of all, Christians who are constructing a memory of the Shoah must take care lest they “christianize” the event. What does this mean? Simply, to make sure not to usurp the historically and essentially Jewish character of a tragedy in which, as Elie Wiesel often reminds us, “if not all victims were Jews, nonetheless all Jews were victims.” It is easy, at a religious level, to make the memory of others one’s own for good purposes, to show that we are also involved. True, Auschwitz was also a Christian event, in the sense we saw above: Christian anti-Judaism certainly contributed to paving the road that led the European Jews into the ghettos, into the concentration camps and finally into the gas chambers and the crematoria…and the murderers were Christians, or children of Christians. And Christians were the so-called bystanders [21], the indifferent and passive observers of that tragedy. Despite this, the memory of the Shoah remains before any other consideration a collective and inalienable memory of the Jewish people, and as such constitutes a patrimony of sacred pain that one must not violate, not even in the name of God, or even worse in the name of a different interpretation namely, a Christian one of the God of Israel and of His revelation. One could characterize as wise and theologically significant the decision of Pope John Paul II to ask the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz to move their convent, so as not to “occupy,” even if only physically, the space of the pain and the memory of the Jewish victims, who in that camp were the greatest majority. To accept the Shoah as a challenge for Christian theology means not to de-Judaize the event and to open the mind and the praxis of the church to a different relation with the people of the Biblical covenant that was never revoked, and that in fact was renewed by the Jews despite Hitler and despite the Nazi project of extermination.

b) Secondly, Christians who construct a religious memory of the Shoah ought to beware, lest they transform it into a triumphant demonstration of the truth of Christianity over Judaism. Here it is not just a question of banning every hint that the Shoah indicates that the Jews were being “punished” by God for having refused Christianity, which would be the worst possible example of theological supersessionism, and which is an even more unacceptable idea inasmuch as it constituted an “indirect cause” of the secular suffering of the Jews that culminated into the Nazi extermination camps. It is rather the need to avoid those Christological excesses for which the suffering of the Jews are considered meaningful in light of the passion of Christ, as if Auschwitz were nothing but a stage in the Christian economy of salvation. Even the memory, which in itself is fully legitimate, of the holiness of Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, cannot obscure the general image of Auschwitz, where Jews were prevented not only from living, but also from dying as martyrs. A distorted usage of the story of the child hung at Auschwitz that Elie Wiesel narrates in his book-testimony La Nuit [Night] can run into this risk.

c) From this example we can derive a third suggestion, which Eckardt summarizes as follows: do not use Jewish texts to criticize them or to interpret them so as to satisfy an (allegedly) Christian perspective. Maybe this is merely an extension of the first two principles, but it is opportune to stress this explicitly in the light of the tendency, which often manifests itself even in liturgical contexts, to use symbols of the Jewish liturgy,  from the menorah to the celebration of the Jewish Pesach by Christians or to the tallit[22] It is necessary instead to respect the otherness of Judaism, the word of the witnesses, the meaning of their scriptures. To use the Shoah as an example to contrast love, presented as a specifically Christian value, and justice – or sometimes even revenge presented as a positive/negative value typical of Judaism which is intrinsically inferior to love, is an erroneous manner to use the memory of the Shoah, something that in fact also offends the theological truth of Judaism as well as of Christianity. Even the use of the Bible to explain the Shoah can be dangerous, inasmuch as it becomes a clumsy and ineffectual attempt to justify the unjustifiable.

To conclude, I would like to go back to the final words of the document We Remember, that, in its sobriety, clearly expresses also that sense of restraint – that flight from any triumphalism, as well as from theological excesses and suffocating embraces which Jewish-Christian dialogue needs in order to grow and to become stronger at all levels, wherever the hope is expressed that “our sorrow for the tragedies that the Jewish people suffered in [the 20th] century may lead Catholics [but also I believe all Christians] to establish new relations with the Jewish people. We hope – we read in this text to transform our awareness of the sins of the past into a firm commitment to a new future, in which there shall no longer be any anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather mutual, shared respect…”[23] The document Dabru Emet, the repeated visits of bishops to synagogues and Jewish communities in the world, the practical collaboration between Jews and Christians to build a true “friendship” between the two Abrahamic faiths, as well as their increasing openness to dialogue with Islam in this difficult moment of world history, are all signs of hope that say: yes, we are doing the right thing. Truly a new spirit blows over the world: “See, I now create something new in the world” (cf. Is 65: 17).


[1][1] Cf. Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, Vatican City 1998, par. 2.

[2][2] Cf. Emmanuel Levinas, Difficile liberté, Paris 1963, Italian translation Difficile libertà, Jaca Book, Milano 2004, pp. 127-128.

[3][3] op. cit., p. 19

[4][4] Cf. Eliezer Berkovits, With God in Hell. Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps (1979), cited in Massimo Giuliani, Il pensiero ebraico contemporaneo, Morcelliana, Brescia 2003, p. 418

[5][5] Cf. Emil L. Fackenheim, Jewish-Christian Relations after the Holocaust. Toward Post-Holocaust Theological Thought, The Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture, Chicago 1996, p. 15. 

[6][6] Cf. Letter of John Paul II to Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, in: We Remember, pp. 3-4.

[7] Cf. Emil Fackenheim, Jewish-Christian Relations after the Holocaust, p. 2.

[8] Cf. Francesco Rossi De Gasperis, “Una rilettura da Gerusalemme”, in: Gianfranco Bottoni, Luigi Nasoni (eds.), Secondo le Scritture. Chiese Cristiane e popolo di Dio, Edizioni Dehoniane, Bologna 2002, pp. 372-373

[9] For this and for the following references to Christian documents concerning the Shoah one ought to consult the synthesis by Cesare Stephan-Ragazzi in: Gianfranco Bottoni, Luigi Nason (eds.), Secondo le Scritture, pp. 183-253

[10] In English in the original.

[11] Cf. Emmanuel Levinas, Difficile libertà, p. 28.

[12] Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, La Chiesa, Israele, e le religioni del mondo, San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo, 2000.

[13] Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Preface to: Pontifical Biblical Commission, Il popolo ebraico e le sue Scritture nella Bibbia cristiana, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Roma 2001, p. 11.

[14] Cf. Emil L. Fackenheim, “L’aggressione all’alleanza di Abramo” in Emilio Baccarini, Lucy Thorson (eds.), Il bene e il male dopo Auschwitz. Implicazioni etico-teologiche per l’oggi, Edizioni Paoline, Roma 1998, p. 43

[15] In English in the original.

[16] Cf. Gianfranco Bottoni, Luigi Nason (eds.), Secondo le Scritture, p. 247.

[17] In English in the original.

[18] Quoted in Massimo Giuliani, Cristianesimo e Shoah. Riflessioni teologiche, Morcelliana, Brescia 2000, p. 23. About Martin Cunz, see in particular pp. 72-79.

[19] In English in the original.

[20] In English in the original.

[21] In English in the original.

[22] Cf. Alice Eckardt, “Creating Christian Yom Ha Shoah Liturgies”, in Marcia Sachs Littell, Sharon Weissman Gutman (eds.), Liturgies on the Holocaust. An Interfaith Anthology, Trinity Press International, Valley Forge, PA. 1996, pp. 6-12.

[23] Cf. We Remember, par. 5.