My friend, Dr. Robert Fisch, often reflects on his life by remembering an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Dr. Fisch’s “curse” included living amid the “interesting times” of the Holocaust, Soviet oppression, and the clinical challenges of working as a pediatrician with children presenting with the devastating disease of phenylketonuria (PKU). However, part of Dr. Fisch’s story includes rising to these challenges of his time. He resisted the Holocaust and Soviet oppression, and he found a way to help treat PKU. In these ways, Dr. Fisch ultimately contributed to a more humane and just world.
The past two years have clearly been “interesting” and maybe feel “cursed” as well. COVID impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to Spring of 2021. Racial tensions became more evident with the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed. Political polarization drove people apart and contributed to an insurrection on our democracy on January 6, 2021. And, now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” to quote Dr. Anthony Fauci, that has the potential to upend life again. Finally, we’ve faced a heat, drought, and regular bout of air quality alerts that awakens us, if we haven’t been awakened before, to the reality of climate change in my state of Minnesota.
These are historic challenges. I can imagine a day when my children or grandchildren may look back at these times we’re living in at this time as if they presented a set of forks in the road. “We the people” and we individuals each have choices to make about what futures we will create, the sides of history on which we will stand. As Dr. Fisch has said:
“Yesterday is past. Tomorrow is a wish. Today is the only time in which to do something.”
Last week, my family and I returned from 9 days of touring France, including 6 days in Paris and 3 days in Normandy (click here for my updated photography page). Part of our interest in this trip was a sort of pilgrimage to visit the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans died on D-Day. In preparation, before we left, we watched the horrific opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, to get more of a sense for what happened on that epic day.
I don’t cry very often, but when I surveyed 9,388 crosses and stars of David at the American cemetery, I wept. I replayed in my imagination what happened at this site, and I connected with the sacrifice made on our country’s behalf. Watching filmed testimonies at Pointe du Hoc only reinforced this, as survivors recounted what it was like going into this day, how young most everyone was, and how afraid.
Many talked about how they prayed, and how they felt like their ultimate sacrifice – though tragic – might be needed: for God and country.
Seventy-two years ago, on January 27th, 1945, the largest of the Nazi death camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau) was liberated. In honor of the approximately 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others murdered during the Holocaust, the United Nations General Assembly resolved in 2005 that henceforth this be an International Day of Holocaust Remembrance.
For Christians such as myself, Holocaust remembrance poses unique challenges. As religious studies Professor and Presbyterian minister Stephen Haynes puts it, “although Christian anti-Judaism did not by itself make the Holocaust possible… [it] could not have occurred without Christianity.”
The seeds for the Holocaust lay in the history of anti-Semitism, a strand of which has long been perpetuated in the Christian Church. For instance, in his book, On the Jews and Their Lies, Martin Luther encourages Christians to set the Jews’ synagogues and schools on fire, raise and destroy their houses, and take their prayer books and Talmudic writings. Such sentiments often were quoted and circulated in Nazi Germany as rationale for the Holocaust.
Indeed, the Holocaust sprang from a predominantly Christian part of the world. Many who declared Jesus as “Lord and Savior” were personally involved in the atrocities.
Auschwitz I, 2012
In reflecting on this painful history, it has been important for me to acknowledge that many of the same forces that allowed the Holocaust continue to exert themselves today – including in the Christian Church and in myself. For example, the indifference to diverse others’ suffering often showed by Christians during the Holocaust remains evident.