Gerda Weissmann’s entire family was murdered in the Holocaust. She weighed sixty-eight pounds when she was discovered by two American soldiers a few hours after Germany officially surrendered to Allied forces. After six years under Nazi terrorism, her feet were so frostbitten, doctors feared they might have to amputate. She was critically ill and in and out of consciousness for days as she was slowly nursed back to health at a field hospital.
One of the soldiers who found Gerda held the door of his Jeep open for her. “That was the moment of restoration of humanity, of humaneness, of dignity, of freedom,” she said later. That soldier, Kurt Klein, and Gerda fell in love and eventually married. They moved to the US where they had three children. They were married for more than fifty years until his death in 2002. By her death on April 3 at ninety-seven years of age, she had eight grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren.
In 1996, a documentary about her won an Oscar. When she took the stage with the director, she told a global audience, “In my mind’s eye, I see those years and days, and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.” In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her the highest civilian honor in America, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“We must remember the past or it will become our future”
Yesterday was one of the most somber days of the year for me. Not because of anything happening where I live, but because of what happened seven thousand miles to the east in a country I consider my “second home.”
As the Times of Israel reports, “Israel came to a standstill at 10 a.m. on Thursday as sirens wailed throughout the country in memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II.”
I have led more than thirty study tours to the Holy Land and have been in Israel on Yom HaShoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. For two minutes, everything stops. Cars and buses pull over and drivers and passengers stand on the roads with their heads bowed. Ceremonies are held in schools, public institutions, and army bases across the country. An hour later, the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) holds the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” ceremony during which lawmakers read out the names of Holocaust victims.
This annual remembrance is vital not only so the Jewish people can remember those who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators but so the world can vow that such a tragedy must never happen again. One hundred Holocaust survivors stated in a video released yesterday, “One-third of the world’s Jews were systematically murdered” and added, “We must remember the past or it will become our future.”
This at a time when reports of antisemitic activity throughout the world have reached a record high. The number of antisemitic incidents throughout the US in 2021 rose 34 percent from the previous year to the highest number on record. According to a new survey, nearly half of Israelis fear that a second Holocaust is coming.
Why German churches flew Nazi flags
Why would the Nazis and their collaborators believe murdering six million people (a quarter of them children) was morally defensible on religious grounds?
As the German Catholic Church admitted in 2020, German bishops were motivated by nationalism, anti-communist sentiment, and a desire to preserve the church by avoiding confrontation with the Nazis. As a result, many told their followers to support the regime during the war. On Hitler’s fiftieth birthday in 1939, churches even flew Nazi flags and prayed for protection for the “Fuhrer and the Reich.”
Now let’s ask our question differently: Why would Vladimir Putin believe invading Ukraine and murdering Ukrainians is morally defensible on religious grounds?
As Dr. Ryan Denison notes in a recent Denison Forum article, the Patriarch of Moscow has endorsed the war as a holy struggle, describing it as the government’s attempt to protect Russia from the scourges of Western debauchery and stating that, in battling Ukraine, Russia is battling the Antichrist.
It is therefore unsurprising that, as Mark Legg reports in a recent Denison Forum article, Putin’s approval rating has jumped to around 83 percent since the invasion while only 4 percent of Russians think he is responsible for the war.
These are only two examples of using religion for horrifically immoral ends. In Recovering Our Sanity: How the Fear of God Conquers the Fears that Divide Us, Michael Horton explains this tragic phenomenon, noting that many religions across history have been practiced to “manage God’s judgment.” He writes: “We have to be the star of our own life movie. So, individually and collectively, we invent ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ as ways of avoiding reality.”
If I can construct a religion that permits me to do what I wish and even endorses my immoral decisions, that religion will be both utilitarian and popular. Thus we see the popularity of “sacred prostitution” in the ancient world (having sexual relations with temple prostitutes was viewed as a way of worshiping the gods served by these prostitutes). We find false prophets endorsing the king’s agendas for the sake of their personal advancement (cf. 1 Kings 22). We see the religious authorities inciting the crowds to demand Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:21–23). From then to now, religions have often been a means to immoral ends.
“Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal”
Let’s bring this discussion home: Is there a transactional dimension to your relationship with God? Are you tempted to worship God on Sunday so he will bless you on Monday? To start the day with prayer (and perhaps this Daily Article) so he will bless your day? To respond in anger if he doesn’t “keep up his end of the bargain”?
The antidote is twofold.
One: Remember that God is the “everlasting King” of the universe whether we acknowledge his sovereignty or not (Jeremiah 10:10). He is not an object to our subject, a means to our ends. Let’s therefore join Paul in praying, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever” (1 Timothy 1:17).
Two: Celebrate the unconditional love of this king for us today. He loved us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8) and he loves us today “with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). We cannot make him love us any more or any less than he does because by his very nature, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
The Irish writer Thomas Moore invited us:
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.
What “sorrow” do you need heaven to heal today?