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Christmas in Bethlehem
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It's 10 AM on Thursday, April 19, and sirens are sounding all over Israel. It's not an air raid drill, but the nation-wide commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. For two minutes, the country comes to a standstill as people interrupt their activities and stand in silence while the sirens wail. It's an eerie sight to see the traffic completely stopped on the roads and highways, with drivers coming out of their cars and standing in silent reverence to remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
On the eve of Yom HaShoah, the main commemoration ceremony took place at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, attended by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During the ceremony, six holocaust survivors lit six torches representing the six million victims. In his speech, Netanyahu emphasized the need to learn from the past in order to secure the nation's future:
"Our enemies tried to bury the Jewish future but our future was born again in the land of our forefathers. Here we built a base, and a new beginning of freedom, and hope and action."
Netanyahu also issued a sobering reminder that the Jewish people still faces an existential threat today in Iran's repeated calls to "exterminate the Jewish State." The Prime Minister said that the Iranian threat is a danger not only to Israel but also to world peace: "It is the world's responsibility to stop Iran securing nuclear weapons" said Netanyahu.
For me as a Christian, it's always a bit surreal to experience Yom Hashoah in Israel. For the younger generations in the West who grew up in an unprecedented time of peace, the Second World War and the Holocaust seem to belong to the distant past - terrible days now relegated to the history books. But for the Jewish people and nation of Israel, the Holocaust is still an open wound and a call to vigilance.
I was present on Thursday at a brief but moving Holocaust commemoration service on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attended by several hundred students, faculty and staff. The function began with a recitation of the "Yizkor" prayer ("may [God] remember"), followed by speeches, memorial songs and poems. The ceremony ended with everyone singing accapella the Israeli national anthem, "HaTikvah" ("The Hope").
I asked a few students what were their thoughts and feelings on this day.
"When I was in high school, I travelled to Poland," says Avigal, "but from year to year I feel less connected to those tragic events. This makes me a bit sad, but it's good that we have these kinds of memorial services; they help you to understand the importance of every day."
Yonatan agrees: "it's still very hard to grasp these things and speak about them. Even when I was in Poland and in Auschwitz, it was hard to grasp what happened there, so it's even harder here."
I asked Yonathan what he thought is the role of Israel and the Jewish people today to prevent such events from happening again.
"First of all, we need to ensure that our own behavior and actions are right," he said, "and then we must make sure that those who suffer from anti-Semitism in the world have a safe place and refuge here in Israel if they want to come here."
Noga Cohen feels a close connection to the Holocaust, as well as a moral obligation to be learnt from it: "It really shaped my own identity, because I am the granddaughter of a survivor and my mother is a Holocaust scholar. I'm glad that this day spurs us on to reflect on how to build a better future, and on the importance of fighting against racism in Israeli society."
Her friend Tom adds: "There are many lessons to learn beyond our own identity as Jews. On the one hand, it's not the only genocide that occurred in history; on the other hand, for us we experience its meaning as a people, with implications on the existence of the State of Israel. There are differences and similarities between the holocaust and other tragic events that happened in history, and I think we need to keep in mind both aspects."
A few steps away, two religious students provided a different perspective. Rafi tells me that he is troubled at the recent politicization of the Holocaust:
"In recent years, the society has been instrumentalizing the Holocaust for different purposes: the right has used it to warn us against Iran, and the left relates it to the racism of some Jews against Ethiopians and Arabs. These are important topics, but I don't agree in relating them to the Shoah, because it was a unique event in history. I think we need to separate the commemoration from the lessons that need to be learned. The Shoah is a sacred topic that used to be apolitical and unifying, but now it has become political and divisive."
Rafi's friend Benny then explains his own personal connection to the Shoah:
"Both grandparents on my father's side survived the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and all members of their families were killed. This past remained with us in our family, and so you could say that this day is half sacred for us. On a national level, it's something ungraspable, both in the scope and amplitude of the evil that was behind it."
But why did this happen precisely to the Jewish people?
"I think the Jewish people have a certain calling that no other nation has, and this really bothered the Nazis. I think the Jewish people brought a certain morality to the world that Hitler didn't want.
And how should we relate to the Shoah today? "First, by remembering this day" says Benny. "Second, by perpetuating the characteristics and calling of the Jewish people, precisely in the places where they were not wanted - being a light to the gentiles in a moral way - and for this we still have much work to do. It's a good day for us to do some soul searching, to improve ourselves for next year, to perpetuate and justify our existence.
The Yizkor Prayer for Martyrs
May the L-rd remember
the souls of the holy and pure ones
who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned, and strangled
for the sanctification of the Name,
because, without making a vow, I shall give to charity on their behalf.
As reward for this,
may their souls be bound in the Bond of Life,
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah;
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.
Ariel Ben Ami writes regularly for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. He was born in Canada and is currently a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is fascinated by the Jewish roots of Christianity and enjoys writing about biblical and theological topics. He is the founder and director of Catholics for Israel, a lay apostolate dedicated to building bridges and fostering reconciliation between Israel and the Church.
On January 19 and 20, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem hosted a delegation of German and Austrian Christian leaders to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Wannsee Conference. I was sent by Travelujah to cover the event.
On that fateful day of January 20, 1942, 15 high-ranking Nazi officials, convened by Reinhard Heydrich, assistant to deputy Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, met at a lakeside villa outside Berlin to decide on the implementation of the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," setting in motion their systematic plan to annihilate all Jews in Europe.
Seventy years later, on the evening of Thursday, January 19, the ICEJ (in partnership with Helping Hands Coalition) invited the Christian representatives together with leaders of various Holocaust survivor communities in Israel to a special reception at the Konrad Adenauer Center in Jerusalem in honor of the victims and survivors.
Dr. Susanna Kokkonen, Director of the Christian Friends of Yad Vashem, commented on the event:
"The fact that German Christian leaders of all denominations have come here to commemorate and acknowledge this event and express their solidarity with the State of Israel sends a strong message to Israelis."
Kokkonen wished that Christians take stronger action by coming to Israel and to Yad Vashem for solidarity missions in order to learn how to prevent such an event from happening again. Asked about how to stem the tide of modern anti-Semitism, she underlined the importance of education: "It's important to study and learn more about what is anti-Semitism. You can't heal something if you don't even understand the mechanism behind it."
Shaya Ben Yehuda, Managing Director of Yad Vashem's International Relations Division, contrasted the situation today with that of seventy years ago:
"I think that this event is very meaningful and symbolic: seventy years ago, we were on different sides of the war: we were in the ghettos, tortured, trapped, and those on the other side persecuted us, tortured us and tried to murder us. This event symbolizes the change that has happened along the years. It shows that when you come back to the fundamental story of the Bible, you realize that we come from the same origins and we have a common destiny."
"It's the proof that we as human beings can build something together," he added. "I think our German friends have come to Yad Vashem not only for atonement or repentance, but also to say: ‘we have come to build something together for the future' - and the future is not just for the Jews but also for all of humanity."
As to the foundation for building a common future together, Ben Yehuda stressed the importance of biblical formation: "the most important thing is to educate the youth of today about the dignity and right to exist for every human being. As it is written in the Bible, we were all created in the image of God."
Dr. Jürgen Bühler, the Executive Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, reminded his guests of the dire consequences of forgetting the biblical view of the equal dignity of every human being, even for an educated and cultivated nation such as Germany:
"The Nazi officials who deliberated at Villa Wannsee over their ghastly plans for exterminating European Jewry were all well-educated, with at least half of them holding doctorate degrees. Some were also the sons of Protestant ministers, yet not one of them raised any moral objections to this heinous plot."
Five German Christian leaders then gave speeches revolving around several common themes: one of them was that Christians today must not only remember the past, but also pass on this memory to the next generation. Some told the story of how they had personally passed from having a detached knowledge of the facts of the Holocaust to a heartfelt personal repentance. They underlined how Christian leaders bear a special responsibility in continuing to express this ongoing repentance in words and deeds:
"We came here to continue the repentance of our nation for the enormous crime of mass murder of Jews committed in the name of a wicked ideology," said Bühler. "The Church in Germany still has so much more to do to amend for our deafening silence in those dark days."
The speeches were followed by a moving concert performed by a string and oboe ensemble from the German Christian Music Academy of Stuttgart.
Wreath Laying Ceremony at Yad Vashem
The next day, a wreath laying ceremony was held at 11:30 at the Warsaw Ghetto Square in Yad Vashem. Ingolf Ellssel, Chairman of the Pentecostal European Fellowship, said that even today, 70 years after Wannsee, the call for Christians to repent and reorient themselves remains as needed as ever, and he underlined the power of faith in bringing healing, reconciliation, and new life.
Ellssel recalled how his own father had joined Hitler's army, and after having spent 5 years in Russia as a prisoner of war, he returned to Germany a broken man. Someone then shared his Christian faith with him, and in Christ, he found forgiveness, hope, and the strength to begin a new life. Ellssel concluded: "God blesses those who change their lives."
The German and Austrian Christian leaders, representing 5 million Protestant and Evangelical Christians, then silently laid their wreaths in front of the bronze statue of "The Last March" depicting the deportation of the Jews to the death camps.
The leaders were then invited into the Hall of Remembrance, where the eternal flame was rekindled, another wreath was laid, and a cantor poignantly sang the Hebrew funeral prayer "El Maleh Rachamim" (God full of mercy) in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
"Wannsee was one of the darkest days in the history of the German people," said Gottfried Bühler, National Director of ICEJ-Germany and the initiator of the event. "Seventy years after, we bow down in deep sorrow. And we also promise to keep this remembrance alive."
Bühler added that this was the reason why many of the Christian leaders brought their children along, so the next generation could witness these ceremonies. "Yet remembrance alone is not enough; it must go hand-in-hand with responsible deeds of goodness."
Dan Diker, Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, while expressing his gratitude to the Christian representatives for their support for the Jewish people, also warned of how the Wannsee Conference was not an isolated event but rather tended to repeat itself throughout history. He recalled how, long ago, in Persia, a man called Haman plotted to annihilate the Jewish people, and how in our own day, a new Haman is rising in modern Persia - calling again for the destruction of the Jewish people.
The call to vigilance and action was clear: "Today's ceremonies at Yad Vashem are the answer to Wannsee," Diker stated. "The lesson is to be vigilant. This is about preventing the next Wannsee, which is already here in the Iranian threat to eradicate Israel."
At a time where conflict is increasing in the world, where mutual blame and accusation are the order of the day between opposing individuals, factions and nations, it was refreshing to witness leaders following the example of both humility and courage that they learned from their own Jewish Messiah: the humility to take responsibility for the sins committed in the past by their forefathers, and the courage to act so that they don't happen again. Two virtues which, along with mutual forgiveness, seem to be the pillars upholding the warm friendship between Jews and Christians at the event.
It is to be hoped that the same virtues will continue to be expressed and promoted at the upcoming International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. May our Christian leaders take the opportunity to bring this same message back home and share it with the nations of the world.
* * * * *
Ariel Ben Ami was born in Canada and is currently a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and writes regularly for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. He is fascinated by the Jewish roots of Christianity and enjoys writing about biblical and theological topics. He is the founder and director of Catholics for Israel, a lay apostolate dedicated to building bridges and fostering reconciliation between Israel and the Church.
Recently I covered for Travelujah in collaboration with Catholics for Israel the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. Following the moving wreath-laying ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, I interviewed a unique pair of friends just outside the Hall of Remembrance.
Maren Steege is a young Christian woman from Stuttgart in Germany, and Eliel Fos is a young Israeli Messianic believer from Haifa. As leaders of the "Yad b’Yad" program, they regularly take teams of German and Israeli youth on reconciliation missions to Auschwitz.
"Yad b’Yad," which means "Hand in Hand" in Hebrew, expresses the organization’s goal to lead Israeli, German and Polish youth to walk hand in hand through Auschwitz, overcoming their pain and shame with the love of God. By guiding young people on a cultural, social, spiritual and historical journey to God’s grace, forgiveness, and power of reconciliation, Yad b’Yad teaches them to overcome the dark history of the past and create hope for future generations.
In the midst of the sober ceremony remembering Wannsee’s “Final Solution,” the smiling faces of Maren and Eliel in the brisk January wind were in themselves a living testimony that their commitment for reconciliation is working.
Maren, what brings you here today?
Maren: I came here from Germany with a delegation of 70 people representing Christian organizations. We have a heart not just for Israel in general but also for the individual persons here.
Eliel, how does it feel to see all these German and Austrian pastors here?
Eliel: It's very special to be with this group because they represent such a major part of Germany. They are making a strong statement in saying: "we will stand with Israel." This is something that is really encouraging to see as an Israeli and as a Jew. It’s also very special to be here together with Maren because we went to Auschwitz together as part of the “Yad b’Yad” program.
How did it feel to go and lay a wreath together, as a German and an Israeli?
Maren: For me, it was a real honor. In my heart, there are two sides beating together: on the one hand, even though I don't look like it, I have Jewish blood in my ancestry line. On the other hand, I also have a great-grandmother who had quite a high position in the Nazi regime. It took us a long time - many years - for us as a family to overcome that.
I just met her once, when I was 1 1/2 year old. When she saw that my brother and I were the only ones in the family who were blonde with blue eyes, somehow we had the feeling that she wanted to pick us out in a sort of idolatrous furthering of the ancestry line. Somehow I was a "chosen one" for her. But I decided to do the opposite in my own life, and to really stand with Israel. And so I'm very honored to stand here… it's something that words cannot express.
It’s also a privilege to be able to organize these youth exchanges, because it's not just with words but also with deeds that we can really change something.
What do you think is the most important thing for young people in the future, and how is all of this connected to your faith?
Eliel: I think there’s an important lesson to be learned in this place – and the young people really have to learn it. It’s our history, our past, but these kinds of things can also happen today. The problem is that people don't learn... they forget. And it's hard for young people to relate to what happened because your mind cannot contain it.
For Israel, the Holocaust is a national wound, and it’s a wound for every Israeli. I think there is no way out of it apart from the cross and Jesus. He is the one who can take this burden from us and bring healing into our heart, with true reconciliation based on true love between our two nations.
Can you tell us more about the trips you lead to Auschwitz?
Eliel: We first took the Israeli kids – all believers in Yeshua – to Maren's church in Stuttgart. Then we went together to Auschwitz, and it was a very deep time.
Maren: When we go there, every Jewish teenager has a German partner. So the Israelis don't go there saying in a general way "these are the Germans who did this" because you cannot deal with such a large mass of people. But at that moment you have your German partner with you, one person who is an individual. In the first week of the program, they already build good friendships, and then finally they come to Auschwitz.
When we talk with the youth and ask them: "what is your biggest fear, what are you most afraid of?" they often answer: "that the experience in Auschwitz changes our friendship, that it breaks something." And the Germans kids say: "maybe my Israeli friend will not be able to look at me anymore."
I remember a situation last time, when we were standing there in the gas chamber. There was a boy - he was about 16 years old… at that very moment, he took a picture out of his pocket. It was a picture of his grandmother, and he said: "it was here where she took her last breath."
Then we had a ceremony, and I must admit that seeing the young teenagers, my mind could not really grasp what happened there. But I know that it's really worth it to invest in friendships with Israel – not just superficial friendships but deep ones, because friendships will be like a bridge between us.