Why Are Jews So Sensitive about the Holocaust?

On June 5, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate the 60th anniversary of her ascension to the throne. In the past six decades, she far and away has become the most-traveled human being in history. More people have seen her in person than any other figure. 

She has visited distant Australia 16 times, Canada 24 times. She has ridden elephants in India and Polynesian longboats in Fiji. She has walked atop the Great Wall of China and removed her shoes to visit mosques in the Arab world. She has met every American President since Harry S Truman. 

Yet, only last year, in the 59th year of her reign, did she presume to visit the Irish Republic. Once, not that long ago, it was said that she would never go to Ireland, at least officially as head of the British state, because Irish resentment after the centuries of British occupation still stung the Irish so much. 

Deeply Hurtful Memories

Finally in 2011, the Irish government considered it opportune to invite her to visit Ireland. Her time in Ireland was a great success, on balance, but still, demonstrations and angry protests took place. Rare is the Irish-American who is unaware of the longstanding, deeply hurtful memories among the Irish leading back to those four centuries of harsh rule from London. 

Some years ago, as Ecumenical Officer for the Diocese of Nashville, I became particularly active in Catholic–Jewish relations. Because of these contacts, I acquired some sense of what the Holocaust, or to use the Hebrew term, Shoah, means to Jews, even to Jewish Americans, and the horror and terror that it invokes. 

Even in their most cruel moments, the British never planned systematically to kill the entire Irish race. It would be ridiculous therefore to compare all that Adolf Hitler’s philosophy and government did with regard to European Jewry with British harshness in Ireland. Indeed, given the supreme dignity of each human life, it would be obscene even to suggest a comparison. 

The anger that is still quite fresh in the Irish side of my family, in spite of generations born on these American shores, however, provided me with perspective better to understand modern Jews’ reaction to all that happened in Germany, and in its subject territories, between 1933 and 1945. 

Brutality, hatred and humiliation injure the human spirit very badly. Such is human nature, and the ugliness that not uncommonly passes from generation to generation cannot be erased at whim, especially if it flows amid other distresses and fears. 

Understanding Jewish reaction to the Holocaust requires realizing Jewish history. From the invasion by the Babylonians of the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah 25 centuries ago until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, at no time and in no place were Jews ultimately in control of their own collective or individual lives. 


It does not end with ancient times, nor does the story miss the United States. America has its long, disgraceful story of anti-Semitism, at times overt, at times subtle, such as when in cities Jews were prevented from purchasing residential property in certain areas or when American hospitals denied, or at least made difficult, access by Jewish physicians to their medical staffs. The list of affronts not that old is long, and virtually constant, and each entry represents insult and denial of opportunity. 

There is a Christian angle, often more exactly a Catholic angle. Jews, if not outright victims, were only tolerated, always at the mercy of others, usually Christians, and in Europe often Catholics. In this country, in its history brief by comparison, while Catholics also have usually had to pull and stretch to succeed, a “Christian culture” has long prevailed. This culture has assured Jews of no relief. To the contrary, at times it has fueled prejudice against them. 

Not at all surprisingly, the sense of having been abused, of being vulnerable still to abuse, is part of the Jewish DNA. 

Persecution has been ancient in its beginnings and relentless in its continuance, such as the ruthless expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula about the time Christopher Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic, or as the strategized persecution of Jews in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus under a succession of Romanov czars. This is essential to understanding how Jews view the Holocaust. 

Still, not even in the worst of times could anything hold a candle to the Holocaust. 

Why? Adolf Hitler’s idea (and it must be remembered that his idea was a reality in much of Europe) was not to contain the Jewish population or to abuse the Jewish population or to press the Jewish population into some tyrannical effort that he designed, but rather to annihilate the Jewish population, including everyone, however innocent, even babes in the cradle. Then, witness six million well-documented cases. Hitler was on the way indeed to destroying all Jews. 

All racial, ethnic and religious groups have their stories of great deeds and great people and also of terrible things. Catholics excite at stories of martyrs and saints, even of terrible things that happened recently, such as the oppression of Catholics by Communists between the coming of Marxism in Russia during the First World War and the fall of the Iron Curtain 20 years ago. 

For modern Jews, however, who frequently have familial ties or other associations with those who died in the Holocaust, it is no wonder that the reality of all that happened in the 1930s and 1940s still is vivid. It furthermore involves a personal angle. It gathers into one fearful sense the remembrance of being rejected and of being at risk, and it excludes no Jew. There never has been genuine security. History teaches that terror for Jews can come anywhere, at any time. Hard times can return, even in this country with all its supposed guarantees. Other minorities in America also know that the constitutional guarantees are not as consistent or as wide as our patriotic thoughts might wish. 

Catholics may try to draw links between their past of persecution and that of Jews. Softening Christian memories of their own persecution is the fact that, obviously with interruptions for a time here or there, Christians and Christian philosophy have controlled Western civilization for 17 centuries, despite the fact that Christians often have battled among themselves. In this place or that, at this time or another, Christians have suffered, but they have come back — often to dominate again. 

This status of being in control, this return to the pinnacle after a diversion, is not a Jewish experience, notwithstanding the vitality of the State of Israel or the lip-service world public opinion currently pays to human rights. 

Where Was God?

Finally, and for religiously observant Jews, and Jews truly alert to their history, this is vital. Classic Hebrew theology always has revolved around one great belief, namely that God is the protector. In the awfulness of the Holocaust, where was God? The question provokes a cynicism and denial of belief itself that further haunts the issue. 

(As even well-intentioned, open-minded and tolerant Catholics often fail to grasp the full meaning of the Holocaust for Jews, every Catholic who visits Jerusalem simply must go to Yad Vashem, the imposing memorial to, and museum about, the Holocaust. By the same token, since Americans now quite easily can enter Poland, and as the magnificent city of Krakow is an attraction, no Catholic should visit the region of Krakow without seeing Auschwitz and Birkenau, the notorious German concentration camps where literally millions of Jews were brutalized and died. And, in this country, the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C., is an excellent site to use to get a sense of the Shoah and of its scope in death and planning. (One Catholic high school takes students each January to Washington’s March for Life, visiting the memorial in the process. Good for them.) 

Seldom a Happy Encounter

Over the centuries, Catholicity has intersected, officially and at the level of popular opinion and lore, with Jews. It seldom has been an encounter that was happy, Christian or even humane, in its results. 

So, rarely if ever did European Jews look upon the papacy as benign when it came to respecting them or their heritage or their religion. True, harshness on the part of Catholic authorities, Popes included, came by ebb as well as by flow. Overall, for Jews, life in Catholic Europe, and in Catholic Rome, never was one brilliant time of congeniality and of being accepted. 

It is no wonder that in the 1860s and 1870s when Garibaldi’s movement to unify Italy, a movement heavy with anti-clericalism when Catholic priests and bishops were the only clerics, and precisely with its demand that papal civil authority be ended, Italian Jews overwhelmingly supported the new order. 

This support, by the way, did little to warm attitudes about Jews among Italians, admittedly in the minority, who preferred a continuance of what was the Papal States, and it did little to elevate regard for Jews in Vatican circles. At best, even now, and precisely in this country, the fact has been distancing, maybe denied or maybe excepted for this time or purpose or others, as well as suspicion, maybe concealed. Look at ordinary Catholic life today in America. Since Blessed Pope John XXIII, good, constructive relations with Jews have been high on the Vatican agenda. It is not so in almost every American parish. 

Against this history, and these contemporary conditions, assessments of Pope Pius XII’s role in the mid-20th century, when the Holocaust raged, must be seen. Here is another burden in this process of dialogue and especially regarding Pius XII and the Holocaust. The Pope is, in the minds of many, now as in the past, the embodiment of the Roman Catholic Church. It is understandable. Catholic theology and Church law invest the Roman pontiff with authority and privileges, “sovereign, immediate and ordinary.” Catholics pray for the reigning Pope in each Eucharist. His likeness usually festoons the walls of Catholic buildings. He receives the greatest deference. 

However, in their heart of hearts, any Catholics who know history or see clearly the present are quite aware that very seldom has a papal pronouncement resulted in lockstep conformity among Catholics. Yet, others, if not Catholic, often do not realize this. Thus, it is assumed that, at the time of the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII, or his predecessor, Pope Pius XI, who died in 1939, had more control over Catholics than actually was the case. 

In the places where it most mattered, in Germany or in German-occupied Europe, where Jews actually were hunted and killed, the Gestapo had things much in check. Also, call it cowardice, but by and large people thought first about what humans usually consider first and have considered first whenever stresses have presented themselves. They thought about their own survival. 

Furthermore, which European state at the time would have championed, with any effect, a papal demand that the slaughter of the Jews be stopped? On which European state at the time could Pius XII truly depend? Italy? The Church had lived uneasily with Mussolini, and many Catholics, including bishops and priests, were admirers, even ardent admirers at times of the Duce. France? France was on its knees and, in any event, relations between the Vatican and the French republic had not been that good since the overthrow of Napoleon III in 1870. Spain? Spain was reeling after its disastrous civil war. Poland? Poland was crushed. Germany? Germany was a tyranny. Germany had ignored and trespassed upon Catholic interests. It hardly would have relaxed the Final Solution simply because of papal urgings. What about the United States? Cordell Hull, Secretary of State at the time, made clear in his memoirs that Pius XII was kept at arm’s length, regardless of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “affection” for “his old friend,” the Pope. Britain? Britain was looking in the face of its own destruction. 

Where Was Pius XII?

All this well may seem pragmatic given the fact that Pope Pius XII, as are all pontiffs, was considered a great moral voice. Catholics rejoice in this papal role, taking pride when a Pope stands a moral ground in the face of outrage. Where in this greatest of outrages was Pius XII? This not necessarily is a prejudiced question. 

In reality, his objective had to have been to save Jewish lives — but also the lives of many other innocents who were, or who could be, in peril. This blunt necessity put his limitations, as well as the consequences of what might have been the result of another strategy, in the context of being critically important. 

Could he have done more to befriend the hunted Jews? That he did very much is discounted. That he did much and then much more is overlooked. That his walking a tight rope at least seemed to be, and it may be well said, a deterrent to further killing, is dismissed by critics is a tragedy, and thus Catholics, for the Church, for truth, and for the honor of a good and careful pastor, must assert the facts in his behalf. 

But, they must seek to understand all who speak in the debate. TP

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest magazine and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.