Although he endured six years of brutal forced labor during the Holocaust, my father, Eli, remained an Orthodox Jew. As he served as president of the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway, one of the largest synagogues in the Bronx, I asked him how he was able to maintain his faith. He replied; ”I lost my faith in humanity, not God.”
This intersection between the ideals that religious faith provides and the descent into the horrors some of their so-called defenders galvanized is at the heart of the teachings of the noted Holocaust scholar and educator Eva Fleischner.
In “The Memory of Goodness: Eva Fleischner and Her Contributions to Holocaust Studies,” a series of essays edited and introduced by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth — who both are noted Holocaust scholars — we glean Fleischner’s thoughts on three major themes: How to teach about the Holocaust, rescue and responsibility, and issues related to Jewish-Christian relations.
Fleischner, who was born in 1925, was the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who later converted to Catholicism. Her family fled her native Vienna to escape the Nazis before the war started. In 1940, they emigrated to the United States. Fleischner became increasingly immersed in Hebrew Scriptures and the origins of Christian antisemitism. She earned her doctorate from Marquette University with her dissertation on German Christian theology. As an educator, primarily at Montclair State University, she was one of the first professors to teach a course on the Holocaust and was an active force in promoting Christian Jewish relations for the rest of her life. She died in 2020.
Fleischner wrote extensively about how Christianity evolved from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to what the historian Jules Isaac called Christianity’s “teaching of contempt,” which sowed the seeds of Hitler’s final solution.
If we teach about Jews as victims, Fleischner cautioned in the essay called “Challenges and Dangers in Teaching the Holocaust,” we must also teach about the glories of Jewish history, which culminated in the founding of the Jewish state. Israel “alive, independent — with all its problems — for the first time since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE speaks more eloquently than words about the resilience of the Jewish people.”
I found it perplexing then that in his concluding essay for this course, which he took 25 years after the state of Israel was founded, a Jewish student wrote — as Fleischner quoted in her essay — that “for the first time in his life he no longer felt ashamed to be a Jew.”
Today antisemites portray Israel as the personification of the so-called International Jew that was so deeply reviled by the Nazis. The stage for this was set in the 4th century by such odious Christian fathers as John Chrysostom, who preached that Jews “will live under the yoke of servitude without end… It is the duty of Christians to hate the Jews.” Holocaust education, in its focus on “never again,” must teach about combatting all hatred, including the prevalence of anti-Zionism on college campuses.
What about the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust? Fleischner conveyed her reservations about highlighting them. With only 27,921 Righteous Gentiles honored at Yad Vashem, when Europe contained hundreds of millions of people who either collaborated or did nothing, would this line of investigation distort the magnitude of the horrors the Jews faced?
But at the urging of Professor Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University and with funding from the Vidal Sassoon Foundation, she conducted a comprehensive study of French rescuers of Jews. She concluded, as she wrote in “Can the Few Become the Many? Some Catholics in France Who Saved the Jews During the Holocaust,” that the one common denominator shared by all the rescuers she interviewed was their compassion for fellow human beings who desperately needed their help.
One responded, for example, that “we helped them because they were victims, period.” Another said that “they were unjustly persecuted … they had nowhere else to go.” As Fleischner concluded, “Any oppressed human being is my neighbor, therefore, just as surely the Jew.” She was encouraged by Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s advice that “we all need models of goodness if we are to believe in life.”
Fleischner devoted decades to forging better ties and understanding between Christian and Jews. In this endeavor she worked with Elie Wiesel, Irving Greenberg, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. She outlined Heschel’s last-minute lobbying with Pope Paul VI to convince the pope to remove any reference to converting Jews in the historic Nostra Aetate document that came from Vatican II in 1964.
As Heschel wrote, if conversion is included in the document, “Jews throughout the world will be dismayed by a call from the Vatican to abandon their faith in a generation which witnessed the massacre of six million Jews and the massacre of thousands of synagogues.”
Even though the direct reference to conversion was removed, Nostra Aetate still quotes from John 14:6 that the only way to salvation is through belief in Christ.
Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are widely admired in Jewish circles, but what about Pope Pius XII, who presided over the Vatican during World War II? Fleischner writes about his personal piety and reverence for promoting and protecting the traditions of the church in “The Spirituality of Pius XII.” Pius never explicitly renounced the killing of Jews or used his office to combat Nazism, Fleischner writes. Instead she lists the pope’s “weapons”: prayer, devotion to the Virgin Mary and partaking in the Eucharist, and suffering as purification and redemption. “We need not remind you to offer your sickness for the preservation of your country and peace, ” Pius wrote to a bishop. He continued: “Where human efforts … are often helpless in face of the demonic powers of destruction, suffering which is accepted before God is perhaps the most precious gift that we shepherds of the Church are able to bring to this time.” Those are easy sentiments to proclaim when you are protected by the walls of the Vatican, even as millions are slaughtered outside those walls.
To examine the Vatican’s role during World War II, Fleischner participated with other Christian and Jewish scholars to review 11 volumes of documents prepared by the Vatican. After an extensive review of the documents, the scholars listed more than two dozen questions they found to be inadequately addressed by the heavily edited volumes provided.
In frustration, they withdrew from the project.
Considering this backdrop, efforts to bestow sainthood on Pius II will sow discord with Jews. Added to this are questions as to why it took decades after Israel’s founding for the Vatican to recognize Israel or for a pope to visit the Holy Land. I guess realpolitik was the prevailing ideology of the Vatican as it related to Jewish statehood in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
I was impressed with Fleischner’s love for the Jewish people in leading efforts with Christian scholars in accepting God’s enduring covenant with the Jewish people and the affinity of Christians and Jews to address the religious aspirations of their adherents.
“The Memory of Goodness” is an excellent memorial to Fleischner, but it’s also a valued toolbox as we build bridges between Christian and Jews as we work toward our common quest to bring the onset of the messianic world.
Perhaps if he considered Eva Fleischner’s contributions toward this goal, my late father might have had have greater faith in humanity.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.