Religious background of Holocaust
Anyone who bothers to investigate in any depth the Holocaust, and its many involved attendant subjects, inevitably encounters intellectual and emotional difficulties not usually met in other fields under examination. When studying the Holocaust, it is extremely difficult to maintain the same level of professional distance and objectivity that one practices with other subjects. Obviously, the magnitude of the destruction and suffering, the millions of lost lives and their untold stories, their unfulfilled hopes and dreams can be overwhelming. Furthermore, thoughtful and honest investigators will occasionally find that they have ...view middle of the document...
The previous centuries were certainly the high point of Jewish intellectual life in Europe, a fact that made more recent Polish anti-Judaism the more tragic.
The long reign of German-born empress Catherine the Great (d. 1796) saw the influx of perhaps a million Jews into Russia and was marked by her giving them their first political rights in Europe. She settled them on land, however, as a device to keep them out of economic occupations and the professions. The early nineteenth-century tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I pressed 12-year old Jewish boys into military service for up to twenty-five years. The Orthodox Church subjected them to conversionary sermons, leading to riots and slaughter later in the century. Many an older U.S. Jew has heard vivid tales from grandparents of repressive measures in the old country, including the need to lock oneself in one’s house on Good Friday against marauding ruffians.
In 1905 a certain Serge Nilus who had a position at court wrote an account of a supposed conspiracy of “elders of Zion” under twenty-four headings (“Protocols”) in which all Christian society, education, and the press would be corrupted and brought low by Jewish economic power. Nicholas II, no mean anti-Jew himself, discovered them to be a forgery but nothing prevented their diffusion as a document taken seriously on the eve of the Russian revolution in German, French and English translation.
Returning to Germany, we find Martin Luther in his early days naively imagining that the Jews, to whom he was attracted by his studies, would flock to the Church in his reformed version. When nothing of the sort happened he denounced them in a set of pamphlets written in vituperative fury. He had produced the early, favourable “That Christ Was Born a Jew” in 1523 but after he turned on this so-called “damned, rejected race,” he wrote Against the Sabbatarians (1538) and On the Jews and Their Lies (1543). Luther learned nothing new or true about the Jewish people but reverted to the popular scapegoating in which he had been reared. The last-named of these writings recalls the medieval burning of Talmudic scrolls in the public square. The pamphlet said that rabbis should not be allowed to teach or to travel; banking and commerce should be professions closed to Jews; and, to settle the matter finally, this people ought to be expelled from German lands as France, Spain, and Bohemia had done.
Luther’s 1543 treatise accepted as fact the slander that Jews had been responsible for the deaths of many Christian children. This “blood libel” was the charge in the Middle Ages that Jews slaughtered Christian babies to mix their blood with matzoth at Passover time. A well-known instance was the legend of the boy Hugh, supposedly martyred in 1255 and buried in the cathedral in Lincoln. The Prioress’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386 and following) gives a graphic simulation of the supposed happening which kept it alive in literary memory.