2016-10-12 / Voice at the Shore

Pastor discusses Church’s role in Holocaust during Atlantic County Library’s lecture series

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor

What was the Church doing while Hitler was carrying out his Final Solution?

That was the subject of a talk lead by Reverend Jeffrey Rickards at the Atlantic County Library in Egg Harbor Township on September 27. The program, which highlighted the courageous actions of anti-Nazi pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was part of the Atlantic County Library System’s ongoing series, “Pathways to History: Remembering Rescue and Resistance During World War II.” The series, which runs through November, features programs led by Holocaust survivors, academics and religious leaders like Rickards, the spiritual head of Grace Lutheran Church in Somers Point.

Roughly 25 local community members came out to hear more about Church involvement in the Holocaust and to discuss their own personal reflections on World War II and Nazism. Following Rickards presentation, a lively discussion ensued that even touched on the Church’s stance on the current anti-Israel Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Rickards began his talk by acknowledging the “shameful anti-Semitism” of Lutheran Church founder Martin Luther. He also acknowledged the Church’s role in complying with the Nazis.

“As a pastor, I confess the Church’s guilt in being complicit,” he said emphatically.

Rickards himself was inspired to study the Church’s action during World War II after hearing his own pastor speak about Bonhoeffer, a theologian killed by the Nazis for publicly speaking out against their evil policies and for criticizing the Church’s support of Hitler.

Prior to World War II, as Hitler came to power in Germany, there was intense pressure for clergy to get in line with the Nazi way of thinking, said Rickards. Encouraged by Hitler, the Church even sought to deny that Jesus was Jewish, redefining him as “Galilean” and thus Aryan. Theologians of that time saw themselves as caught between two devils— Stalin and Hitler—and most ultimately chose Hitler, closing their eyes to his inhuman, genocidal policies, the pastor explained.

Bonhoeffer, a young but prominent German theologian and writer, was a shining exception. In a famous address to a gathering of fellow clergymen in 1933, he insisted the Church could not support a government that failed in its obligation to create law and order, and he called upon the Church to aid victims of wrongful state actions—even if those victims were non- Christians.

“Bonhoeffer was declaring it the duty of the Church to stand up for Jews,” said Rickards. “This was too much for his clerical colleagues,” he added, who walked out of the meeting.

The Nazis ultimately came after Bonhoeffer for his outspoken and persistent opposition to their policies, first harassing him, then incarcerating him and sending him to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally executing him via hanging at the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 8, 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by U.S. soldiers.

In addition to telling Bonhoeffer’s story, Rickards also told the group of his own memories relating to World War II. He recalled coming upon a picture of Hitler in an encyclopedia and asking his father who that was. His father, who had never before cursed in front of his son, responded by saying: “That bastard took four years out of my life and the lives of millions of innocent people.”

One Jewish woman at the program expressed concern that the past was repeating itself, even now, through the BDS movement, which she described as a veiled form of anti- Semitism. “After the Palestinians rejected [proposals that would have given them] their own state three times, why do we see Christian denominations, one after another, supporting the Palestinians and BDS? Here you are talking about the past, but what about today?”

The pastor acknowledged that many Christian denominations, including his own, had come out in support of BDS, but that there was a lot of “push back” within these denominations, with many members—himself included— opposing this policy. Notably, few program attendees knew of the BDS movement.

Reverend Rickards also briefly touched on the subject of Holocaust denial.

“There are deniers who say description of places like Auschwitz are widely exaggerated,” he noted. “If there are any deniers in South Jersey, I invite them to come and listen to Betty [Grebenschikoff] and Sonia [Kaplan],” he said, referring to two Holocaust survivors who are part of the ACLS series, which began in early September. An upcoming program 6:30 pm Thursday, October 13th at the Galloway Library will feature Sonia Kaplan, local author of “My Endless War... and My Shattered Dreams.”

For more information on the ACLS Reads series on Rescue and Resistance During World War II, go to www.altlanticlibrary.org or call your local ACLS branch library. 

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