Holocaust Survivors, Theologians Discuss Role of 'Righteous Gentiles'
Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2008-05-01
A panel of Jews and Christians shared thoughts on the humanitarian role that Gentiles and others played in the Holocaust during a program at Samford University Tuesday night (April 29).
"We called them the 'forever thankful'," Ingrid Roskin said of the people of various faiths who befriended her family of Dutch Jews and hid and protected her during the Holocaust.
"We were taught that we would be forever thankful to them," said Roskin.
Roskin told how, at age four, she was separated from her family after her father was arrested, then befriended by non-Jewish neighbors, and later hidden by an elderly Catholic couple in a village in the Polders, or reclaimed land in the Netherlands.
"We owe our existence to those people," said Roskin, who has lived in Miami, Fla., since 1953. She is the mother of Jessica Roskin, cantor at Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El.
Max Herzel, who was 10 when the Germans invaded his native Belgium in 1940, described how members of the Catholic faith aided his family after they sought refuge in France.
When French militiamen rounded Jews in his town, a French widow offered sanctuary to the Herzel family. "She told my father that her home would be our home," he said, adding that when his father was forced to hide in a forest for a week, the woman brought him food.
Later, a French doctor who cared for his mother after a nervous breakdown kept her at the Catholic-run hospital rather than discharge her to possible harm.
"He knew that she was Jewish and would be sent to a camp if released. Thanks to that doctor, my mother never saw another German soldier," said Herzel, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1948 and served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean conflict. He now lives in Homewood.
Roskin and Herzel were joined by Johannes Schwanke, a religion professor at Tubingen University in Germany, and Samford religion department chair Dr. Kenneth Roxburgh in a forum moderated by Samford provost Dr. Brad Creed.
The forum, "The Righteous Gentile: Thou Shall Not Stand Idly by the Blood of thy Neighbor," was part of a Days of Remembrance series at Samford April 29-May 1. The observance at the Baptist university was co-sponsored by the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Holocaust Education Committee.
Roskin noted that the "The Righteous" is her preferred term for those who came to the aid of families like hers, since many Jews worked in the Resistance.
Panelist Schwanke, a specialist on German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, explained how the Resistance leader's opinion on the persecution of Jews changed over time.
In 1933, Schwanke said, Bonhoeffer had declined to perform a funeral for his sister's father-in-law, who was a Jew. He later expressed regret for his refusal. In 1941, Schwanke said, Bonhoeffer helped Jews be received as immigrants in Switzerland.
"He is typical of someone who grew up in a well-informed family, but learned that the structures set by Adolf Hitler were non-acceptable. In Europe in the 1920s and '30s, he was a good example of how people learned about and came to understand the evilness of the Nazi regime, said Schwanke, who earlier in the day had lectured on Bonhoeffer to students at Samford's Beeson Divinity School.
During the '30 and early '40s, Bonhoeffer learned the importance of the sisterhood and brother hood of various faiths, bound together through a belief in a dignity of each person, in contrast to the pseudo-religion that Hitler had created.
Roxburgh cited Swiss theologian Karl Barth and British prime minister Winston Churchill for their wartime stands.
While Barth's initial opposition to Hitler's actions was based on Hitler's attempts to control the German church, Barth later broadened his disapproval to include all of the Hitler''s policies.
Through his writings, Barth made the Scottish church aware of what was happening, said Roxburgh, a native of Scotland and former pastor of Scottish Baptist churches.
Churchill, said Roxburgh, doesn't have a perfect record, but he consistently spoke against Hitler.
"He warned Europe that they must stand up against Hitler, that appeasement would not work," said Roxburgh.
While Churchill likely wouldn't call himself a righteous Gentile, his policies "were instrumental in taking down the regime."
The two survivors agreed that their experiences had resulted in deep respect for other faiths.
"Mother taught us to respect all faiths because if people of different faiths hadn't hid us, we wouldn't be here," said Roskin.
Herzel, who frequently speaks of his experiences at Christian schools, noted that working with other religions has strengthened his own religion and beliefs.
Both Roskin and Herzel have kept in touch with some of their "foster families" and their descendents through the years.
Roskin told how her former Dutch neighbors at first declined an invitation to be recognized in Israel for their heroic efforts in saving many Jews.
"The man said, "I did only what as a Dutchman and as a human being I should do'," recalls Roskin.
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