I Am My Brother's Keeper
“I Am My Brother's Keeper”
“Our town is burning, brothers, burning,
Our poor little town is burning
Angry winds are fanning higher
The leaping tongues of flame and fire,
The evil winds are roaring!
Our whole town burns!
And you stand looking with folded arms
And shake your heads.
You stand looking on with folded arms.”
–Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942), murdered in Krakow
Mordechai Gebirtig's poem from 1938 "S'brennt" was a response to a pogrom in the town of Przytyk in Poland. It shows well how indifference and silence from its onlookers characterized the pre-Holocaust as well as the Holocaust period. A very specific responsibility for the events of the Holocaust is shared by Christians. The Holocaust could not have taken place unless anti-Jewish attitudes already existed. Those very attitudes in Europe had been shaped by Christian anti-Semitism, which throughout centuries had blamed, persecuted and murdered the Jews. What happened during WWII was an addition to an already existing foundation. I personally feel that even today Christians, as a community of believers, have not fully understood the implications of the Holocaust to our faith and value system.
When discussing the Holocaust, increasingly the biblical word Shoah (which has been used to mean “destruction” since the Middle Ages) has become the standard Hebrew term for the murder of European Jewry. The word Holocaust, which came into use in the 1950s as the corresponding term, originally meant a sacrifice burnt entirely on the altar. The selection of these two words with religious origins reflects recognition of the unprecedented nature and magnitude of the events.
Yad Vashem was founded by an act of the Israeli Knesseth in 1953 to document, research, commemorate and educate about the Shoah. Christian Friends of Yad Vashem (CFYV) was established in October 2006 in cooperation with the International Christian embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) to raise awareness about the Shoah and its universal lessons in Christian communities. Referring to the poem by Gebirtig, precisely because Christians remained silent during the persecutions, today we need to educate our communities so that we will not stand looking on ever again. I believe that to this end Christians worldwide need to get involved with Yad Vashem’s mission. Today we are working with an increasing variety of nations, churches and organizations in order to educate about the Holocaust and Yad Vashem's mission.
In the summer of 2013 Yad Vashem opened an exhibition called "I Am My Brother's Keeper," which honors the Righteous Among the Nations, the Holocaust period non-Jewish rescuers of Jews. As many of you may know, trees have been planted in honor of the Righteous Among the Nations in the campus of Yad Vashem; each tree is attached to a specific Righteous, as a way of reminding us of their personal inspirational stories. The legacy of the Righteous Among the Nations is worth commemorating for it shows that even under tyranny and oppression men and women have the inborn right and capacity to act upon moral precepts. Moreover, this story is fitting for Christians because we need to follow in the footsteps of the Righteous. Hungarian Imre Bathory, who was recognized as a Righteous, said: “I know when I will stand before the Lord on the Day of Judgment, I will not be asked the same question Cain was asked. ‘Where were you when your brother’s blood cried out from the ground?’”
May 2014 be a year of responsible learning, of moments of understanding and acting.
- Dr. Susanna Kokkonen
Director, Christian Friends of Yad Vashem
Dr. Susanna Kokkonen, affectionately called “A Christian Ambassador for the Holocaust,” is the Director, Christian Friends of Yad Vashem. Originally from Finland, she travels around the world to speak to audiences about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and Israel. She is skilled in presenting difficult content in a way that touches hearts and inspires positive action and reconciliation between people and the past.