This coming week we have Holocaust Memorial Day - remembering one of the most horrific episodes in human history. It's a dark time which we shouldn't forget and a constant source of mourning not just for the Jewish community but for all of us. For many there has been a search for justice over the years and some of those who perpetrated the atrocities have been put on trial. We know many of these stories from television programmes but there was a programme this week that was different. It focussed on the trial of Oskar Groening, now in his nineties, who had been an accountant in Auschwitz. He wasn't responsible for sending peope to the gas chambers nor was he one giving orders. But he knew about the atrocities and did nothing to stop them. Now such people can be prosecuted.
The programme included memories from survivors - awful, moving, scary, incredible. Their stories leave me wondering how the human spirit survives such things and lives with such memories. An important story at the trial was that of Eva Kor, a twin who was subjected to terrible experimentation by Mengele, whose experience at Auschwitz was horrific but who somehow had found it in her heart to forgive the Nazis and at the trial embraced OskarGroening - much to the consternation of those who sought only justice. Many who had lost all their family objected and signed a petition against Eva, believing that forgiveness was just not possible in these circumstances, that only God can forgive. Others believed that there had to be an end to hatred and refused to sign the petition. For Eva forgiveness was a way of moving beyond a victim mentality. It gave her control of her life. She was so admirable and yet most of us know how difficult it can be to forgive when we have been deeply hurt or abused. It's a process that takes time and can't be done quickly or easily. It's very likely that Eva struggled for many years to reach this point but she does witness to how liberating it can be for those who can do it.
I've often thought that forgiveness has a place in interfaith relations, especially in terms of the healing of memories because faths have done terrible things to one another over the years and we need to acknowledge this together if we are to move on. The Holocaust was the result of a secular philosophy of eugenics and the Naziis were certainly not religious people. However the Catholic Church, in its document on the Shoah, admitted that centuries of anti-semitism had been the seed bed which had allowed Naziism to flourish. But, thank God, that has changed and both Christians and Jews now know that relationships between them have developed to the point that there is no going back.
Two recent initiatives illustrate this well. Just before Christmas the Pontifical Council for Ecumenism published a document on Catholic-Jewish relations. Two things are significant about this. First of all relations with the Jews does not come under the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue but is the concern of a committe within the department of ecumenism. This is because the Church recognises a family relationship with Judaism - after all Jesus and all his early followers were Jews. Judaism and Christianity emerged from the same root, they have a unique relationship. As the document says Judaism "is not to be considered simply as another religion; the Jews are instead our elder brothers". The other significant thing is that the document says quite explicitly that Catholics should not convert Jews, something which has been a bone of contention for a long time: "the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews". A Jewish friend tells me this caused a great deal of delight and discussion within the community. What is interesting too that Rabbi David Rosen from the Orthodox Jewish Community and Dr Ed Kessler from the Reform Community were both asked to comment on the document before its publication and were present when it was officially launched in Rome.
The second initiative was a statement signed by over 25 Orthodox rabbis from the United States, Israel and Europe. It invited others to sign on line - and one from Scotland has already done so. “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians” encourages Jews to accept the "hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters. Jews and Christians must work together as partners to address the moral challenges of our era". It recognises that the Shoah " was the warped climax to centuries of disrespect, oppression and rejection of Jews and the consequent enmity that developed between Jews and Christians. In retrospect it is clear that the failure to break through this contempt and engage in constructive dialogue for the good of humankind weakened resistance to evil forces of anti-Semitism that engulfed the world in murder and genocide" - something that the Catholic Church has also recognised and something that gives us motivation for engaging in interfaith relations. So too does the statement that Christianity is willed by God and that " In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies". Surely there is no better message in the week in which Holocaust Memoral Day falls?