WARNING: Facebook flagged this sermon as too political. See what you think.
As a history buff, I thought I knew all about World War II. But I learned a lot watching Ken Burns’ new documentary “The U.S. and Holocaust.”
First of all, I learned that not everyone called World War II World War II: “This is not the Second World War. This is the Great Racial War. The meaning of this war and the reason we are fighting is to decide whether the German and the Aryan will prevail or if the Jew will rule the world.” So said Adolph Hitler’s second-in-command Hermann Goering.
In the 1930s, Hitler rose to power peddling a big lie: That the Germans hadn’t lost World War I. Germany had been stabbed in the back by elites and communists, who were all controlled by Jews.
As Hitler gained more power, more pressure and persecution mounted for German Jews. When Americans were polled and asked the question: Is the treatment of German Jews partly or entirely their fault?” 66% of Americans said yes.
Then came November 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass – when Hitler’s thugs looted Jewish businesses, burned synagogues, and arrested Jewish men, sending them to the first of Germany’s new concentration camps.
I thought the American people didn’t know about the Holocaust until the end of World War II. But Kristallnacht made front page news in American newspapers. 94% of Americans condemned the persecution. But only 30% of Americans were in favor of increasing America’s strict immigration quotas to give German Jews a safe haven from their horror.
Half of Germany’s 500,000 Jews had applied for visas to emigrate to other nations. But neither the European democracies nor the United States were willing welcome them. When the Third Reich was condemned for its anti-Semitism, Hitler laughed, saying: “You don’t want them either.”
Thankfully, Otto and Edith Frank and their two daughters Margo and Ann were able to escape from Germany to Holland. There the Franks applied for a visa to come to America, but given the tight quotas of America’s severe immigration laws, they wouldn’t be eligible to leave Europe for many years. And, of course, by then it would be too late.
America’s tight immigration laws reflected the will of most Americans: In the 1930s, 85% of American Protestants and Catholics opposed welcoming refugees – as did 25% of American Jews. In the middle of the Great Depression, isolationism and a widely held belief in “America First” prevailed as Americans were understandably desperate and fearful, focused on feeding their families and finding work.
Popular voices in the media also weighed in to harden public opinion: America’s “Radio Priest” Father Coughlin, who repeatedly praised Hitler’s “brave” fascist stand against “communistic Jews,” darkly warned that Jewish bosses in America would fire their Christian workers so that Jewish refugees could take their jobs. America’s hero Charles Lindbergh, who had visited Germany and was impressed with Nazi military might, used his popularity to argue for American neutrality. Lindberg later argued against war with Germany, saying that America should not fight “for England and for Jews.” And the far-right was active: The German American Bund was a pro-Nazi organization that proudly displayed the American and Nazi flags side-by-side as they peddled the fiction that George Washington was “the first fascist” who had never believed in democracy.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, only 20% of Americans supported arming England and France. 50% of Americans were in favor of selling arms to both sides: To Europe’s democracies and to Hitler’s Germany.
With his blitzkrieg conquest of Poland, Hitler suddenly had 3 million additional Jewish lives under his control. Killing centers were constructed in Poland. The largest was Auschwitz. The Final Solution had begun.
As the war went on, rumors then photos then eye witness testimony increasingly leaked out regarding atrocities, but the Allies kept their focus on winning the war as the best way to stop the Holocaust. The judgment was made that aerial bombardment of rail lines leading to Auschwitz couldn’t be risked. Military morale, it was argued, could be hurt if airmen knew they were risking their lives to save Jews. If American lives were lost in an effort to save Jews, it was feared that the national will needed to win the war might be weakened, thus aiding and abetting the Nazis. These considerations prevailed, ensuring that the killing of innocents in Auschwitz and elsewhere continued.
In November 1943, news of the concentration camps made headlines in America. But less than half of the Americans polled believed the reports that 2 million had been murdered. It was later determined that 4 million had been exterminated by that time – with another 2 million Jews still to be slaughtered.
In 1945 when the Allies liberated the camps, the full horror was exposed. Eisenhower toured Buchenwald. A G.I. named Joseph A. Wyant saw the gas chambers, ovens, and the unburned corpses and wrote his father: “This particular crime has been uncovered, Pop. But a worse crime seems to me to be the spreading of the thought that leads to this type of thing. It has happened in mass proportions here in Germany, but who knows how far the ideas have spread? Or where else it may break out? I tell you, Pop, even more important than the punishment of the criminals here is the stamping out of their philosophy. As I wrote to you before, this is not a war between nations, but humanity’s struggle for the right to exist. If you see fit, I wish you would show any of your friends this letter.”
Tens of millions died in World War II – including 6 million Jews. 1.5 million Jews who died were children – including Ann Frank, whose hope to reach America was never fulfilled. The staggering scale of the crime so defied description that a new word was coined: Genocide. The systematic eradication of an ethnic group or culture. The Nazis also took special care to exterminate Roma, homosexuals, and those who they called “needless mouths”: the mentally ill, the physically disabled, and children with birth defects.
With the war finally over, America knew the full extent of the horror, but after World War II only 5% of Americans wanted to receive more refugees. 33% of Americans wanted fewer. Other Allied nations felt the same, which was cold comfort to those European Jews still left alive.
Thankfully, there were courageous American individuals and groups that took action before, during, and after the war to save Jews: the YMCA, the Quaker Church through the Friends Service Committee, the Unitarian Service Committee, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and others. Individual diplomats quietly – often illegally – issued thousands of visas and worked with local resistance groups to save every Jewish life that they could.
In the end, America admitted 225,000 Jewish refugees – far more than any other nation. 225,000 is approximately the attendance at the 500 Mile Race in Speedway. But 6 million Jews were exterminated. 6 million is the population of Indiana.
Why the history lesson, John? Because as Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and attacks against democracy sadly are all alive and well. We saw a sick echo of Nazi Germany here in America in 2017 at Charlottesville when thugs marched with torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Hate crimes continue to rise. There has been mass murder of Jews in Pittsburgh, of Hispanics in El Paso, of African-Americans in Buffalo, and of gays in Orlando. Popular voices in the media warn that refugees will take jobs and weaken America. We hear calls for “America First.” For walls to be built and for “them” to be kept out.
Our gospel story today spells out the eternal consequences when we choose to ignore those who suffer. Lazarus, who was left by the gate to suffer; who was shut outside the wall, died. The rich man, who did nothing to help, died, too. There’s lots of death in this story. There’s lots of death in our story; in our past. But the future is another matter.
We cannot change the past, but we can work together with God and each other to build a better tomorrow. One that is not defined by hate, fear, and death, but shaped instead by love, hope, and life.
You all know what that future is like – because you have already lived it. This congregation helped Lote, a Cambodian refugee in the 1970s. The Munros welcomed her into their home. Lote is now a pastor’s wife, a proud grandmother, and a proud American. Lote wasn’t a threat to shut out. Lote was a blessing to welcome – and you did.
Just like you are now welcoming the Honduran family that the Deacons are helping here in Crawfordsville and the Afghan family that we, along with 4 other Crawfordsville churches, are helping to settle in Brownsburg.
Don’t listen to voices of hate and fear. Continue to follow God’s call to love and welcome everyone just as Jesus Christ loves and welcomes us all. That’s the Gospel. That’s the Kingdom of God. That’s genuine hope for our world. That’s true promise for our future. That’s God’s way and it is here for us all to live.