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Teaching the Holocaust at a Christian College

For 16 years, my college classroom put ‘love thy neighbor’ to the test in ways that resonated across religions

Jack R. Fischel
January 27, 2021
Messiah CollegeWikipedia
Messiah CollegeWikipedia

Messiah University is a Christian college located outside of Harrisburg, in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. A faith-based institution, it is broadly evangelical Christian, but whose student body of 3,300 undergraduate and graduate students also includes a variety of Christian faith traditions (Mennonite, Brethren, a small number of Catholics, and Jews for Jesus, among others). Its faculty is Christian who, upon being employed, sign a contract that states that they adhere to the Apostles’ Creed.

Although Messiah’s students are required to attend 14 chapel services each semester, the school’s curriculum is largely derived from the liberal arts. All juniors and seniors, before they graduate, are required to choose one interdisciplinary course which reflects diverse perspectives that face our society so as to better understand their own faith. Among the seven interdisciplinary courses that students can choose from is “Pluralism in Contemporary Society.” Based in the humanities division, the course expects students to examine from the Christian perspective issues, such as religion, race, ethnicity, gender, class, and how inequality, prejudice, and discrimination impact on their own lives as Christians. In 2003, Messiah College asked me to teach two course sections about the Holocaust during the fall semesters.

Having just retired from Millersville University, where I had taught for 38 years, I found the offer tempting. I had written hundreds of articles in various publications on different aspects of Jewish history and culture as well as published or edited nine books on the Holocaust, including The Holocaust, a book written for college and graduate students.

The challenge of teaching Holocaust at a Christian college reminded me of my experience introducing the first African American history course in Lancaster County, which was subsequently approved in Millersville University’s history curriculum. Unlike teaching Black history, where my color was obvious (I’m white), teaching the Holocaust presented the inverse dilemma: Would students think that my being Jewish would cloud my objectivity? Or could only a Jewish historian convey the tragedy that befell the Six Million? But then I was reminded that non-Jewish scholars like Christopher Browning , Peter Hayes, Peter Longerich, Father Patrick Desbois, Tim Snyder, Susan Zuccotti, among others, have all published important books on the Holocaust. That debate, unfortunately, continues to be argued. I decided not to reveal my religious affiliation because as a professional historian, my ethnicity or religious identity should not matter. For the next 16 years, however, students would subtly—and at times not so subtly—attempt to ascertain whether I was Jewish.

Prior to accepting Messiah’s invitation, I discovered that the offer to teach the Holocaust course was a result of meetings between the college president and the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center (HJCC). It appears that the friendship between Messiah’s president and a member of the HJCC board resulted in Messiah College agreeing not to renew its contract with the Jews for Jesus organization, which for years had contracted with the college for its summer programming. Thus, upon learning that Jews for Jesus was an affront to Jewish identity, the college president agreed, in the name of better relations with the Harrisburg Jewish community, to not only discontinue its summer programming with the Jews for Jesus organization but also to offer a course on the Holocaust.

In the weeks before teaching at Messiah, I received advice from my colleagues at Millersville University that I would find the students would be very “conservative” and narrow-minded, and that they probably believed that the Holocaust resulted from the Jews not accepting Jesus as the Christ. None of this panned out. My experience was that the students, for the most part, were open-minded and sincerely interested in the subject. A large number had been introduced to the Holocaust in high school through their reading of The Diary of Anne Frank and Night by Elie Wiesel. Furthermore, many of my students had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and still others had been on student trips to Dachau and Auschwitz.

As Christians, how can you believe in a just, forgiving, and loving God, who allows for the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children?

In putting my syllabus together, I was mindful that as Christians, my students would approach the Holocaust from their own religious perspective. Indeed, one of my examination questions asked, “What was the obligation of Christians in the face of the persecution and subsequent mass murder of European Jews?” On the first day of class, I challenged students (for extra credit) to write an essay on the New Testament from the perspective of a Jew—how much would they find that constituted anti-Jewish hatred? I also assigned Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies,” which led to a discussion as to how a Christian should react to Luther’s incendiary attacks against the Jews, which included the burning of their synagogues. It dawned on me that questions about Christian culpability for the Holocaust would in fact be more difficult to explore in a public college such as Millersville University or any other liberal arts colleges, lest Christian students take offense.

Required reading for my Messiah students included my own book, The Holocaust, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, Night by Elie Wiesel, and Your Name Is Renée by Stacy Cretzmeyer. The latter book is the story of Ruth Kapp Hartz who survived the Holocaust as a hidden child at age 5 in Vichy France. During the years that I taught at Messiah, Ruth often visited my classes to talk about her childhood experiences growing up hiding, first with a Christian family and then in a convent, where she was raised as a Christian. It was only after the war that Ruth learned that she was Jewish after being reunited with her survivor parents who gradually restored her to Judaism. Students took warmly to her story.

Browning’s book allowed me to raise questions of how ordinary Germans, drafted into German police battalions, raised in a predominately Christian country, and not necessarily harboring anti-Semitic attitudes, could become cold-blooded killers, once they were sent to the eastern front. Students were challenged to discuss whether peer pressure and orders to kill trumped their own Christian upbringing as they were assigned to shoot Jewish men, women, and children. Where was the Christian conscience during the Holocaust? Class discussion surrounding Browning’s use of the term “the circle of human obligation” also forced students to think about the responsibility that bystanders during the Holocaust had toward their Jewish fellow countrymen.

Addressing my students, I asked, would you help people different than you—Muslims, African Americans—and during the Holocaust would they have protested the persecution and mass murder of the Jews? In Nazi Germany, too many German citizens looked the other way as German Jews were deported to the death camps; because of Nazi propaganda they were indoctrinated to believe that Jews were outside their circle of obligation. Additional discussions included Browning’s argument with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, that the Holocaust was Germany’s response to hundreds of years of the teaching of contempt, from religious anti-Judentum to anti-anti-Semitism. If so, does this mean that Christianity was culpable in building the foundation for the Holocaust?

Although a number of students had read Night by Elie Wiesel in high school, I used the book to discuss the question of where God was during the Holocaust. As Christians, how can you believe in a just, forgiving, and loving God, who allows for the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children? Many responded that God gives us “free will,” which resulted in God not interfering in the choices made by his creations. (In Judaism, it compares to the belief that we are given the choice of following our yetzer tov, the good impulse, or yetzer hara, the evil impulse.) A number of students argued that God during the Holocaust suffered along with the Jews.

During my early years at Messiah, we visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum each semester. In part the students payed a modest fee for the bus trip but the larger part of the cost was supplemented by the college. Although a number of my students had visited the museum during their high school years, the trip to the museum provided a more meaningful experience than their first visit. Of the more than 70 students in both of my sections, more than three-quarters attended the trip. An added inducement was that the college allowed them chapel credit for the museum visit. Over the years, because of the uncertainty of exams in their majors, and other factors—field trips, job interviews, etc.—an increasing number of students would cancel their reservations at the last minute. Fewer students made filling a bus more expensive, and in my last years at the college, the cost became prohibitive, and the museum trip was eliminated from the syllabus.

Aside from giving extra credit to students for writing on approved topics relating to the Holocaust, such as film reviews, they were also exposed to documentaries about the Shoah. On the day of the final exam, I showed the documentary that the BBC filmed when the British army liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945, as well as additional concentration camps, where the Allies found and filmed the skeletal bodies of the victims of the Nazi genocide. The film made quite an impression and brought home to my students the horror of the Holocaust.

What lessons did my students appear to learn from the course? The following are a small number of student responses to my question on the responsibility of Germany’s Christians for the Nazi war against the Jews, as well as the reaction of an ostensibly Christian world to the murder of European Jewry. As stated above, I would not have been surprised, as I had been told by my former colleagues, that a number would have answered that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the Jews’ crucifixion of Jesus and rejection of him as the Christ. This response, however, was not forthcoming. Instead, students responded as follows:

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves … that was the same duty that Christians in Germany had in regard to the Jews … we are sinful, selfish humans who look out more for ourselves than for our neighbors … many decided that it was safer to stay within their borders and not reach out to help the Jews in their suffering.
Christians are in some ways blamed/partially responsible for the Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. … Martin Luther wrote horrible things about Jews, In On the Jews and their lies, he wrote, the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their … lineage of circumcision and law must be accounted as filth.” Given this sentiment, it is simple to understand why a divided and crumbling Germany would look to scapegoat a vulnerable group of people like the Jews.
Jesus says that the greatest love you can give someone is to lay down your life for them. This is to me undeniable proof … as a Christian that it was absolutely our responsibility to go into Germany and save as many Jews as possible. Christians have the obligation to fight on the front lines fighting to save even one life.
The Catholic and Protestant churches did little to alleviate the Jew’s suffering: they did not grasp the reality of their responsibility to the Jewish people. The Jewish people are indeed God’s people … and God wants us to care for Jews … Instead of taking responsibility, the church allowed itself to succumb to pluralistic ignorance … rejecting the idea that Jews are less than human as the Nazis suggested. … The least the church could have done was to recognize that the persecution of the Jews was a form of injustice.

I retired in February 2020 after 16 years of teaching the Holocaust. In that time, I reached close to a thousand students. The above responses suggest that exposure to the realities of the Shoah does resonate with believing Christians, who may serve as a counter to rising anti-Semitism in both the United States and Europe.

Jack R. Fischel is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.