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Putting a Face on the Six Million

Why this non-Jewish professor teaches about the Holocaust

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Kevin J. Madigan

Some years ago, at a gathering of Harvard Divinity School faculty, I was asked by a colleague why I taught about the Holocaust, or what sequence of events had led me, a non-Jew, to teach a course on what the questioner implied was a topic of interest solely, or mainly, to Jews. I hesitated for a moment before responding to the question, in part because at least some of the genuine reasons seemed inappropriate to articulate. And, frankly, I was not sure how exactly to respond to the question. That pause gave another HDS faculty member the opportunity to supply the needed response. “You’re Irish American,” she said triumphantly, as if that answered not only this question, comprehensively, but might be given as a response to anything asked of or to or about me. Why was he shy? Well, you know, he is an Irish American. The room grew quiet. My colleague looked around at the quizzical looks on the faces in the room. I don’t remember the exact explanation, but it went something like this: “He’s Irish American. The Irish were oppressed by English royalist forces for centuries. He’s internalized what it’s like to be an oppressed minority in the face of a greater, bellicose power. In addition, he’s part of a European immigrant group, like the Jews, who were not treated well when they arrived and for long after.”

I nodded. Everyone else nodded. The explanation seemed logical and also seemed to satisfy everyone in the room.

The only problem with this elegant theory was that it did nothing whatsoever to explain me.

It might have explained something about James Joyce, a great Irish philo-Semite who in 1940 bitterly denounced the treatment of the Jews by Hitler. But it doesn’t explain me. Aside from not identifying myself very vigorously with the Irish, it so happened that I was a lover of all things English: from the English accent, to English literature, English cathedrals, the English countryside, and on and on. Oh, yes, there was that unfortunate colonial impulse, but somehow all the good things about England made me overlook that, so much so that I found myself shocked by wanton and reckless IRA violence and more appalled at bombings in London than at the occupation by the British of much of the planet. In short, I was an Anglophile. And there, perhaps, lies a first clue as to why I teach the Holocaust. I seem to identify with other peoples I like more than “my own.”

But that only begins to tell the tale. To unearth some more clues, I’ll have to bring you back to my childhood, which was an unusual, if not strange, one. To start with, my father was 50 when I was born. He was really two generations removed from me. An intensely pious Catholic, he was easily the holiest man I have ever met, and the atmosphere of Catholic pietism—with nightly rosary, extraordinary weekend devotions, consecrations, and blessings of our home—would be difficult to evoke for someone who never experienced it. Needless to say, I attended Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school. When it came time to think about college, my father asked me which Catholic colleges I was contemplating. While the pietistic atmosphere of my Catholic childhood and the binary moral and religious views of my father fixed my eyes on the heavenly reward I hoped to attain, my Catholic education gave me, along with a weak sense of science and a barely passing ability in mathematics, a fierce and uncompromising sense of what was wrong and right, with little room for shades of gray.

It was in Catholic grammar school, in sixth grade, that those much derided but much devoted nuns had us read and contemplate The Diary of Anne Frank, the highly intelligent and in many ways admirable German-born adolescent who was cheated of her life by the Nazis, deported from Holland, and died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. Looking back, this was a moment of many beginnings.

It was a moment when at once I conceived a strong antipathy for the Nazis. Or a moment when that hatred was augmented. My father and I shared a love of military history, and one of the things we shared and regularly spoke about, other than my failure at chemistry (my father was a chemical engineer) and geometry, was aviation and the Second World War.

It was then, too, that I conceived an adolescent, distant, hopeless love for Anne and, more important, a deep affection for, even a love of, her menaced people and a strange inchoate desire to be part of them, even, or especially, in their hour of common agony. I realize this is at least slightly strange, and I have no ready explanation for it, but there you have it.

At the same time, I developed a perhaps less flattering narcissistic desire to have been there, there in Europe, there to have been able to do something heroic to save those I conceived fantastically as my threatened friends. I would not have expressed it this way then, but it’s as if I were destined to be a Jew but, through some cosmic hiccup, my ancestors landed in Ireland and, after the great famine of the nineteenth century, in America.

That narcissistic desire has never died. Indeed, I still feel an atavistic longing to have been able in Europe to do something to propel the Wehrmacht back to Berlin, or to have done something heroic to halt or slow the Holocaust and to deliver its victims from the maw of death. Both things still fill my life of fantasy, or illusion, of how I might have lived had I lived in the 1940s. I wish I could have ripped all those yellow badges off the victims before they were shipped off so mercilessly to the charnel houses of the East. I realize this is an illusion, and even self-serving in a way, but I cannot put it any more honestly or accurately.

Since then, I must say, incidentally, I have developed a respect for how force is sometimes needed to guard or to protect the good. I continue to look back at the Second World War, terrible and tragic as it was, with its 50 million dead, as a just war, a conflict necessary to defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito and their satellite allies. This is something my Catholic teachers, for whom I have such respect, tried to teach out of me, beginning with high school, but without success.

Over the course of my education in college and graduate school, I also developed a love for Europe and for the great Catholic contributions to what I conceived as the greatest civilization in the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, I emerged from graduate school with a degree in medieval history and a continuing affection for what we might call Catholic Europe.

I had not internalized that Europe was the cradle of the Holocaust, that many Nazi leaders were baptized Catholics.

I had not yet learned enough, or internalized sufficiently, that Europe was the cradle of the Holocaust, that all too many Nazi leaders were baptized Catholics, and that there had been a long controversy about the wartime pope, about whom I would conclude eventually in print, perhaps slightly too harshly, that he simply had not cared enough about the Jews.

For the first five years of my teaching career, my interests in the Holocaust lay latent as I developed new courses in ancient and medieval Christianity and wrote as much as I could as fast as I respectably could on these topics. Then, luckily, providentially, miraculously, fortunately—choose your word—the Holocaust Educational Foundation of Chicago telephoned the institution I then worked for. Was there a historian on staff, they wondered, who would like to retool, at the foundation’s expense, the teaching about the history of the Holocaust in his or her home institution?

To make a long story short: that request led to a marvelous summer at Northwestern University, where I was taught by scholars of the caliber of Peter Hayes, Karl Schleunes, and Gerhard Weinberger. It also led, the following summer, to an opportunity to take a monthlong seminar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with the doyen of Holocaust studies, Raul Hilberg. I enjoyed every second of these seminars; I drank in what these great teachers could give me; I read with an intensity I had never before experienced.

Would it be too much to say that I had changed my life as a result of these experiences? I think not. I had a desire to read and to learn everything I could about the Holocaust, about the history of the European Jews, and even about Hitler and the Third Reich. The question is, why? Why did this topic so grip me? I soon started teaching courses on the topic, first at Chicago, then at Harvard. Why were those courses so rewarding to me? To be sure, the subject matter of these courses is not happy; it’s quite melancholy. Yet the courses themselves were never, or were rarely melancholy. Indeed, I found them among the most meaningful courses I have ever taught, and my students, unless they were grubbing for grades, which I sincerely doubt, felt much the same way. Everyone felt there was something really, morally, mortally at stake in the material.

Why did I find it so meaningful to teach these terrific students and this subject matter?

I want to respond to this question here through a process of elimination, for there are many good reasons to teach the history of the Holocaust. But they are not my reasons.

Some, for example, might teach the Holocaust convinced, not unnaturally, that it was “the defining event of the twentieth century.” It could be argued—it has been argued—that, as such, these awful events pose the greatest moral and intellectual challenge of modern times.

Some argue that if we do not learn from past catastrophic mistakes, we will be doomed to repeat them. Others point to the examples of genocide currently occurring in the world and express the hope that education might do something to teach succeeding generations not to hate: those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. I suspect most of us have heard that one.

Still others contend that it is crucial to learn that of which humans are capable, and though my students certainly learn that, I do not teach the Holocaust explicitly for that reason.

I could not disagree with any of these formulations; nor do I deny that my students come to and leave my classes with similar assumptions and aspirations. Some argue that such a course helps students tolerate diversity and opposing points of view, but surely some of teaching has to do with discouraging intellectual diversity and establishing controls on intellectual points of view. But this has little to do with why I teach the history of the Holocaust. That is not to say these are not worthy reasons; they’re just not my reasons.

So, what are my reasons, you have patiently been waiting to hear? You see that I am delaying. That is partly because the sort of response I want to give, which is as honest an answer as I can furnish, is bound to sound self-serving. And it’s partly because my desire to teach this material remains inscrutable even to me. But let me nonetheless finally try to respond to the question, and perhaps afterward you, reader, can tell me if there are other reasons, shrouded in psychological or educational obscurity, that I have failed to perceive.

Here goes. It is commonplace to divide the participants in the Holocaust into perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Most Gentile historians, I think it’s fair to say, are interested in the perpetrators. They have produced monuments to scholarship, the large conclusion of which is terrifying: namely, that the image of the bloodthirsty, sadistic, deeply anti-Semitic SS officer describes only a minority of the perpetrators. Most were frightfully, alarmingly, normal, ordinary men (Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning being only the most successful and readable of such studies).

I am not primarily interested in the perpetrators, although I have benefited historically and you might say anthropologically from scholarship on them more than I could easily say. By rights, I should be most interested in the perpetrators or bystanders, because as a Christian, almost certainly touched by the deadly inheritance of anti-Judaism, I would probably have been one of them, and the hard truth is that I might not even have cared all that much about the victims, might even, God forbid, have silently cheered their departure from the European scene. Jean Amery once concluded: “All of Germany—but what am I saying!—the whole world nodded its head in approval of the [Final Solution], even if here and there with a certain superficial regret.” How right he is, and how painful for me to imagine that I would have regarded the whole diabolical operation with little more than superficial regret!

But that, simply put, is not where my main interest lies. My primary interest, to come finally to the point, is the victims. Let me be more specific. While the Nazis targeted many groups for extermination, the group whose history absorbs and at times monopolizes my attention, is Europe’s Jewish community. I hasten to add that the extermination of Hitler’s other racial, religious, and sexual enemies was, quite obviously, a terrible tragedy. It’s just that my focus, my interest, lies in the communities, now vanished, of the shtetls of Eastern Europe and the communities of Western Europe. Put another way, my heart lies with the victims of the Shoah.

My desire, again perhaps illusory, is to help reconstruct the vanished world of the six million. My hope: to give them the life in history that they were cheated of in their day. I want to reconstruct in memory the individuals and communities so cruelly cheated by the Prince of Darkness. I want to restore to memory those the chancellor of Germany promised to consign to historical oblivion. I want to restore to their true humanity, to cleanliness, to satisfaction, to health and vitality, the men and women who had become mere skeletons, the Muselmänner. I wanted to pull from deadly, reeking waters those who, according to Primo Levi, “had drowned.” I wanted God to restore the divine spark within them, the spark that had died in Auschwitz.

I try to do this in a number of ways, by studying texts, for example. But it is art, I think, especially literature and film, that restores, that puts a face on, the anonymous six million, that moves our soul.

That is how I relate to what I dare call my missing, beloved community in my professional life. But there is another dimension to my life, to all our lives, and that might be called the eschatological dimension. There, I imagine the day in the World-to-Come in which the six million will be gathered to their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the God who made an indefectible covenant with his people, who perhaps hid his face even from them, but who is ever faithful to his promises. (In this connection, I should say, I think it is not Jewish theologians but Christian ones whom the Holocaust forces to reconsider their theology. God does not need to be exonerated, but the same may not be true of Christian theologians in Europe at the time.)

I imagine their physical and emotional wounds healed, the loss of their brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers restored, their deaths swallowed up forever by the God who keeps his promises, who loves and who has never forgotten his people, who rejoices to be joined with them in eternity. I imagine the joy and gladness of these innocents, with every tear wiped away forever.

Kevin J. Madigan, Professor of the History of Christianity at HDS, is a historian of medieval Christian religious practice and thought. His most recent book, co-authored with Jon Levenson of HDS is Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews, published this year by Yale University Press.

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