October 2009 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

October 2009 — Vol. XV, no. 10

 Dear Friends

Sometimes historians simply have to accept that that they cannot find the hard and fast answers they seek in the inadequate remnants of the past with which they have to deal. As the events they are looking at recede into the past, new work will be susceptible to the likelihood of diminishing returns.

Sir Ian Kershaw


1) Book reviews:

a) Garrrard and Garrard, Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent
b) Desbois, The Holocaust in Ukraine
c) ed. Smith and Rittner, No Going Back. Letters to Pope Benedict XVI

2) Article: Steinfeldt, Seder at the Parish

1a) John Garrard and Carol Garrard. Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent : Faith and Power in the New Russia. Princeton University Press, 2008. xiv + 326 pp. $29.95 US. cloth. ISBN 978-691-12571-2

(This review first appeared in Church History, Vol .77, No 2 June 2009 and is reproduced by kind permission of the author)

John and Carol Garrard open their story by joining the lengthy list of authors who have been trying to explain the reasons behind the collapse of Soviet power in 1991. In their case the focus is on religion, the inability of communist leaders to destroy the subversive power of the Orthodox faith (despite consistent and often brutal anti-religious campaigns) and the rickety regime’s failure to detect signs of resistance growing gradually within the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. Ironically, it was a similar resistance coming from Orthodox bishops that helped to shake up the complacency of tsarist power during the Revolution of 1905.

The Garrards are quite correct to note that the Western academic establishment has, by and large, ignored religious themes associated with the downfall of the USSR in favour of studies that point to an ailing economy or to pressures exerted on the Kremlin by Cold Warriors. The place of Orthodoxy as a factor in the story of Soviet demise has been undeservedly confined to the footnotes, partly due to the failure of Western authors to realize fully the extent to which God-centered religious values continue to influence most of the world’s peoples. An exception to this oversight has been the work of Great Britain’s Keston Institute, where the Garrards have spent considerable time culling through newspaper collections and interviewing staff members who closely watched and sharply criticized the last years of the oppressive Soviet bureaucracy directed by its Council for Religious Affairs. In an oversight of their own, however, the Garrards neglected to mention the outstanding work of the late Jane Ellis and the research efforts conducted at the Aleksanteri Institute at the University of Helsinki.

The authors then go on to describe what they call resurgent Orthodoxy in the years 1989 to 2007, concentrating particularly on the Holy Synod’s clever harnessing of a popular urge to restore beauty to run-down church buildings and revive a number of traditional religious celebrations. The Russian federal government has had neither the means nor the will to resist this activity, which did so much to gather a previously scattered faithful into a collective force supporting the aims of the Moscow Patriarchate’s leadership. In this core section of their narrative, the Garrards also discuss some of the perennial problems Russian Orthodoxy faces and has faced at least since the time of Peter the Great, including anti-Semitism, the unwelcome enthusiasm of Western missionaries, domestic movements promoting monarchism or nationalism in the name of Christianity, and, of course, the latest episode in the age old feud with Rome. One up-to-date chapter explains the success the church has enjoyed in its relations with the Russian Army, but the authors probably should have strengthened their story by including information on efforts to introduce a course on Orthodox culture into the public school system.

One of the most interesting discussions in the Garrards’ work reviews the causes of tension within the Russian Orthodox Church itself. At the root of most of this stress sits the phenomenon of Sergiyanstvo, the decision made in 1927 by the imprisoned Metropolitan Sergy (Stragorodsky) to accept Stalin’s terms for reopening the church. As Sergy was well aware, of course, the so-called reopening meant very little beyond allowing the Soviet government full use of the church to advance its foreign policy aims, and fierce persecution of religion by the regime continued, especially under Nikita Khrushchev. It also meant that no clergyman could be ordained without being vetted by the government and that all bishops were both appointed by the state and obliged to obey instructions handed down by the KGB. Sergy’s decision to accept such severe restrictions in exchange for the survival of the church was and continues to be widely criticized in some Orthodox circles at home and abroad, but the authors treat the entire issue with admirable objectivity and give each point of view in the argument the sensitivity it deserves.

Throughout their analyses, the Garrards point emphatically to the political and theological savvy of Aleksy II as the indispensable element in the church revival since 1991, and, indeed, the late Patriarch was a fearless and foxy leader. His death in December 2008 was a great loss. On the other hand, many clergy deserve more attention than they receive here, if the story of Orthodoxy’s present success in Russia is to be understood. In this regard, Metropolitan Kirill, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, and the late Father Alexander Men’ are only three important names. Moreover, the most prominent intellectuals in Russia today are either lay Orthodox Christians who support the church or religious-minded public figures who have promoted the cause of religious toleration, in some cases when their lives have been in danger. Their ideas and actions have played a crucial part in Orthodoxy’s resurgence and including them would have rendered the Garrards’ narrative more substantial.

Even though the book’s style appeals to a popular readership, scholars will want to study the Garrards’ work. The authors’ personal contacts with many Russians active in church life have awarded them priceless insights, within the reach of very few Westerners, and many important events they witnessed have not been well covered by news outlets. On the other hand, their use of many and at times lengthy flash-backs to past events (initially described in well known volumes of imperial and Muscovite religious histories) will be already well known to serious students of Russia. Furthermore, citing many more Russian language sources in support of the book’s contentions would have established the reference points professional historians like to see.

John D. Basil, University of South Carolina

1b) Patrick Desbois. The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 272 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-230-60617-3.

(This review by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University, Calgary appeared on H- German on July 20th 2009 and is here reprinted by kind permission of the author)

The Holocaust by Bullets is a powerful, if unusual, book. Neither
research monograph nor memoir, it describes the efforts of French
priest Patrick Desbois to uncover the nature and scope of the
Holocaust in Ukraine, as well chronicling Desbois’s own path into
Holocaust research. It is comprised not only of the narrative of
Desbois’s efforts and findings, but also contains several transcripts
from among the hundreds of interviews Desbois conducted with
Ukrainian peasants along with sixteen pages of color pictures of
killing sites, Ukrainian peasants, and spent cartridges he and his
team found as evidence of the mass murder of Jews. The result is a
book aimed at the general reader or undergraduate student that
communicates both the brutality of the German mobile killing units
(Einsatzgruppen) that annihilated Jews and the deep trauma they
generated in towns and villages across Ukraine. Desbois also serves
historians of the Holocaust, complementing German and Russian
archival material with oral history, in the process corroborating
much of the early Soviet account of the mass murder of Jews in
eastern Europe and putting a human face on the detached perpetrator
reports so common to Holocaust histories. Indeed, Desbois has
consulted with scholars from Europe, Israel, and North America, and
the book was published with the support of the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In the early chapters of the book, most of the attention falls on
Desbois and his journey toward the study of the Holocaust, beginning
with his childhood in France. His extended family inculcated in him a
deep sense of responsibility for other people and a strong awareness
of the need for justice, and left with him their memories of the
Second World War and the French Resistance. Along the way, vigorous
debates took place between Catholic and atheist members of his family
about the relevance of Christianity in a world of such evil.
Converted to Christianity during his university years, Desbois
travelled to India to work with Mother Theresa’s mission to the poor,
entered the Roman Catholic priesthood, and later traveled to Africa
to teach mathematics. On a trip to Poland during the Christmas season
of 1990, Desbois realized he was not far from the site of the former
Rawa-Ruska camp in Ukraine, where his grandfather had been held
prisoner. This moment became for him a revelatory one, at which he
began to see the Holocaust as a personal responsibility (p. 15). As a
result, Desbois entered into a period of preparation, studying
Hebrew, attending annual seminars at Yad Vashem, and learning about
Jews and Judaism from colleagues in France. He led a Holocaust study
trip to eastern Europe, and came to realize that witnesses were still
alive who had seen the camps and ghettos, and the mass murders
perpetrated in Poland and Ukraine. Along the way, Desbois became
secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for relations with
Judaism, advisor to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lyon, and advisor to
the Vatican on the Jewish religion. Some readers may find this
autobiographical beginning to be a distraction, while others will
find it helps them understand the zeal behind the French priest’s
efforts. At the very least, it constitutes a proper admission that an
author’s own experiences and presuppositions shape the work he or she
engages in.

Desbois’s search for Rawa-Ruska and his journeys to other Ukrainian
mass murder sites led to a series of discoveries he describes in
narrative form. He soon found, for instance, that many sites where
Nazis had exterminated large groups of Jews were officially
invisible, with no markers or memorials. Near Lviv, for instance, at
least 90,000 Jews were killed in the Lisinitchi Forest, yet no
public sign marks that event today (p. 111). At other locations,
where memorials commemorating the massacres had been erected, they
were often placed some distance away from the actual killing sites.
One important breakthrough for Desbois and his team was the
realization that killing sites could be discovered by means of metal
detectors–a high concentration of spent cartridges (German ones were
labelled by year and place of manufacture) meant that they had found
the precise location of a mass grave. Desbois also periodically
encountered obstructionism from Ukrainian peasants who did not want
to acknowledge the massacres. When he persisted in asking the
villagers or produced archival evidence demonstrating that massacres
had taken place, however, the stories came tumbling out.

What he learned from elderly Ukrainians reveals not only the
depravity of the Einsatzgruppen, Order Police, and Wehrmacht units
engaged in the killing, but also the deep trauma suffered by
Ukrainians forced to watch their Jewish neighbors, business
associates, schoolmates, and friends being murdered or (worse still)
compelled to assist the killers in their task. For the most part,
Desbois concludes that the callous readiness of the Nazis to kill
when faced with any opposition, no matter how slight, created a
terror that cowed most villagers into silence or cooperation–few
dared to attempt to rescue the Jews living in their midst. Indeed,
Desbois’s interviews reveal just how common it was for the German
forces to conscript Ukrainians to assist in the task of mass murder.
In perhaps the most disturbing section of the book, Desbois catalogs
the various forms of Ukrainian engagement in the Holocaust. Civilians
were ordered to dig burial pits, to cart Jews to execution sites, or
to carry the bodies of Jews from killing sites to mass graves. Other
Ukrainians were made to stand guard over Jews who were about to be
killed, to pull out the Jews’ gold teeth just before execution, or to
walk back and forth across the bodies of dead and wounded Jews so as
to compact the piles of corpses. Still others were recruited to
supply sand and lime to killing sites, to shovel it over the dead and
dying bodies, to supply or spread out the hemp and sunflowers used to
burn corpses, or to spread ash over the sites as part of the
clean-up. Finally, civilians were also forced to cook for the
killers, to provide lodging for the members of _Einsatzgruppen_, to
store shovels and other implements used in the killing process, and
to gather, sort, and mend clothing and other possessions left behind
by Jews and reused or sold by the Germans. As Desbois discovered,
most villagers were commanded to perform such duties at gunpoint.
Even more significantly, he asserts repeatedly that “most of them
were children” (pp. 66, 75, 81, 84, and 97).

In a great many cases, the mass murder of Jews took place right in
Ukrainian villages, especially when partisan operations made the
forests unsafe for the Germans. In one village, a man led Desbois to
the edge of a wide lawn, declaring the ground nearby to be the local
execution site and adding that he had watched the killings from
twenty meters away. At that point in the conversation, other
villagers came running up to Desbois, aware of the subject of the
conversation. One interrupted, exclaiming, “My vegetable allotment
patch. That’s my vegetable patch! Leave our gardens alone” (p. 65).
As Desbois observed, “Without realizing it, with their protestations
they were only confirming what everyone in the area knew: the bodies
of shot Jews were resting under the tomato plants” (p. 65). During
those killing operations, any enclosed space could become a temporary
prison, one of the “antechambers to death” (p. 98). Silos, granaries,
wells, ditches, schools, town halls, synagogues, wine cellars, police
stations, shops, pigsties, chicken coops, and stables were all
employed either as holding cages or killing sites. In other cases,
Jews were shot in the streets right outside the homes of
villagers–homes in which many of those witnesses have lived ever
since, silently carrying the trauma of those experiences throughout
their lives. The most graphic example of this trauma was the
assertion, made over and over by the Ukrainians Desbois interviewed,
that the killing sites “breathed” for three days, as the ground moved
over the bodies of those who were only wounded, but gradually died of
weakness, suffocation, or injury (p. 65).

Time and again, Desbois’s interviews with Ukrainian villagers reveal
the excessive cruelty of Germans and (though less so) of Ukrainians.
In one especially gruesome incident, Germans trapped Jews in the
cellar under the marketplace in the village of Sataniv, walling them
in to die there. For four days, the villagers had to wait until the
ground stopped moving and silence returned to the market. In another
village called Strusiv, the Nazis organized a kind of black Passover,
instructing villagers to post crosses outside their doors and then
killing all those who lived in homes without crosses. In yet another
community, Bertniki, it was a local Ukrainian man who exploited the
plight of Jews, offering to hide them but then smothering them with
quilts during the night. Though Ukrainians were at times complicit in
the mass murder of the Jews, Desbois’s account suggests this was the
exception rather than the rule. More often, he finds, members of the
local non-Jewish population had little choice but to stand aside or
even aid the killing process, lest they be caught up in it
themselves. Readers who have been convinced by the work of Timothy
Snyder, Martin Dean, or Omar Bartov might question this conclusion,
however, and it would have been good had Desbois connected his
findings on the ground to those of researchers working in the

Several times, Father Desbois explains his motivation for the
difficult task of documenting the Holocaust in Ukraine. Certainly,
the problem of evil has been in the forefront of his mind: “I am
convinced that there is only one human race–a human race that shoots
two-year-old children. For better or worse I belong to that human
race and this allows me to acknowledge that an ideology can deceive
minds to the point of annihilating all ethical reflexes and all
recognition of the human in the other” (p. 67). For Desbois, it is
not enough simply to affirm or to declare truth. Rather, people must
be committed to developing a “deep conscience,” because “conscience
is a fragile entity” (p. 68). Moreover, he sees his work as an act of
justice towards the victims of National Socialism and a deterrent
against future mass murder. Sooner or later, he argues, someone will
uncover the roots of a genocide, no matter who the killers were.

The Holocaust by Bullets is an extremely personal book. Desbois
closes his account by returning in his mind to Rawa-Ruska, the camp
where his grandfather was a prisoner and which sparked his initial
interest in the Holocaust. After reproducing the text of a testimony
about French prisoners of war digging pits for the execution of Jews,
he remembers his grandfather and ponders “a question that will not
leave me alone: Did he see it?” (p. 213). Such a personal story as
this one begs for more contextual information. One might have wished
for an introductory or concluding chapter outlining the course of the
Holocaust in Ukraine, with more background on _Einsatzgruppen _C and
D and a sense of how Desbois’s work fits into the current research on
this mobile phase of the Holocaust. Teachers will want to use this
book as a supplement to (though not a replacement for) conventional
Holocaust texts or other new works.[1] That said, Desbois’s book
serves as a moving introduction to the Holocaust in Ukraine, a
disturbing catalog of mass murder, and a primer on the moral
implications of living in a land where genocide is perpetrated.

Note [1]. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower, eds., The Shoah in Ukraine:
History, Testimony, Memorialization 
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).

Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University, Calgary, Alberta

1c) ed. Stephen Smith and Carol Rittner, No Going Back. Letters to Pope Benedict XVI on the Holocaust, Jewish-Christian Relations and Israel. London: Quill Press 2009 180 pp. ISBN 978-0-955009-2-3.

In May of this year, Pope Benedict XVI paid a goodwill visit to the Middle East. To mark the occasion, two Holocaust scholar-activists, the Briton Stephen Smith and the American Carol Rittner, invited a group of their friends and contacts – Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims – to respond to the question: What would you say to Pope Benedict XVI if you had five minutes with him? This was a challenging assignment, predictably resulting in a number of provocative replies, which are here printed unexpurgated and unabridged. Equally predictably, the suggestions and comments made to the Pope were evidence of the considerable expectations placed upon the pontiff’s influence in the field of Christian-Jewish relations, or alternatively of the disappointments when these hopes have (so far) not been realized. Particularly among the veterans in the field of inter-faith dialogue, especially the Catholics, in the chapter “Relationships”, their sense of disillusionment is readily apparent at what they conceive to be the foot-dragging of the Vatican and its Curia. They have been grieved by such incidents as the papal willingness to be reconciled with the renegade bishop Williamson, who promptly took his revenge by denouncing the Holocaust as a “hoax”, by the still unfinished attempt to grant sanctification to Pope Pius XII, or by the delays in opening up the Vatican archives for the reign of this controversial pontiff. Not surprisingly the Jewish contributors urge Benedict to keep up the momentum of the changes in the relationships between Christians and Jews so notably marked by the issuance of the document Nostra Aetate more than forty years ago. But at the same time, there is an undercurrent of doubt whether in fact, after so many centuries of intolerant bigotry against Jews, the Catholic Church can be reformed, even if John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II have set a splendidly new tone. Even the title of the book seems to suggest a kind of implied ultimatum, issued to a Pope from Germany, whose earlier career had earned him a reputation of rigidity in the defence of Catholic doctrine. Other contributors are kinder. They recognise that after so long a history of mutual antagonisms, there are bound to be recurring incidents which inflame old suspicions. But these should not be placed in the foreground, however irritating they may seem to be to the impatient champions of a truly new and harmonious relationship between Christians and Jews. They should take heart at the very clear stance taken by Benedict XVI, as expressed during his visit to the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, when he clearly denied the legitimacy of Holocaust denial and spoke of the importance of remembering the victims and their personal identities.

Very few Protestants contributed, perhaps because Lutherans have yet to come to terms with Martin Luther’s regrettable outbursts of anti-Judaic hatred, while British Protestants have to contend with the legacy of the British Government’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to seek asylum in Palestine, or with the memory of the subsequent conflicts which led up to the establishment of the State of Israel. As one contributor said, Protestants are drawn to give sympathy to the underdog, and this now leads them to favour the oppressed Palestinians. So their enthusiasm for the State of Israel is limited, and shares none of the visceral or even spiritual links held by Jews. In addition, Protestants have for too long “spiritualized” the concept of the Holy Land, so that it no longer has any connection to the actual geography of the Middle East. But at the same time, they acknowledge the Pope’s moral leadership of all Christians, and so urge him “to speak positively about Judaism; to speak decisively about Holocaust denial; to speak clearly about universal moral values; and to speak encouragingly about Jewish–Christian relations, indeed about inter-faith relations generally.”

Each letter is accompanied by some questions which the author would like to have considered, and by a list of books recommended. It also has maps, lists of dates and documents, and even web addresses. These are all most helpful, especially to those whose pilgrimage along this route has only started. So the whole book can be strongly commended. It is available for purchase from The Holocaust Centre, Laxton, near Newark, Nottinghamshire, NG22 0PA, U.K.

2) Irena Steinfeldt, Seder at the Parish

(This article appeared in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Quarterly, Vol 54, July 2009 and is reprinted by kind permission of the author)

While waiting in the Hall of Remembrance during his visit to Yad Vashem, Pope Benedict XVI passed by the tree planted in honour of the Celis family from Belgium: two brothers – Father Hubert and Father Louis Celis, who were Catholic priests – their father and siblings. During the Holocaust the Celis family hid the four Rotenberg children, whose parents had been deported to Auschwitz in November 1942.
To camouflage their identity, the Rotenbergs had to attend church services, but in the privacy if his home, Father Louis Celis made sure that they preserved their Jewish identity, that Wolfgang put on his tefillin (phylacteries) and recited his prayers. After the war Father Hubert Celis wrote: “I never tried to convert the Rotenberg children to the Catholic faith. I always respected their religious beliefs. Mrs Rotenberg had confidence in me and I had given her my word as priest.”

Hundreds of clerics of all Christian denominations have been recognized over the years as Righteous Gentiles Among the Nations, among them many Catholics. Hubert and Louis Celis received the title of Righteous for their role in the rescue of the four Rotenberg siblings, but their conduct is especially admirable because of the deep respect they showed for the children’s religion. Like them, Don Gaetano Tantalo of Tagliacozzo Alto, Italy, not only hid seven members of the Orvieto and Pacifici families, but also went out of his way to enable them to perform Jewish rituals. The page on which he did his calculation to determine the date of Passover is exhibited in Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum, with the fascinating story of the celebration of a Jewish Seder at the home of a parish priest during the German occupation of Italy in 1944.

The attitude of the churches towards rescuing Jews during the Shoah touches upon intricate and often painful questions, and when examining the particulars of every case, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous is often faced with enormous challenges that reflect the complexity of the topic: the baptizing of children (was it motivated by the theological mission to convert the Jews and save their souls or was the purpose to protect them and hide their Jewish identity?); the return of children to the Jewish fold at the end of the war; what made rescue more recurrent in certain dioceses and religious orders than others; and to what extent did clerics act as individuals or make their decisions as a result of instruction and guidance from their superiors?

Christian conduct during the Holocaust continues to challenge the Christian world well into the twenty-first century. A range of factors played a role in influencing the behaviour of the church leaders and clerics when confronted with the murder of the Jews. Like other groups, many remained silent and a number of clerics went as far as to collaborate, but there were those who risked their lives to rescue Jews. While Christian anti-Jewish theology and its teaching of contempt contributed to indifference and collaboration, other clerics and Christians saw it as their religious duty to intervene and act.
Irena Steinfeldt, Jerusalem.

With every best wish to you all,
John Conway