“Victoria Barnett’s Retirement from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 3 (September 2019)

“Victoria Barnett’s Retirement from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum”

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University (retired)

Victoria Barnett is familiar to many or most readers of CCHQ, at least partly for her position on the board of editors of this journal and as a frequent contributor, but also for the three decades in which she has been an important scholar in our field. She is far from “retirement” in any meaningful sense of the term, since she has an agenda for ongoing research and future publications. However, she retired in August from her twenty-four-year career at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To honor this occasion, the Museum organized two events on August 1, 2019. The first was a public program in the Meyerhof Lecture Hall, from 2:00 to 3:30, and the second a private event primarily for Museum staff. In all cases, Vicki’s colleagues waxed enthusiastic about her insight, her skills, her contributions to Holocaust scholarship, and her career at the Museum.

I helped organize and moderated the public session on that day, a discussion under the title, “For the Soul of the People: Reflections on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Religion and the Holocaust.” The session, which can be viewed online, was introduced by Sara Bloomfield, Director of the USHMM. Speakers included Doris Bergen (Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto) and Susannah Heschel (Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College), both well known to readers of this journal. Mary Boys (Vice-President of Academic Affairs and Dean at Union Theological Seminary as well as Skinner & McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology) also presented, as did Douglas Irvin-Erickson (Assistant Professor and Director of the Genocide Prevention Program in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University).

The public session began with attention to Barnett’s first book, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (Oxford U Press, 1992). With this book, she became an important member of the generation of scholars who began to modify our historical view of the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany. Rather than repeat the exaggerated defense of churches common during the first several postwar decades, she helped us see the complications within a story in which not even all members of the Confessing Church contingent among Protestants were natural opponents of the Nazi regime or its harsh policies. Both Doris Bergen and Susannah Heschel emphasized the value of Barnett’s method, the extensive interviews she did with members of the Confessing Church, and especially her focus on the stories of women. These interviews contributed a new and significant insight into the Church Struggle, especially in terms of its complexity. Barnett then indicated that she has both transcripts and tapes of those interviews, extending far beyond what she has used herself, which will soon be available in the archives of the Holocaust Museum.

Mary Boys focused on Jewish-Christian relations, which have changed so considerably in the aftermath of the Holocaust, including changes in doctrine at Vatican II and the creation of Nostra Aetate. This topic of the Jewish-Christian relationship has involved important contributions from Barnett. For example, she translated and edited the English version of Wolfgang Gerlach’s important book, And the Witnesses were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews (U of Nebraska Press, 2000). When Barnett became Director of the Program on Church Relations at the USHMM in 2004, she paid close attention to these issues, working with Jewish members of the Church Relations Committee, offering annual summer seminars for Holocaust educators, and, in 2012, leading the important move to change the name from Church Relations Committee to the Committee on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust. She also has helped this program and this committee by adding Islam to the mix, so that now Jews, Muslims, and Christians sit on the committee and work within the program. It is also worth noting that a major focus in Barnett’s recent work involves investigations into ecumenical efforts during the 1930s in which an international group of Christian and Jewish leaders tried to investigate and mitigate the harsh measures unfolding within Germany.

Douglas Irvin-Erickson spoke about Barnett’s second major book, Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust (Greenwood, 1999), another important contribution to our understanding of the ethical intricacies exposed by an event so devastating as the Holocaust. This also gave Irvin-Erickson a chance to bring Dietrich Bonhoeffer into the conversation. Barnett, of course, is a major figure in Bonhoeffer studies, especially in the project to publish the sixteen volumes of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English. She translated and edited individual volumes, and, more importantly, she served as General Editor of the entire DBWE from 2004 until the index volume was completed in 2014.

From the podium, I described Barnett as one of the most important figures in international Bonhoeffer studies. Others insisted I should have called her the most important. I do think that her recent small book, “After Ten Years”: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Our Times (Fortress Press, 2017), based on Bonhoeffer’s Christmas 1942 letter to selected friends just months before his arrest and imprisonment, gives us a timely and important window into a crucial moment in his life and thought after ten years of living within Hitler’s Germany. I eagerly await the Bonhoeffer book I expect to appear as Barnett savors the more relaxed daily schedule that comes with retirement. Without doubt, her investment in the corpus of Bonhoeffer’s work—her role as translator and editor, her deep knowledge of the texts, her personal knowledge of many of the principals, her role in the International Bonhoeffer Society, her reviews of the books of others, and her work on churches in Nazi Germany since the late 1970s—gives us reason to look forward to the next works to spring from her laptop.

When members of the USHMM staff gathered after the public session for a retirement party, the program included comments from Sara Bloomfield, Director of the Museum, Robert Ehrenreich, Director of National Academic Programs, and Sarah Ogilvie, Chief Program Officer. The attendance at this event and the comments of these three individuals made it very clear that Barnett’s role at the Museum included not only her nurturing of a vibrant Program on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust, but also broader contributions to the Museum. For those of us who know her primarily as a scholar in our field, we should also know that she was widely admired and very good at her day job. She made a difference in the programs of the Museum and in the way that the Museum communicates the meaning and significance of the Holocaust to the outside world.

Vicki is known to those of us associated with the CCHQ as an important scholar of churches in Nazi Germany. She is also known as an expert and very important figure in international Bonhoeffer studies. Finally, she has had a long and important career at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. I am not sure how anyone can stand upon three such large pedestals, but she has done so with grace and impact.