Chapter Note: Susannah Heschel, “Sacrament versus Racism: Converted Jews in Nazi Germany”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 30, Number 1 (Spring 2024)

Chapter Note: Susannah Heschel, “Sacrament versus Racism: Converted Jews in Nazi Germany,” in: On Being Adjacent to Historical Violence, ed. Irene Kacandes (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022), 136-172.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

In this chapter, Susannah Heschel tackles a challenging question: in Hitler’s Germany, how were Christians of Jewish descent treated by their fellow parishioners, their brothers and sisters in Christ? More particularly, whether Protestant or Catholic, how were they treated after 15 September 1941, the date on which Germans identified by the Nazi regime as racially Jewish were required to wear the Judenstern, the yellow Star of David, in public—irrespective of religious affiliation? In the contest between sacrament and racism, which won out?

Heschel identifies the implementation of this mandate that publicly marked Jews as a watershed for relations within local church congregations, surmising that before that date, fellow parishioners would not have known who had been baptized as Christians from infancy and who had converted as adults. Whether or not that was the case, there is little question that the mandate shone a spotlight on race within the church, making the prospect of “Aryan” and “non-Aryan” Christians worshipping together much more challenging.

Heschel enters into her question through the story of Erna Becker-Kohen, a German Jew baptized as a Catholic in 1936. By all indications a devout believer and faithful choir member, she was shunned by her congregation, who didn’t want a Jew participating in worship with them. Her story is a complex one, however, as “some priests tried to help and console her.” (90) Even then, though, out of consideration for the other parishioners, she was asked to sit in the choir loft, so as not to be seen. She was not invited into the homes of fellow parishioners, and eventually she couldn’t attend her own parish church because of all the harassment she received whenever she went out in her neighbourhood. (99-100)

If marriage to an Aryan German spouse offered a limited measure of protection for a German Jew—there were 20,454 such marriages in existence in 1939—conversion and baptism offered little beyond the hope of comfort and occasional kindnesses from priests and pastors. (90) Still, assimilation through conversion and baptism was common. Estimates are that there were about 300,000 “non-Aryan” Christians in Germany in mid-1933. This meant, according to Nazi racial definitions, having at least one Jewish grandparent (i.e. either “Mischlinge” status or “full Jews”). How many emigrated and how many died at the hands of Nazis is unclear, though Heschel explains that there were only about 164,000 Jews of any kind left in Germany in October 1941, and by April 1943, there remained only 31,910 Jews wearing the Star of David and another 17,375 Jews in “privileged” marriages to Aryans, and who thus did not have to wear a star. (91)

In the subsequent section, Heschel explains the relationship between baptism and race prior to 1941, noting how Nazi propaganda help race to be more significant than baptism, and how the regime prohibited the baptism of Jews after the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935. Protestant theologians debated whether Christians of Jewish descent could be ordained and serve in pastoral ministry. The clearest answer to that question came from Karl Barth, who argued that the German Protestant Church would cease to be a Christian church if it failed to baptize Jewish Christians. (94) And yet, as various other anecdotes from the German churches suggest, it would seem that Christians of Jewish descent were rejected at least as much as they were accepted, and probably more. One thought-provoking observation of Heschel’s is that trams and churches were probably the only enclosed spaces in which “Aryan” and “non-Aryan” Germans might mingle in Nazi Germany, such was the effect of the social isolation of Jews after 1938. (97)

Heschel offers three possible interpretations through which we might understand the history of Christians of Jewish descent in Nazi Germany: first, that Jews baptized as Christians existed in a kind of borderland between Christian and Jewish communities, not really members of either; second, that Jews baptized as Christians functioned as “uncanny” intruders, arousing “suspicion, anxiety, and disgust” among Christians; and third, that Jews baptized as Christians evoked a kind of horror, in part because they reminded “Aryan” Christians that Christianity itself was grafted onto Judaism (Romans 11)—the two faiths were forever closely interconnected. (104-109)

Heschel raises an important and uncomfortable question, highlighting the relative weakness of Christian community to stand up against state-sponsored racism and persecution. It will not be surprising that she makes unsettling comparisons to twentieth- and twenty-first century American religion and politics.