Research Report: British and American Christians in the Aftermath of the Holocaust and their Encounters with Survivors

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 30, Number 1 (Spring 2024)

Research Report: British and American Christians in the Aftermath of the Holocaust and their Encounters with Survivors

By Robert Thompson, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

‘What I have written is true—so witness me God’, wrote an army chaplain following the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. My PhD research brought together the experiences of army chaplains, with other British and American Christians, including relief workers, interfaith activists, and government officials, and reconsidered their experiences as amongst the first expressions of post-Holocaust Christianity. In the five years following the liberation of Belsen and other camps, they encountered survivors of the Holocaust. They listened to testimony, confronted the post-war challenges facing Jews, and reapproached their Christian faith as a consequence. These case-studies reveal previously untold human stories in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and they encourage reflection on the unique implications of these ‘ordinary’ personal experiences for understanding post-Holocaust Christianity.

My research journey began when I was working for the British Council of Christians and Jews. In this role I worked closely with colleagues at Yad Vashem to organise an annual seminar for Christian clergy at the International School of Holocaust Studies. In encouraging Christians to consider how we could respond, as Christians in our contemporary situation, to knowledge of the Holocaust, I was drawn to also ask: how did Christians respond? In particular, how did Christians in my own, British, context first respond to what they learned of the Nazi persecution of the Jews?

For my Master’s thesis, I conducted a study of British Christian army chaplains who participated in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I published an article based on this aspect of my research in The English Historical Review.[1] I argued that, in being present at Belsen for prolonged periods, and working face-to-face with survivors, chaplains were distinct amongst the liberators for being more likely to recognise the Jewish identities of the majority of the camp’s victims. In responding to what they experienced at Belsen, chaplains often articulated an understanding, to an extent, of the particular experiences of Jews under Nazism.

Developing this approach during my PhD, I considered British and American Christians who encountered Holocaust survivors in four formative contexts in Jews’ post-war lives: liberation, relief, occupation, and exodus. In the process of liberation, burying the dead and caring for the living, army chaplains largely came to recognise survivors, not as they first appeared—as anonymous, mass victims—but eventually as Jews with particular experiences of persecution and loss. Relief workers worked as Christians, and as women, and learned about the displacement, repatriation, and antisemitism that continued to face Jews as they looked to the future. Occupation officials initiated meetings between German Christians and remaining Jewish communities. In this work, the future Holocaust theologian Franklin Littell began to consider how far Christianity must change in response to the Holocaust. In the journey of Jews to Mandate Palestine, the only Christian crew member on the symbolic Exodus ship adopted the role of spokesperson for its refugees, influencing emerging memory of the Exodus and of the Holocaust.

As individuals, chaplains and relief workers within these cases-studies were distinct in their experiences, but in studying them together, what unites them is the way in which their practical experiences with survivors in post-war occupied Germany impacted their own Christianity. My approach builds on work by historians and sociologists of religion and their study of so-called ‘lived religion’, defined by Meredith McGuire as religion ‘experienced and expressed by ordinary people in the context of their everyday lives’.[2]

Using neglected archival sources, the previously ignored private correspondence of women relief workers for example, as well my own interviews with subjects’ surviving relatives, I traced the Christian reflections that these individuals engaged in. One key source was a previously unknown pamphlet by a Church of England chaplain, which was printed just weeks after Belsen’s liberation and published what were possibly the first camp survivor testimonies to appear in English, alongside photographs of survivors. One of my case studies conducted Bible study with a Jewish colleague in a DP camp. Another summed up his arrival at Belsen with a single scripture reference. Franklin Littell found in his day-to-day work in Germany inspiration for his developing belief that Christianity must change in order to directly confront its own antisemitism.

Making visible and taking seriously these grassroots experiences suggests that post-Holocaust Christianity first emerged, not in the theological Academy or the institutions of the Church, but experientially, in the personal and the everyday, and especially in encounters between Christians and survivors in the aftermath of liberation.

As I revise this research into a book manuscript, I am giving further thought to the theme of witnessing which was claimed after the camp’s liberation by the Belsen chaplain I quoted at the beginning of this piece. After His resurrection, Jesus said to the disciples, invoking Isaiah, ‘You are witnesses of these things’ (Luke 24:48). If Christianity is at its heart a way of witness to the presence of God in the world, what did the confrontation with evil in the Holocaust do to that responsibility to be a witness?

In Bible study, interfaith activism, writing letters and distributing reports, giving public talks, or reminiscing in oral history interviews, all these individuals reflected on the impact their experiences in Germany had in clarifying, challenging, and changing their Christian viewpoints. They did so not as lone voices but in dialogue and relationship with other people. Their responses were complicated, and there were aspects of the Holocaust and its aftereffects that they overlooked or misunderstood. Nevertheless, they took on a responsibility to witness. When he returned to his English parish after the war, the chaplain found himself a long way from Belsen. But he continued to tell his parishioners about his experiences. As a result, because of his experiences and his ongoing reflections, more Christians could learn about the Jewish experience he witnessed, and, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, they too could begin to respond.

Robert Thompson was awarded his PhD in 2023 from University College London. He is currently Pearl Resnick Postdoctoral Fellow in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (1 January-31 August 2024). Before beginning his PhD he was Senior Programme Manager for the Council of Christians and Jews (UK).

[1] Robert Thompson, ‘“The True Physicians Here are the Padres”: British Christian Army Chaplains and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen’, The English Historical Review 138: 593 (2023), 841–70.

[2] Merdith B. McGuire, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life (Oxford, 2008), 3.