Monday, July 27, 2015

God, Faith and Identity from the Ashes: Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors Share Their Stories

In July Oskar Groening, the “accountant of Auschwitz ,” was found guilty of 300,000 charges of accessory to murder. His trial is considered to be one of the last trials of the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust.  

Already, most who experienced the Holocaust are dead. Soon, all will be gone. But one group of people who were impacted by it remains: The children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. 

Their experiences are captured in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, a new book edited by Menachem Z. Rosensaft.

In the book, 88 children and grandchildren of survivors share how the Holocaust shaped them theologically, politically, culturally and in terms of identity, education and careers.

Although none of them experienced the Holocaust first-hand, all were deeply affected by it.

“We did not see our families murdered, we were never cold, we were never starved, we were never beaten,” says Rosensaft, a child of two survivors.

“We grew up in comfort. And yet what we do have, what sets us apart, is that we grew up with our parents and grandparents. We absorbed their stories firsthand.”

The book is divided into four sections: God and Faith, Identity, A Legacy of Memory, and Changing the World for the Better.

In the first section, the writers reflect on how the Holocaust affected their faith. Some choose to believe in God and kept their faith, while some dismiss the idea of loving or caring God completely. Others have landed somewhere in between.

Eric Neilson’s grandfather lost his parents and two brothers in the concentration camps, yet he kept his faith in God.

“It strikes me that, for all my doubts and questions, if my grandfather can go on thanking the God of Israel . . . then surely I ought to consider doing so as well,” the Harvard professor writes.

“God was not present in the survivor’s home in which I grew up,” writes Israeli artist Aliza Olmert. “The missing niche of faith was filled by a socialist worldview and uplifting patriotism.”

“Both the God of consolation and the accusation against God live within me,” says Rabbi Moshe Waldoks. Adds former New York Times reporter Joseph Berger: “What God’s culpability or at least responsibility was remains a mystery that I’ll never resolve.”  

While reading the book one thing I found unexpectedly moving was how so many children of survivors grew up without any relatives—in Rosensaft’s case, both his parent’s entire immediate families were murdered.

“Like many children of survivors, I have been haunted by faceless phantoms of dozens and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins,” writes Waldoks.

Growing up, Karen Friedman realized her family was different from her friends.

“Their family dynamics and experiences were just different from the rest of ours,” writes the grandchild of survivors. “I was always aware that my mother never knew what it was like to have grandparents.”

In 1984, Elie Wiesel, who survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald , delivered the keynote address at the first conference of children of Holocaust survivors. 
“It was you that the enemy sought to destroy,” he said. We were only the instruments. You were the enemy’s obsession. In murdering Jews, he wished to prevent you from being born.”

It would have been natural and logical for their parents to turn their back on the world, “to have opted for nihilism,” he went on to say. “And yet we have chosen you.”

And now, as the last trials of Nazis are held and the few remaining survivors pass away, these new chosen ones have the task of preserving the memory of their parents and grandparents for future generations.

“A generation will soon come of age having never heard firsthand testimony from a living Holocaust survivor," says Rosensaft. "The preservation and transfer of memory is the most critical mission that children and grandchildren of survivors must undertake.”

The stories in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes show that many of them are taking that mission seriously.

From the July 25 Winnipeg Free Press.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Gretta Vosper, the United Church and the Honourable Thing

My friend Doug Todd, the spirituality and ethics writer at the Vancouver Sun, has started quite a conversation about Gretta Vosper, the self-identified atheist minister in the United Church. Why on earth, outsiders ask, would a Christian church allow someone who has long been an outspoken atheist to remain in the clergy?” he writes. That’s exactly the question I asked earlier this year, and seven years earlier, in my column for the Winnipeg Free Press.

If you worked for the Winnipeg Jets, but openly cheered for the Maple Leafs, wouldn't it seem a bit awkward?

What if you were a member of Parliament for the Liberal party, but thought that the Conservative policies were far superior -- and you publicly told everyone so. Wouldn't that be disloyal?

If you did either of those things, your boss would either ask you to change your allegiance, or leave your workplace.

Or you'd do the honourable thing, and quit.

That’s what most people would do.

So you'd think that Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister in Toronto who has openly and frequently made it clear she doesn't believe in God, might want to step down from her job and seek another line of work -- especially after she publicly criticized a prayer posted by the United Church on its website in response to the Charlie Hedbo killings.

In the prayer, posted on the day of the attack, United Church members were asked to pray to a "gracious God" to respond to the needs of those who were injured, those who responded to the wounded and to everyone in Paris mourning the death of loved ones.

"God of Epiphany," it concluded, "we humbly offer you our pain, our bafflement, and our cries for peace, seeking your gift of transformation and your promise of hope."

In response, Vosper -- who describes herself as a "Minister/author/atheist" -- wrote a blog post addressed to United Church moderator Gary Paterson, questioning "the merit" of such a prayer.

For her, such a prayer "underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being."

These beliefs, she went on to say, "has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory... I urge you to lead our church toward freedom from such idolatrous belief."

Let’s be clear: Vosper, author of the book With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, is free to hold these convictions. She is free to question the existence of God.

It’s a right that all Canadians enjoy, and that many practice.

But it seems strange to hold those convictions and, at the same time, receive a paycheque from an organization that actually believes there is a God, and that Christians should pray to that God.

I’m not the only one who feels that way. So does the Rev. David Ewart, a United Church minister in Vancouver.

In an open letter on his website, Ewart acknowledges the provocative role Vosper plays in that denomination. He says he is happy to belong to a church that encourages such conversations.

But, he added, "I can't help but wonder what sort of example she herself is setting. Wouldn't her personal integrity be far more clearly demonstrated by admitting she is no longer in accordance with the church's understanding of her ordination vows?"

Perhaps, he went on to say, her personal integrity could be "far more clearly demonstrated” by leaving the United Church.

Another person who found Vosper's position and perspectives to be unusual is Doug Todd, the spirituality and ethics reporter at the Vancouver Sun.

In a blog post on that newspaper's website titled “Will Gretta Vosper do the Honorable Thing?” he wondered why the United Church had never "publicly taken on Vosper or suggested she stop accepting the money and benefits of the denomination."

The reason, he suggested, might be because church leadership "fears, justifiably, that attempting to terminate Vosper will be a messy affair that simply draws more attention to a woman who does not mind, to put it mildly, the spotlight.

But even if the church is unwilling to ask her to leave, Doug couldn't help wondering if "it isn't a little gauche" for her to denounce all forms of theism from a Christian pulpit.

In 2008, I wondered the same thing in my column.  And now, seven years later, has she gone too far?

Perhaps the United Church, a denomination famous for tolerating a wide range of belief and opinion, might even be starting to think so.