Stephen D. Smith is a Christian theologian in his early forties. Together with his brother James, he founded the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre near Nottingham, England, which opened in 1995. Smith presently heads the Shoah Foundation Institute in Los Angeles where the Spielberg archives are located. These contain more than one hundred thousand hours of recorded testimony of Holocaust survivors.
Summarizing this book – which unfortunately has no index – is more important than reviewing it. In it the author relates his spiritual and professional development and that of his brother. They were born the sons of a Methodist minister and a secondary-school teacher of religious education. Later their parents ran a small conference center and place of retreat. They felt that this was the appropriate way to live as Christians (13).
In 1981 the Smith family took a holiday in Israel (7). Stephen and James gradually became interested in Jewish-Christian relations. They returned to Israel for a longer stay in 1991, which became a life-changing experience. The author writes about their visit to Yad Vashem: “We were just there as ourselves, largely detached and unaffected, asking what this might mean to us as individuals who could quite legitimately claim that it had nothing to do with us. Our question was, quite simply, ‘What is the challenge of the Holocaust for us?’”(26).
The Holocaust and Western Civilization
Thereafter, the brothers decided that they should respond in a practical way to what they had seen, as they felt they could not simply carry on their regular lives (31). Though only in their mid-twenties, they considered that the Holocaust was not a Jewish problem (34) but understood that it was an outcome of Western civilization.
A year later the entire family visited Poland, which further developed their thoughts. Smith writes: “I realized that absolutely nothing good comes out of the Holocaust. If anything is salvaged, it is not because of the Holocaust, but in spite of it. This turned upside down a principle I had held, that out of bad things can come good…” (44).
While studying the Jewish tradition, Smith and his brother considered the wisdom of converting to Judaism. Stephen thought that “if a Christian disdains the thought of conversion to Judaism, then clearly such an individual still holds the anti-Judaic seed of antisemitism responsible for the context in which Nazism was able to grow.” He also thought “that it would be more acceptable to be dealing with the Holocaust if we were Jewish.” His brother said, “If we were to convert, we would lose the potency of our message and conviction, and therefore have much less to say.” Their parents showed understanding throughout, but ultimately the two brothers decided against conversion (73-74).
The Nature of the Center
The Smith brothers reflected at great length about the nature of the Holocaust center they wanted to create. They concluded that it should also be a museum for the public, but the main focus should be on extended educational meetings as well as group training (90). They decided to make the center nondenominational, even though the motives that led to its establishment were Christian.
They also considered that they needed to address the Christian background against which the Holocaust took place:
Jews were murdered because they were Jews, and all this in the context of a nominally Christian environment. Wholehearted opposition from the Christian churches to the so-called “Jewish policies” did not happen, so Christianity is in some way implicated, along with everyone else, in the crimes and their outcome. However, merely to highlight the shortcomings of the Christian world might suggest that it had some moral high ground prior to the Holocaust. (123-124)
In the course of operating the center they continued to ask multiple questions, like many others who have studied the Holocaust. One crucial issue was what the experiences of the survivors and those killed meant for society at large.
With this experience and background, the Smith brothers wondered how to act when once again mass murders or genocides took place. In 1999 they launched an appeal for Kosovo Albanians. They knew that, though no genocide had yet taken place, what was happening could be a pathway to it. This led them to establish a foundation in 2000, the Aegis Trust, whose stated aim is to prevent genocide. This body became closely associated with the day-to-day work of the Holocaust Centre, as they recognized that it could only be successful if the pathways to genocide were better understood (149).
Stephen Smith visited Rwanda in 2001, eight years after the genocide. He mentions that “still death hung in the air” (159). Smith points out that, in most of the survivors’ view, the 1994 genocide had its origins decades ago. He concluded that “the road that ended in the most brutal mass murders since the Holocaust had two generations of warnings that went unheeded” (165).
Since then many hundreds of thousands have been murdered in Darfur, a genocide that continues without the Western world giving much attention to it. This is yet another indication that it may not have learned much from the Holocaust.
It was in this context that Smith accepted the offer to become head of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California. He asserts that this institute’s collection is “the single largest body of visual history on any subject in the world” (198). He adds that it not only makes a case for studying the Holocaust but also for documenting other genocidal histories. Smith hopes that having past survivors tell their stories can help avoid further genocide.
While reading this book one realizes, however, that by emphasizing only the protection of innocent victims, one may well abet many other crimes. For example, terrorists in some environments – mainly Muslim ones – have understood that civilians can effectively be used as human shields when the adversary is Western. In this way criminals can either protect themselves or blame their targets if civilians are killed. Hamas, for instance, used this tactic in the 2008-2009 Gaza War. Before that it was already launching missiles from public places.
In any case, this book is an important testimony of two exceptional individuals. One major lesson to be drawn from it is that, in confronting the future, survivor testimonies alone are insufficient as documentation. The memories and impressions of those holding key functions at memorial sites and Holocaust centers must be recorded as well. This is even more so in Germany than elsewhere. There are indications that the important work the people at these sites do is viewed negatively by substantial parts of the local population.
To give one example, during a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 2005 this author had an informal conversation with one of the staff members of the memorial center. It was clear that many inhabitants of the neighboring town of Celle were far from enchanted with the institution. Toward the end of the war citizens of that town had on their own initiative participated in the murder of many deportees, in what became known as the “Hare Hunt of Celle” (Die Celler Hasenjagd).
The author concludes the book by stating his perplexity. Part of it he expresses as follows: “Was it worthwhile attempting to remember in a meaningful way, if there was no real commitment to change?… The answer has to be that it was worth it, though little has changed and nothing is certain.”
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DR. MANFRED GERSTENFELD is chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.