The Lesson of Yad Vashem

Last February, my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to Israel. We both understood it as a God-ordained appointment, and that there is something in the experience that needs to be shared with our church community. The Lord has revealed this lesson to me. All that has happened to the Jews through history to the present is a prophetic warning for the Church that God is using for His purpose and as a warning to us for these last days.

Yad Vashem is the ultimate museum about the Holocaust, the attempted extermination of the Jews by the German Nazis during WWII. The name, Yad Vashem, embodies the idea of remembering and learning from the past. The name is derived from Isaiah 56:5, “And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a “yad vashem”)… that shall not be cut off.” To be honest, Peggy and I weren’t looking forward to experiencing Yad Vashem, because our Israel tour had been gloriously positive and we didn’t want to end it on such a sad note. Shortly before entering Jerusalem we experienced our first great sadness at Masada, the mountain fortress where a remnant of the Jews made their last stand against the legions of the Roman Empire. Would Yad Vashem be another downer at the conclusion of our pilgrimage?

The last day of our tour was considered a free day without a guide, so our options were limited. The tour bus would drop us at Yad Vashem, so we went. Having been to a Holocaust exhibition before, we envisioned a lot of information about gas chambers and suffering at the hands of evil Nazis, but Yad Vashem is not so much about what evil men do, but about the evil that decent people allowed which led to greater evil. “Separation” is very much the theme I drew from the Holocaust. Yad Vashem’s historical timeline begins long before the Holocaust. You see, the Jews had settled in Germany a thousand years before the Holocaust and were fully integrated into German society. As a first generation German-American, I can testify that it is mostly impossible to differentiate between a German Jew and a German gentile because they are ethnically and nationally the same. It can even be said that the Jews in Germany became part of the cultural elite as doctors, bankers, artists, scientists, and educators. They were not underdogs in German society, but rather part of the establishment, not unlike Christians have been in America. The Yad Vashem exhibits explain chronologically the changes that took place over a couple of decades that resulted in separation and persecution.

It began with cultural separation immediately after the First World War. Perhaps it was related to the people of Germany pondering their defeat and perceived humiliation by their enemies and looking for someone to blame. The Jews were just distinct enough, just different enough to be singled out for discrimination. It was very mild at first. Perhaps Jews weren’t welcome in certain social clubs or were discouraged from jobs in arts and media or inhibited from expressions of faith in public. Perhaps without even questioning what was happening, German Jews began forming their own social clubs, artistic forums, newspapers, and Jewish faith-based organizations. They may even have been proud of their separation from mainstream society because they were honoring God and their ethnic identity in a more pure way by separating from the world. However, along with cultural segregation, came separation from their non-Jewish friends and associations, those personal alliances who may have supported them later. The Jews came to live in Jewish communities with little personal contact with other Germans who viewed them as increasingly different from the mainstream of German society. When the Nazi socialists came into power, they erected walls around the Jewish communities to “protect” them from danger, but those walls were eventually used to keep the Jews from escaping. Jewish ghettos became places of suffering long before the gas chambers, where Jews made do with limited resources and few friends outside to supply aid. They starved in their decaying prisons until the Nazis finally hauled them away to their destruction. In one generation the Jews isolated themselves in these sanctuary communities where they could easily be taken by their enemies.

While the Nazi socialists were doing these things to the Jews, they were busy transforming German society in other ways. Haven’t we heard the term, “transformation”, in our own time? A telling statement on one of Yad Vashem’s exhibits related how the non-Jewish German population also accepted what the Nazi socialists were doing in the 1930’s to transform German society. It read, “Germans were satisfied with the stabilization of the political system and most accepted the abolition of democracy.” In other words, the people opted for personal security over freedom. The socialists made the trains run on time, offered free health care, and re-asserted national pride.

Here is the great lesson God is giving the Church through Yad Vashem. There are many parallels between 1930’s Germany and America today. Nazi socialists replaced the democratic Weimar Republic through a largely legal process of political organization just as modern socialists have gained control of the Federal government by creating coalitions of dissatisfied voters. The Nazis demonized financial institutions and private enterprise and promised greater efficiency through government control. So in America, our socialists blame recessions on corporate greed and financial manipulation and have asserted their power over free enterprise in the name of protecting the people. The Nazi socialists marginalized the Jews similar to the way that Christian expression has been minimized through separation of church and state. Christians have settled for separate-but-equal institutions similar to the way black Americans of the 1950’s accepted Negro baseball leagues and Negro music venues and other symbols of segregation. Like the Jews in Germany during the 1930’s, Christians have allowed ourselves to be marginalized and separated from the mainstream so that the general population is no longer a support for similar ideas and values. Where once we were part of the establishment, a new elite has abandoned any zeal for God, and God’s people seem anachronistic. Christians are out of touch with the elite’s desire for homosexual rights, restriction of private gun ownership, rejection of the Constitutional rule of law, and establishment of the state religion of humanism. We have embraced our marginalization by loving too much our called-apart status in America. The end game in all that is happening will look like the final solution the German Nazis perpetrated on the Jews. It almost certainly will be more subtle than gas chambers, but it will be just as final, if we continue to cooperate.

What must we do to avoid the fate of Germany’s Jews? When you attend your place of worship this Sunday, think about how the church building is a place where often we pray thanks to God for the freedom to join and worship together. Then ask yourself is freedom not available outside? The church building is our place of safety as it should be, but if we live our spiritual lives there only, the church building will become a place of separation where evildoers may overtake us one day. What we must do to avoid the fate of Germany’s Jewish citizens is to live in the mainstream while also proclaiming Christ. We need to be good neighbors to all people. We must occupy places of authority in mainstream media, business, public office, education, science, and the arts. We must risk appearing worldly so we can influence our world and our friends in it. We must put ourselves in a place where we will have the sympathy of our neighbors when evil men seek to destroy us.