Bigotry against Bonhoeffer in Jerusalem

By Wise, Stephen A. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Bigotry against Bonhoeffer in Jerusalem

Wise, Stephen A., Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem established in Israel as a "Martyrs' and Heroes' Commemoration." The Museum denied such recognition to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who fought the Nazis' persecution of Jews steadily from Hitler's ascendance to power in 1933 until Hitler had him hanged on April 9, 1945.

Starting in 1998, three petitioners submitted overwhelming evidence in support of the recognition of Bonhoeffer as one of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, the first two of whom authored this article. They were Rabbi Balfour Brickner, one of the leading reform rabbis in the world; Attorney Stephen A. Wise, whose father wrote the first anti-Hitler book, Swastika: The Nazi Terror, (1) published thirteen weeks after Hitler came to power, and whose grandfather, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, was president of the World Jewish Congress; and Professor Konrad Bieber, of Yale and other universities, who had been hidden by a French farmer's wife and successfully petitioned Yad Vashem to recognize her.

The 1953 Israeli law that created Yad Vashem set up a special department to "commemorate ... the high-minded Gentiles who jeopardized their lives to save Jews," generally called "The Righteous Gentiles" (emphasis added). The director of that department is Dr. Mordecai Paldiel. In a speech on November 19, 1998, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Paldiel described the Righteous program as follows: "It is awarded to rescuers who knowingly and in full conscience were prepared to risk their lives in the attempt to help one or several Jews to survive ... irrespective of whether the rescue operation succeeded or failed... Assisting Jews to flee from an endangered place to another less dangerous place ... such as Switzerland... without exacting monetary reward for this may qualify for the Righteous title" (emphasis added).

The law's footnote states that the name "Yad Vashem" comes from Is. 56:5b: "I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off" (N.R.S.V.). Especially noteworthy is the next verse in Isaiah, ignored by Paldiel, which says: "And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, ... to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant" (Is. 56:6).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was just such a "foreigner." Two days after Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer was speaking on the radio and differentiated between a leader (Fuhrer) and a misleader (Verfuhrer). He explained: "This is the leader who makes an idol of himself and his office and thus mocks God"--for which he was cut off the air. (2) Over the years he opposed the Nazis' persecution of the Jews in the many ways detailed below, and on July 20, 1944, he was involved in a plot that failed to kill Hitler. After a long imprisonment, he and three relatives, along with others, were executed on Hitler's direct orders, only three weeks before the end of the war in Europe.

After the war, Bonhoeffer's cursory conviction was judicially set aside, and a German postage stamp was issued honoring him. There now are Bonhoeffer Societies in many countries. His books and articles on many subjects are widely studied--particularly Ethics, (3) Letters and Papers from Prison, (4) Love Letters from Cell 92, (5) and The Cost of Discipleship. (6) There are dozens of books and articles about him, the most extensive and authoritative of which was written by his former student and lifetime biographer, Dr. Eberhard Bethge: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Biography (7) (1048 pages, based on over 3,000 documents filed in Berlin at the State Library, carefully cited in 2,438 footnotes). Bethge was awarded the Union Theological Seminary's highest honor, the Union Medal, in 1984.

The four-volume Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, first published in Jerusalem, (8) notes in its introductory page that "Bonhoeffer ... became involved in efforts to assist Jews to escape from Germany, including a successful scheme in 1942 to smuggle a party of fifteen Jews to Switzerland, which led to his arrest"--generally known as "Operation 7. …

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