Rabbi guides Christian leaders on mission to study Jewish history, destruction in Poland

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Sep 23, 2019

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko leads the Christian Mission to Poland through Auschwitz on the second to the last day of the mission. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] The dead are buried in books.

At Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland that came to symbolize the Holocaust, the Book of Names memorializes 4.2 million known victims in oversized books displayed in Block 27, a red-brick former barrack, as part of a permanent exhibit honoring the dead.

All told, the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews and unknown millions of Soviet prisoners of war and Soviet citizens, Roma, Polish resisters and non-Jewish Poles, Serbs, German political prisoners and resistance activists, disabled people, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses before World War II’s end in September 1945.

“If you cannot bring someone to a proper burial, you bury them in a book,” said Rabbi Yehiel Poupko. Here, Poupko searches the Book of Names and finds 800 Poupkos listed. The 6½ foot-high Book of Names memorializes 4.2 million known Jewish victims of the Holocaust and is part of a permanent exhibit at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The state museum and memorial opened on the site of the former death camps in 1947. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service 

“Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims,” said Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, a rabbinic scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “The act of coming here is an act of honor and respect. To forget is to erase memory. … Whoever remembers is fighting against erasure.”

In August, Poupko led a weeklong Christian Leadership Mission to Poland, making overnight stays in Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow, exploring the history and destruction of European Jewry in Poland.

Jews arrived in Polin, meaning “rest here” or “here you may dwell” in Hebrew, in the Middle Ages. Religious tolerance and Jews’ social autonomy made Poland home to one of the largest, most significant Jewish communities in the world. In 1939, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, more than a third of the 9.5 million Jews in Europe.

Already by the end of World War I, however, rising Polish nationalism, pogroms, discriminatory laws and growing anti-Semitism made the country, just east of Germany and west of what was then the Soviet Union, a hostile place for Jews.

“The narrative of the destruction of European Jewry is not as well known and experienced as it could be in North America,” said the Very Rev. Dominic Barrington, dean of St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago, one of several Episcopalians on the trip.

The mission’s group formed out of a friendship between Poupko and Barrington. Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Evangelicals, scholars – including an Islamic scholar – a Reform rabbi and other Jewish United Fund staff also joined the weeklong mission.

“I’m honored, as a member of The Episcopal Church, that we’ve been able to work with Rabbi Poupko and initiate this extraordinary trip, which has been transformative for all of us who have taken part in it,” said Barrington in a conversation with Episcopal News Service on a bus traveling from Warsaw to Treblinka, the site of a former Nazi death camp located in a forest northeast of the capital.

When Barrington arrived in Chicago in 2015 as dean of St. James, Poupko was the first religious leader to welcome him and offer a lunch invitation; the new dean, who previously had served a parish in Kettering, England, 90 miles north of London, accepted with some trepidation. In England, he said, to encounter Jewish voices in interfaith dialogue is uncommon, as the Jewish population is very small (0.48 percent of the United Kingdom’s total population), and in fact, Barrington had not encountered Jews in an interfaith context.

“I never met a rabbi in 20 years of ordained ministry in England, and that’s not atypical,” he said.

For Barrington, living in the United States – where Jews are only about 1.8 percent of the population, but every city has a Jewish presence – has been an interesting journey of discovery.

Poupko “talked to me about how interfaith dialogue happened in a unique way in the United States and, very particularly in his opinion, in Chicago, and that it was possible to have robust conversations that could be grounded in real friendship,” said Barrington. “And I’m not sure I believed him at first, but I discovered that that’s profoundly true. And I have learned a vast amount from him.”

The Christian Mission to Poland included Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Congregationalist and other faith leaders and scholars. This post is outside the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

For years, Barrington has led Christian pilgrimages to Israel and Palestine, as part of his work supporting Christian communities. It was his work in the Middle East, he said, that made him “leery” to meet with an Orthodox rabbi.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Every three years when The Episcopal Church holds its General Convention, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ignites passionate debate. [/perfectpullquote]

“In very broad terms, I would say that Britain and probably most of Western Europe is instinctively pro-Palestinian rather than pro-Israeli in terms of the current situation of the conflict, and manifest in the United States, it’s the other way around,” Barrington said. “So, I’ve had a huge learning experience, in terms of things that I thought I knew and understood. I’ve learnt in much deeper ways what anti-Semitism is about, and I’ve also learnt that to be a friend to Palestinians, in particular perhaps to Palestinian Christians, it can be very helpful to have some Jewish friends.”

But for Barrington, it was the 2016 film “Denial,” a portrayal of Irving v. Lipstadt, that helped him understand the real impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people. “Denial” dramatizes how American historian Deborah Lipstadt wrote the 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust,” in which she detailed the perils of such denial and named British writer David Irving a Holocaust denier. In 1996, Irving sued her for libel in Britain. In court, Lipstadt was forced to prove the fact of the Holocaust as her defense against the suit. The court ruled in Lipstadt’s favor in 2000.

The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington, dean of St. James Cathedral in Chicago, offers a reading from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (1:1-7) during a stop at Umschlagplatz, a place where Jews were gathered for deportation to concentration and extermination camps inside what was the Warsaw ghetto. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service 

“As I watched this saga about how the Holocaust had to be proved in evidential terms in an English court, I suddenly realized that my own perception of my integrity was in question if I didn’t get on with it and come and see these places,” he said. “The moment I had that realization that I should go to Auschwitz, it was also abundantly plain to me that there was only one set of eyes through which I wanted to view it. And I got home, and I emailed Yehiel and said, ‘I’ve woken up to something, and I need to ask you a favor.’ And this is the result.”

It was the first time for Poupko, who for years has worked to build relationships with Christians and who has made many overseas missions to Eastern and Central Europe, to lead a Christian mission.

“The essence of a relationship is to know the other person as they know themselves,” said Poupko, as to the mission’s importance. “I think [when] these people, who are good Christians and good friends of the Jewish people, get to know us deeper, this helps people understand who we are. Secondly, I hope it inspires them because everyone needs to be inspired and reinvigorated to deal with the tribe of folded arms. We know how to deal with bad people; it’s very simple. You’ve got to stop them, right? We know how to deal with evil. You gotta stop it. That’s not the problem. The real problem is how to inspire people who have joined the tribe of folded arms.”

The city of Lublin can be seen beyond the fence of Majdanek, a German concentration camp built on what then was then the outskirts of the city, though the camp was still visible to Lublin’s citizens. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

For the Episcopalians – Barrington, Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel, retired Northern California Bishop Barry Beisner and the Rev. James Harlan, all of whom have led numerous Christians pilgrimages to Israel and Palestine – traveling to Poland and studying Jewish history in Europe where Jews once thrived and where Nazis sought to destroy them went beyond the history books.

“I think, for me, the Holocaust became more, even more than just the staggering numbers of people who suffered and died; that’s staggering enough. But I came to see this rich, beautiful culture, this whole tradition of Judaism that had grown up here, and basically no longer is,” said Harlan, rector of The Church of Bethesda-by-the Sea in Palm Beach, Florida, while standing in Old Town Krakow’s main square.

“And I realized that the Holocaust was more hateful than even just killing. It was even worse than that,” he said. “And I think, to see, to be able to come here and see it through the eyes of some wonderful Jewish friends, to learn the richness and the beauty of the whole Jewish tradition that grew up here, made visiting the Holocaust sites more painful, more poignant, and yet more hopeful as well.

“I think, as I lead groups, I hope to find ways to do what we did here, which is to listen to one another, to share the stories of our traditions, of our histories of our peoples. To find the common ground that we have is simply in our humanity, but also in our love of God and our faith.”

The Christian Mission to Poland’s second day begins with a stop at a remaining portion of the Warsaw ghetto wall, which is sandwiched between apartment buildings in a residential neighborhood. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service 

Germany suffered immense losses in World War I: more than 7 million soldiers dead, widespread starvation, and economic devastation made worse by the Treaty of Versailles’s terms demanding billions of dollars in reparations to Britain and France.

“The Germans felt that the Versailles Treaty was the Dolchstosslegende – stab in the back,” said Poupko. It was followed by a depression, weakness in the Weimar Republic’s democracy, civic chaos, and communist agitation, with the Prussian old guard seeking stability. “These were complex and real and very painful phenomena, which the Nazi Germans explained in a simple way, a unified field theory: ‘Why are we in all this trouble? The Jews.’”

Jews as scapegoats, anti-Jewish propaganda, anti-Semitism and Christian anti-Semitism, persecution, killings and pogroms long predated the 20th century and the Holocaust; they can be traced to biblical times and the Jews’ expulsion from Israel, through ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages, and into the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Still, it’s the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews that continue to live in contemporary imagination.

The mission trip began in Warsaw with a tour of the Jewish ghetto and a cemetery where many of the dead “died in their beds,” before the Nazis’ killing started. It made stops in Treblinka, Tykocin, Lublin, Kazimierz, and Auschwitz-Birkenau and ended in the Krakow ghetto.

The mission’s stops mirrored the Nazis’ systematic extermination plan, which took place in three phases: Beginning in 1939, 80,000 people, including babies and the handicapped, were “euthanized.” Then came Operation Reinhard, when extermination camps were introduced and 2 million people were murdered. Later, the Nazis ramped up the machine.

The Nazi slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes You Free” hangs over the entrance to Auschwitz. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service 

Auschwitz was built in 1940 on 12 acres of a former military base in German-occupied Poland. Less than two miles away, construction of Birkenau, which became the main extermination camp, began in 1941. In 1944, when the Nazis knew they had lost the war, Birkenau was used in a hurried attempt to kill as many Jews as possible before the end. Many of those murdered there were Hungarians who had previously avoided deportation.

“Auschwitz came to symbolize the Holocaust when in reality, 4.5 million Jews had already been murdered,” said Poupko.

“Three hundred thousand Jews [from Poland] survived: 50,000 underground, 250,000 in the Soviet Union. They came back [to Poland] in ’45 and ’46,” said Poupko. “And there was a wave of anti-Semitism. By 1952, the 300,000, we’re down to about 50,000 or 60,000; those 50,000 to 60,000 were reduced by 10,000 or 15,000 in ’58, and ’68 by another 30,000 because of anti-Semitism. And in ’68 there was an anti-Zionist campaign following the [1967] Six Day War. Jews were just not welcomed, and we were thrown out.

“Jewish history has passed this place by,” he said.

Beisner, retired bishop of Northern California, appreciated Poupko’s wisdom and teachings.

The Giesa Street Cemetery located in what was the Warsaw ghetto is maintained by Warsaw’s Jewish community. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service 

“It’s been a fantastic insight into what [Poupko] calls ‘Ashkenazic civilization.’ This was the heart of much of Jewish life and expression for a very long time,” Beisner said. “That civilization has been largely destroyed, but it is a basis for contemporary Judaism. This is not just a museum tour, as it were; this is also a way to better understand roots and foundations of what is around us and happening now in Judaism – and that’s something I’m very hungry for – and to increase my knowledge and experience and my capacity for friendship.”

Rickel, bishop of Olympia, had previously met Poupko in Israel, where the rabbi has greeted Episcopalians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Rickel told ENS that visiting Poland contextualized the Holocaust and challenged some misguided information.

“I’m going back with this, almost like I did when I went to the Holy Land, this fervor to get people to come here and do what we did; maybe even bring some back here because I think that really does make us live differently,” said Rickel, who blogged about the mission.

“When I’ve gone to the Holy Land, I’ve always said, ‘Everybody’s got to come’; I’ve gotten so much into that. I don’t ordain people unless they go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land because I think you have to see it and touch it and walk it if you’re going to teach it,” he said. “What [Poupko’s] done with this is show the same from a Jewish perspective. I just think it’s a Christian one, too; that we were definitely part of this in many, many ways, and we are still part of it. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Not only did the Nazis seek to erase the Jews, they also sought to divorce Christianity from Judaism.

It was the Nazis who created anti-Christian anti-Semitism, said Poupko.

“What the Nazi Germans tried to do was to erase the Jewishness of Jesus, the origins of Jesus from the flesh of the Jewish people, the rootedness of the New Testament in the Hebrew Bible, and they wanted to marry racism to Christianity, asserting that Christianity is a uniquely Aryan phenomenon with no connection to Judaism,” he said.

Hitler built on the work of mid-19th-century German scholars who sought to establish that “Jesus was still the source of salvation, but he was not a Jew,” said the Rev. Jay Phelan, president emeritus and dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and a pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

The scholars’ work was part of an effort to establish that Greek culture had more influence on Christianity than Judaism, “looking for the essence of Christianity outside Judaism,” he said.

“So, when Hitler goes after Jesus, as a Jew, he was working out of conversations that had been going on for a while in anti-Semitic circles,” said Phelan. That purification of Christianity went further, he said, as both scholars and Hitler sought to purge German society of anything that encouraged resistance to the state.

“Their understanding of relationship between the citizens and the state is that the citizen is there to serve the needs of the state,” said Phelan. “And then there are states that understand that the state is there in some sense to serve the needs of the citizen. And obviously, you know, it’s a little bit of both, but in the case of Hitler, the individual is there to serve the needs of the state.”

Railroad tracks lead to the gates at Birkenau, a Nazi concentration and extermination camp; once inside the gates, the tracks end. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service 

For the Rev. David Lyle, a Lutheran pastor, visiting Auschwitz and the other death camps made him mindful of his denomination’s heritage and brought him back to the 16th century and Martin Luther.

“For me, the Lutheran understanding of the Gospel is about peace and love, mercy, grace, freedom,” said Lyle, senior pastor at Grace Lutheran Church and School in River Forest, Illinois. “But [Martin] Luther also, especially toward the end of his life, wrote very anti-Semitic writings, most clearly in a little treatise called ‘On the Jews and Their Lies,’ in which he advocated for the burning of Jewish homes and synagogues, and that they shouldn’t have laws protecting them, and even alluded in a direction of killing, although he didn’t openly advocate for that.”

Many Lutherans aren’t aware of Luther’s anti-Semitism, and some attribute it to poor health later in life. “But I think, as Lutherans, we need to be much more aware of it and much more honest about the reality of those writings and the legacy they’ve had, particularly in Germany,” Lyle said.

“There’s a sense in which the railway lines to Auschwitz and other places went through the theological and ideological tradition of Wittenberg,” he said. “And so for me it’s very important, as I continue to claim myself as a Lutheran, to be aware of all of what that communicates, and not just the pieces of it that I’m comfortable with, or that I enjoy, that speak to me. And since I want to continue to identify myself as Lutheran, that means repentance: That means an honest acknowledgement of what Luther said and wrote, and it means that to be Lutheran is to not just ignore that, or try to move past it, but acknowledge it and repent of it for the sake of relationship with others.”

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko talks with the Very Rev. Dominic Barrington, dean of St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago, and Bishop of Olympia Greg Rickel, foreground, during a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service 

For Stephen Ray Jr., president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, studying the Holocaust and “othering” has helped him better understand African Americans’ experience in the United States. “Othering” is the practice of viewing or treating a person or group of people as intrinsically different from oneself. “It helped me understand the black experience in ways that I had not been able to understand before, in ways I could experience but didn’t understand,” said Ray, while walking along the railroad tracks leading to the gate and out of Birkenau.

Understanding othering and the black experience, visiting Holocaust sites and gaining further insight are important to Ray as a Christian theologian.

“First and most important is my deep sense that we have a responsibility to not only our faith, but for those who come after us, to give them guidance in terms of how to live the faith in such a way that it does not bring dishonor to God,” said Ray. Unfortunately, he said, Christianity sometimes has been used to justify injustice. The two preeminent examples he cites are the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Holocaust.

“And so,” he said, “if there was a way that I could use those, in my teaching primarily, to help create a new Christian imagination, then it might be possible to pass along a faith that God will not regret that we held.”

– Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service. In August, she accompanied the Christian Mission to Poland.