Eastern Michigan University’s Holy Trinity Student Parish and Hillel at EMU, along with EMU’s Division of Academic Affairs, College of Arts and Sciences and several other academic departments, have teamed up to sponsor an event titled “Did God Survive the Holocaust: A Jewish/Catholic Conversation.”
The discussion will take place at 7 p.m Monday in the EMU Student Center Ballroom. Noted scholars Father John T. Pawlikowksi, OSM, Ph.D. and Dr. Guy Stern, Ph.D, will discuss the relationship between spirituality and human tragedy.
Father Pawlikowski is the author of 10 books, including “The Challenge of the Holocaust for Christian Theology” and “Christ in the Light of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue.” He also serves as the director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Center in Chicago.
Father Pawlikowski will be bringing the perspective both of a Catholic and of a Catholic priest to the conversation. EMU English Language and Literature professor Martin B. Shichtman, who will serve as the moderator for the event, said Pawlikowski’s perspectives are ones we don’t often hear about in reference to the Holocaust.
“On the one hand the Vatican has been often accused of not having done enough, which is true,” Shichtman said. “On the other hand, many, many, many priests and nuns gave their lives in the Holocaust, were sent to the camps and were persecuted in the camps and died in the camps, because they resisted the nature of Nazi oppression.”
Dr. Stern, who will be bringing the Jewish perspective to the conversation, is a Distinguished Professor of German and Slavic Studies at Wayne State University, and serves as the director of the Holocaust Memorial in Farmington Hills, Mich.
“He is intimately involved in the process of remembrance,” Shichtman said, “and of the kinds of ways we go about remembering those who were killed. His particular position is not only to remember the Jewish dead—but certainly remembrance of the Jewish dead, the six million.”
Clara Silver, Executive Director of Hillel at EMU, detailed Dr. Stern’s background education that will enable him to bring a unique perspective to the discussion.
“When [Dr. Stern] was done with his own education he had to make a choice about what field of study to go into,” Silver said, “and he actually embraced German studies as a way of standing up for German culture and making the statement that Nazism was not German culture. So he’s really spent his life trying to embrace the culture and teach about the culture that was his own, in that context of recognizing that there’s a huge tragedy that’s part of its history.”
She also mentioned that he was one of the Ritchey Boys, a group of Jewish-American servicemen who she said were involved in interrogating some of the Nazi officers and S.S. guards.
Shichtman explained the purpose of the event was not simply to re-examine the Holocaust, but to discuss the questions posed by it from a cross-cultural perspective.
“One of the things we really wanted to show was that we can have a broad spectrum of diversity,” Shichtman said, “and have powerful conversations about difficult issues in ways that will be enlightening.”
“In many ways it’s programs like this that are what universities are all about,” he continued. “You know, we posit hard questions; we bring distinguished authorities in to talk about those questions. This is not the sort of question these men are going to be able to answer definitively.”
Silver discussed why she believed the Holocaust must continue to be examined, particularly at the collegial level.
“The Holocaust is a representation of civilization’s ultimate failure,” she said, “so whenever students are engaged in learning, one of the goals is to face civilization in a time when you first have the opportunity to ask hard questions. You get a picture of history in primary or high school, but college is the environment where you can confront history.”
She also talked about the fading opportunities to learn from those who experienced the Holocaust firsthand.
“With every successive generation, [the Holocaust] becomes more and more history and less and less real.” Silver said. “Guy Stern is in his late 80s; these are people who aren’t going to be here forever.
“We only have so many opportunities left to really hear from people who have firsthand experience with this. You know, his family was in Europe, died in the camps and he was over here trying to find a way to bring them over.”
Bill Alt, director of campus ministry at the EMU’s Holy Trinity Student Parish, said in a separate interview: “Clara and I have collaborated before and had been looking for other opportunities for inter-faith dialog, and this idea of doing something around Holocaust education I thought was very important. It’s something I was involved with in [Washington] D.C., to bring Catholic educators together for a week-long conference, and you meet with the Holocaust Museum and it was an amazing experience.”
“It was something that I thought was important, especially for us as Catholics, as Christians,” Alt explained. “That’s part of our history, and it’s part of our story to remember. It concerned me that a lot of the students I was meeting didn’t know enough about the history or why it was important for Christians to even be concerned about the Holocaust.”
When asked what his moderating task would consist of, Shichtman said, “Given these two speakers, men of considerable distinction, both of whom have written about the Holocaust, both of whom have involved themselves in ecumenical discourse of lots of varieties, it’s very possible that these two gentlemen, who do know each other, will just have a conversation and I’ll sit back and smile.”
He added that he has sent Father Pawlikowski and Dr. Stern a list of questions, and that he will be there to move the discussion forward if it is needed.
“Eastern gets a lot of wonderful programs—we do, it’s true. This will be a very, very powerful and I think important program for our campus. I really hope students come,” Shichtman said.
“I know I’m very much looking forward to it and I’m honored to be a part of it.”