I have been looking through the Review and Herald archives to see how the church reacted to the Holocaust. I visually scanned through all of the 1945 issues— this was the year when the details of the atrocities were broken to the world and when the Nuremberg trials began. I found plenty of comments in the Review about the war in general, especially about the atomic bomb and about the large numbers of soldiers lost and of the devastation of Europe. However, I found nothing about the systematic persecution and extermination of the Jewish people— nothing. I then found this comment in an editorial by Roy Adams published in 1995— it matches my findings.
Where is Our Outrage? Adventist Review, September 1995 (see page 4)
My mind went back 50 years—to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau. The names strike terror—even in the hearts of people today who were just infants at the time or hadn't been born. The spectre of breathing skeletons, gas chambers, and mass graves has etched itself upon the international conscious- ness forever. In the Nazi program of systematic genocide, an astonished world confronted, for the first time, the most ghastly example of human savagery.
How did our church react back then in 1945? I was curious to know. Were we scandalized? Were we utterly outraged by such gruesome evidence of human ugliness? I went searching for answers in the most likely place I'd expect to find it— the Review. But alas, I found nothing.
I then looked to see if there was any reflection on the Holocaust in later years. I figured that the word Auschwitz would be used in any commentary on the Holocaust, so I searched for that word in the Review. The first use of Auschwitz in any issue of the Review did not occur until 1963— 18 years after the Holocaust came to world attention. (Recall, in 1945 the Review reported extensively about the war and its effect on the church— just none about the extermination of Jews. One thing that comes through clearly in the 1945 issues of the Review is that the church in Germany weathered the war quite well in terms of infrastructure and organization, all things considered.)
Those first occurrences of the word Auschwitz in the Review are disturbingly Judenfrei— the death camp is discussed without any mention of Jews. This was not just a single occurrence, but it was a pattern that I saw in most of the references over the next 10 years— the early 60s to the 70s. It reminds me of a line from James Carroll's book, Constantine's Sword (p. 7)— about making “the evil worse: the elimination of Jewishness from the place where Jews were eliminated.” Of the 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz— a conservative estimate— 90% were Jewish.
Here are some examples from the Review articles.
RH — Vol. 140, No. 48, November 28, 1963 p. 16
There is no grimmer reminder of the sufferings of the Polish people than a visit to the former German extermination camp at Oswiecim in southern Poland. This death factory is better known by its German name of Auschwitz. One of the cynical statements made at Auschwitz was, "The only way out from this camp is through the chimneys of the crematorium”!
RH — Vol. 145, No. 43, October 24, 1968, p. 4
About 45 miles clue west of Krakow, not far from Czechoslovakia, is the infamous death camp known during World War II as Auschwitz. (The Polish name is Oswiecim.) At this camp, together with several nearby, some 4 million human beings from 29 nations were gassed, then burned in crematories. In company with Elder Lyko we visited this monument to man's inhumanity to man. A pall of gloom and death still seems to hang over the camp. The mood seizes one from the moment he approaches, for today, just as 25 years ago, the words "Arbeit Macht Frei ["Work Brings Freedom"]" are inscribed on the arch over the main entrance. The slogan was perhaps the ultimate in cynicism, a kind of cruel joke, for no amount of work, however faithfully performed, could bring freedom. Freedom was sure through one means only— death.
RH — Vol. 147, No. 11, March 12, 1970, p. 2
During the five years of occupation more than 6 million Polish citizens died, some on war fronts, others in concentration camps, still others in forced-labor camps. Mothers and children, youth and old people, peasants, workers, intellectuals, laity and clergy—all were persecuted by the occupying forces.
The war also destroyed many Polish towns, settlements, and villages. Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was 90 per cent destroyed.
There are in Poland more than 20,000 registered Nazi sites of extermination: concentration camps, prisons, and places of public execution. Oswiecim (Auschwitz) concentration camp, where more than 4 million people of various nationalities were exterminated, was the largest.
RH — Vol. 148, No. 41, October 14, 1971, p. 19
While visiting the South Polish Conference, Elder Pierson visited Auschwitz, where some 4 million people died during World War II.
RH — Vol. 158, No. 33, August 13, 1981, pp. 15-16
In the midst of the week, Pastor and Mrs. Wilson, together with W. R. L. Scragg, president of the Northern European Division, visited Auschwitz.
He placed a wreath at the "Death Wall" that commemorates the 4 million people from dozens of nationalities who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In a statement at Auschwitz, Pastor Wilson said: "I appeal to men and women everywhere, and especially to world leaders who hold the destiny of millions of lives in their hands, to find ways to resolve differences and thus avert the threat of a modern holocaust." This appeal was sent to the world by the PAP news agency, which reported details of this visit and its meaning to the Polish people and the world community.
I can't say for certain why there is apparently a collective blind spot in the reporting found in the Review. Is there something in our collective consciences, that we could not bear to do the self-examination that an honest reporting of the facts would have occasioned? (By the way, this is not a uniquely Adventist problem— the New York Times buried its earliest reporting about Auschwitz in small stories deep inside the newspaper. Many other churches are also still confronting their silence at that time.)
I still have a lot of research to do in the Review archives. As far as I can tell, our church has never really confronted this issue.