Friday, April 29, 2011

Chernobyl and the End of Gorbachev's Honeymoon

When the members of the Soviet Politburo met in the spring of 1985 to choose a new General Secretary to succeed Constantine Chernenko, the advantage seemed to lie with Chernenko's close protegee, Viktor Grishin, an old Communist who had headed the Moscow branch of the party since 1967. But when the eldest member of the Politburo, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who had been appointed to his position by Nikita Khrushchev in 1967, nominated Mikhail Gorbachev to be the party's new leader, it was obvious that the fight would be a very close one.

In rising to speak, Gromyko reminded the other Politburo members that Gorbachev had, in effect, been the second in command during much of the year and a half Chernenko had spent in office. Indeed, during the last months of Chernenko's illness, Gorbachev had ably chaired the meetings of the Secretariat and the entire Politburo. "He proved that he is brilliant, without any exaggeration," Gromyko continued. "This is a man of principles, of strong convictions... He has a great skill for organizing people, and for finding a common language with them." Then, as though to both to emphasize Gorbachev's strength of will and to disarm critics who claimed that Gorbachev was too soft, the old Communist is said to have concluded, "Comrades, this man has a nice smile, but he's got iron teeth." Based largely on Gromyko's support, Gorbachav was chosen General Secretary of the party.

On assuming the top position, Gorbachev learned for the first time just how severe the problems in the USSR were. There could be no continuation of business as usual, he told his fellow Communists. There was a need for everyone, especially those in leadership positions, to work harder. There was a need to modernize Soviet industry. If the country were to keep its position in the world economy, a scientific and technological revolution must be launched as well. Only then could a higher standard of living be guaranteed for all the Soviet people.

General Secretary Gorbachev wasted no time in bringing his ideas to the general public. He stunned the citizens of Moscow by arriving unannounced for a visit to the Proletarskii section of the city. This was the first of many walkabouts among common Soviet citizens that Gorbachev would make. He visited several factories and discussed conditions with the workers. He visited a supermarket, joked with schoolchildren, and dropped by to visit the apartment of a young family. Soviet citizens viewing scenes of the most recent walkabout on the evening news could hardly believe their eyes.

In May, Gorbachev traveled to Leningrad, the second largest city in the Soviet Union. His visit marked the first time in more than two years that a Soviet leader had been well enough to travel beyond Moscow. Gorbachev soon made it clear that this visit would not be like those that had taken place in the past. He told the Leningrad party chief, Lev Zaikov, that he was not interested in visiting a few carefully chosen factories. Rather, he wanted to see places where the "real" people of Leningrad worked and shopped and lived, just as he had on his walkabouts in Moscow. The people of Leningrad greeted Gorbachev warmly. They were excited about his plans for change and felt gratified that one of their leaders was concerned enough to ask their opinions on matters of importance.

On his first night in Leningrad, Gorbachev spoke before a gathering of members of the city's Communist Party. The Soviet Union required nothing less than complete perestroika-- "restructuring"-- Gorbachev declared. This restructuring would require an "immense mobilization" of the whole society, he continued. It would be a task as demanding as the war against Hitler's Germany had been.

Gorbachev obviously meant business, and wherever he went, the Soviet public responded with a great outpouring of support. In June, he visited that large Ukrainian cities of Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk. The next month, he traveled to the Byelorussian Republic and spoke before several large gatherings. Trips were also planned to Siberia and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All along the way, the Soviet press gave extensive coverage to the energetic general secretary. When Gorbachev was in Leningrad, the nightly news program Vremya dedicated much of its broadcast to his visit. One hundred million Soviet citizens watched as a woman shouted at Gorbachev, "You should be closer to the people!" "How can I be any closer?" the general secretary responded, barely visible amid the throng of Leningraders. The crowd on screen roared its approval, and across the USSR, people shook their heads in amazement at the humor and zest of their new leader and his polished, intelligent wife, Raisa, who accompanied him on all of his journeys.

It was not all back-slapping and smiles, however. Gorbachev moved quickly to reinstitute several of the reform programs of his protegee, Yuri Andropov, which his successor, Chernenko, had let lapse. With great fanfare, he announced an extensive new program to fight alcohol abuse. One Soviet official estimated that drunkenness was a factor in more than two thirds of the crimes committed in the USSR, as well as 98 percent of all murders, 40 percent of all divorces, 50 percent of all accidents, and 63 percent of all drownings. Approximately 90 percent of the inmates of juvenile correction colonies had been sentenced for crimes committed while intoxicated. Between 1964 and 1985, the Soviet Union's death rate had risen from 6.9 per thousand to 10.8. Authorities believed that the chief factor in this huge jump was the increased consumption of alcohol during this same period.

While previous Soviet leaders had chosen to ignore the problem, Gorbachev decided to attack it head-on. In May, 1985, the legal drinking age in the Soviet Union was raised from 18 to 21. Two thirds of all state liquor stores were closed, and many of the state-owned distilleries were converted to plants for manufacturing soft drinks. Alcoholic beverages were removed from the shelves of ordinary food stores. Liquor stores and restaurants were banned from selling alcohol until two o'clock in the afternoon, and bartenders and waitresses were ordered not to serve more than two drinks per customer. The fine for public drunkenness was increased by 1000 percent.

At first, Gorbachev's antialcohol campaign was greeted hopefully. People across the country vowed to keep their communities alcohol-free. Farmers in the wine producing regions in the south ripped out their vineyards and planted other crops to replace them. Many Soviet citizens were impressed when Gorbachev banned the serving of alcohol at official banquets and receptions. Because of his personal preference for mineral water rather than vodka, General Secretary Gorbachev became known as Mineral Secretary Gorbachev.

But it was not long before this nickname-- originally intended as a sign of affection-- became a moniker of disdain instead. As the availability of vodka was restricted, long lines-- which became known as "Gorbachev's nooses"-- soon formed outside the few state liquor stores that remained opened.

People searched out other means of satisfying their need for alcohol. Many bought huge quantities of sugar in order to make their own homemade vodka. When the supply of sugar in state-owned grocery stores was almost depleted, the government was forced to impose strict rationing. Desperate alcoholics unable to buy legal vodka or make their own soon even began drinking cologne, paint thinner, industrial solvent, even brake fluid-- anything that contained alcohol.

The antialcohol campaign brought the honeymoon between Gorbachev and the Soviet people to a grinding halt. But the General Secretary pushed on. On February 25, 1986, he convened the Twenty-seventh Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and following a time honored tradition, made a marathon speech (five hours long) outlining his plans for restructuring Soviet society. Not only did the Soviet economy have to change, Gorbachev stressed, but there was also a need to encourage integrity and honesty at all levels of society. Only through glasnost--  "openness"-- could the Soviet people face the mistakes of the past honestly and meet the challenges of the future with confidence.

Gorbachev's promises of glasnost were soon to be put to the most severe of tests. Just after one o'clock in the morning on April 26, 1986, there was an explosion in one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 50 miles north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, near Ukraine's border with Byelorussia. Huge amounts of nuclear radiation were released into the atmosphere. Farmland and drinking water in vast areas of the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Lithuanian, and Latvian Soviet republics were contaminated. Thousands of people would eventually die from the effects of the accident.

For all his talk of a new openness, Gorbachev's first response to Chernobyl was to do nothing. The Soviet government waited three days before admitting that an accident had even occurred, and it did so only when monitors in Finland and Sweden reported abnormally high levels of radiation in the atmosphere. Authorities also waited three full days before evacuating the towns in the immediate vicinity of the power plant. Ten days passed before the government offered any detailed explanation of what had happened, and even then many questions were left unanswered. Finally, on May 14-- nearly three weeks after the catastrophe-- Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the nation-- and the world-- about the disaster.

But instead of taking the opportunity to speak honestly about the situation at Chernobyl, Gorbachev attacked those who had dared to criticize his government's response. "Political figures and the mass media of certain countries, especially the United States... used the Chernobyl accident as a jumping-off point for an unrestrained anti-Soviet campaign," Gorbachev seethed. Many of the reports coming from the West about the extent of the Chernobyl disasters-- about hundreds of thousands of casualties and large-scale ecological devastation-- were, Gorbachev said, "a mountain of lies." (Of course, most later sources would confirm the veracity of many of these "alarmist" reports.)

As one foreign observer later lamented, Gorbachev's address on Chernobyl "could have come from the mouth of any one of [his] predecessors from Stalin to Chernenko... It was one of Gorbachev's worst moments." [Robert G. Kaiser] Many observers-- both inside and outside the Soviet Union-- now realized that there was still a long way to go on the road toward glasnost and perestroika. 

But in the wake of the criticism that followed Chernobyl, the pace of glasnost accelerated. Numerous articles critical of the government's response appeared in the Soviet press. By the summer of 1986, several of the country's leading magazines and newspapers were under the management of reformist editors sympathetic to glasnost and perestroika. 

A new spirit of openness characterized the Soviet film industry as well. Films made years before but repressed by government censors were finally released. Perhaps the most important of these was Repentance, a drama by the Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze about the Stalinist terror. Gorbachev viewed Repentance privately, and was apparently deeply moved. He remembered how his own grandfather had been arrested by Stalin's agents and sent to a labor camp. As the film ended and Gorbachev rose to leave, he told one of his aides, "Make sure that enough copies are made so that everyone in the country can see it."

But Gorbachev saw the need for an even clearer signal that the floodgates of reform had been opened. Late one night in December 1986, KGB agents arrived at the apartment of Andrei Sakharov in Gorki. They were there, they told Sakharov, to install a telephone-- something the dissident scientist had been forbidden the seven years he had lived in internal exile. The next afternoon, the telephone rang; Gorbachev was on the line. A decision had been made to allow Sakharov to return to Moscow, the general secretary said. "Go back to your patriotic work," Gorbachev told the exiled scientist. By the end of the month, Sakharov was back in Moscow.

Soon, too, works by long-banned authors began to appear in Soviet bookstores. A new Russian translation of the anti-Soviet satire 1984 by George Orwell was an immediate best-seller. A government commission was established to oversee publication of Doctor Zhivago by the Soviet Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak. The literary journal Oktyabar published the anti-Stalinist poem "Requiem" by Anna Akmatova. Like Doctor Zhivago, "Requiem" was a work well-known abroad, but it had never been published in the USSR. Similarly the historical novel, Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov, a frank description of life during Stalinist times, was published in 1987-- 21 years after it had first been banned by government censors.

That same year, Gorbachev published his own book, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, in which he laid out his vision of openness:

"This world is... one whole. We are all passengers aboard one ship, the Earth, and we must not allow it to be wrecked. There will be no second Noah's Ark... Perestroika is no whim on the part of some ambitious individuals or a group of leaders... Perestroika is an urgent necessity... This society is ripe for change. It has long been yearning for it."

But when change did not arrive quickly enough, the Soviet people grew impatient. Within a year or so, as the Soviet economy sputtered and sank, and political instability threatened chaos, a little ditty was making its way around Russia:

Sausage prices twice as high,
Where's the vodka for us to buy?
All we do is sit at home,
Watching Gorby drone and drone.

But once the genies of reform and openness had been let from their bottles, even Gorbachev could not control the course of events. And the Soviet lands lurched out of a tumultuous past into an even more uncertain future.  

Jeffrey Symynkywicz is the author of six books, including The Soviet Turmoil. Copies are available online from, or directly from the author at

Friday, April 8, 2011

Edith Stein-- A Modern Saint

Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1881-- Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement-- in Breslau, Germany (which is Wroclaw, Poland today). She was the youngest child of a large, devout, talented Jewish family. Her father, Siegfried Stein, was an industrious and prosperous merchant trader. Her mother's name was Auguste, a strong and forceful woman who always cited these verses from the biblical book of Proverbs:

She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household...
She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hand she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.

It was from her mother, apparently, that much of Edith's strength of character came. Indeed, she barely knew her father. Her last memory of him, she said, was from when she was not quite two years old. Her mother was holding her in her arms, and they both were waving good-bye to Siegfried as he left on a long journey to a distant forest, to scout out prospects for his lumber business. He never came back. Siegfried died of a stroke the very next day. Edith would never see her father again.

Her mother reminded her, too, that she had been born on the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. She was, then, destined for great things. Her life was meant to signify something.

Edith was an intelligent child, but not an easy one. "During my early years," she wrote later, "I was mercurially lively, always in motion, spilling over with pranks, impertinent and precocious, and at the same time intractably stubborn and angry if anything went against my will."

She was also exceedingly gifted, and in 1897. she entered elementary school a full year early. So began the cultivation of her lifelong passion for learning and knowledge-- a passion that rivaled her family's deep Jewish faith for precedence in her life. Eventually, the life of the mind won out, and at the age of thirteen Edith suddenly stopped participating in family prayers and declared herself an atheist!

In 1911, just twenty years old, she was accepted at the University of Breslau and became one of the first women admitted to university studies in Germany. She studied philosophy, psychology, history, and philology (the study of language). Two years later, she entered into more advanced study at the University of Gottingen under the noted philosopher Edmund Husserl.

Husserl had a profound influence on Stein. As a direct counter to Kantian idealism which held that everything is subjective and open to interpretation, Husserl's phenomenology insisted that both natural and transcendent reality have a knowable, objective nature. "[I wanted] to view things free of prejudice and throw off the blinders," Stein wrote of these years. The "search for truth" became her overriding passion, and under the influence of Husserl and his associates (a good number of whom were devout Catholics), her atheism began to crumble and she became open to the possibilities of faith as an important component of human living.

In 1917, Edith Stein received her Ph.D from the University of Gottingen, graduating summa cum laude, with a doctoral dissertation "On the Problem of Empathy". Shortly thereafter, Husserl invited her to come with him to Freiberg as his assistant. Edith moved there eagerly, but a few months later, word came to Freiberg that Husserl's close associate Adolf Renach has been killed in battle. Edith has greatly revered Reinach-- a man of deep "natural goodness", she had called him. On hearing the sad news, she immediately returned to Gottingen to pay condolences to Reinach's wife, Anna. But while Edith had expected to find Anna a shattered and grieving woman, instead she found a soul at peace, exuding courage and faith. Adolf was now with God, Anna told Edith, and her life would now go on as God intended it, for she had faith that the Cross of Jesus "brings healing and hope to all."

 Edith said nothing at the time, but later she wrote: "It was then that I first encountered the Cross and the divine strength which it inspires in those who bear it. It was at that moment that my unbelief was shattered."

Her search for truth continued. She described herself now as  "resting in God", on the verge of "a spiritual rebirth". One summer evening in 1921, Edith was again visiting friends in Gottingen. When they went out for the evening, Edith stayed behind. Randomly, she chose a book from their shelves; it was the autobiography of the sixteenth century mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite order.

Edith found herself simply transfixed by the words, and stayed up reading until dawn. When she finished at sunrise, she closed the book, then said to herself "This is the truth." There and then, she made the decision to convert to Catholicism. A few months later, on New Years Day 1922, Edith Stein was baptized at St. Martin's Church in nearby Berzabern. She chose Teresa as her baptismal name, in honor of the saint whose life story had brought her to her new faith. She was thirty years old.

Almost immediately, Edith made plans to become a Carmelite nun. She knew that both her conversion and her choice of the cloister would be a double blow to her elderly mother, and it was months before Edith worked up the courage to tell her family of her new religion. Their reaction was as anticipated: Frau Stein was devastated and broke into sobs. She could not understand, she said, how someone as intelligent as Edith could "turn her back" on her heritage and even "demean herself" by joining what she called "a superstitious sect".

But curiously, by embracing Christianity, Edith Stein drew closer to her Jewish roots. Once again, she began attending synagogue with her mother whenever she could-- something she had not done for years-- and felt that her new Christian faith was deepened and enlivened by the experience of her Jewish heritage. She also felt called to use her new position as a leader of the German Catholic Women's Movement to resist the growing tide of anti-Semitism in German society.

In January of 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and shortly thereafter Edith Stein requested a personal audience with Pope Pius XI to discuss formulating an encyclical meeting anti-Semitism head on. If the Holy Father were to speak out forcefully now, she wrote prophetically, then perhaps a terrible tragedy could be averted, before the anti-Jewish forces in Germany became fully institutionalized. But the Pope refused to meet with Stein. Instead, he sent along a papal blessing to her and her family. Anti-Semitic fervor in Germany reached a fever pitch, and Hitler and his henchmen laid the groundwork for the Final Solution.

On February 25, 1933, Edith Stein delivered her last lecture at the German Institute in Munster, and shortly thereafter was fired from her position because she was Jewish. Over Holy Week 1933, she travelled to Cologne, and attended services at the Carmelite convent there. She prayed for guidance:

"I told [our Lord] that it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross would consist of, that I did not yet know."

Edith was granted permission from the superiors of the Carmelites to begin study for Holy Orders. On October 15, 1933, just past her forty-second birthday, Edith Stein entered the novitiate at the Carmel of Cologne, taking the name Teresia Benedicta of the Cross.

It was for Stein a time of great joy-- and of great challenge. Her family still felt betrayed. "Why now, Edith?" one of her sisters wrote. "Why now?"--with the rising wave of Nazi madness coming to full tide. The convent was hard work for her, too-- work of a different sort than she had been used to in academia. "Novitiate can be terribly trying on someone of 40," she wrote. "When it came to housework, she was always making all kinds of mistakes on account of her lack of practical experience," one of the nuns wrote later. As an intellectual and a scholar, responsible only for her own little room at the university, Edith had never needed to learn the details of domestic life. But now, she threw herself fully into the life of the convent, and savored each day.

Shortly after joining, the Carmelites asked her to write her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, in order to counter inhuman Nazi stereotypes of Jewish life. Within nine months, she had also finished her theological masterwork, Finite and Eternal Being, and then embarked on an in-depth analysis of the ancient Church Father, Pseudo-Dionysius. Eventually, too, her sister, Rosa, converted to Christianity as well, and came to join her in Cologne.

 But her quiet life of scholarship and contemplation was to be shattered as were the lives of all of Germany's Jews on Kristallnacht-- November 8, 1938. The "Night of the Broken Glass" marked the commencement of Hitler's dreadful onslaught against the Jewish race. Synagogues throughout Germany were ransacked and burned. Jewish businesses were demolished. Hundreds of Jews were murdered; thousands were sent to concentration camps. The Carmelite prioress quickly decided that Germany was no longer safe for the Stein sisters, and she arranged to have them transferred to the convent at Echt in the Netherlands.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and the Second World War began. A few months later, Holland also fell under the Nazi noose, and Hitler named one of his most vile henchmen, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, as administrator over the Netherlands. Shortly thereafter, the persecution of Holland's Jews began. Edith and Rose Stein were required, along with the other Jews in the country, to wear the yellow Star of David over their nuns' habits. They were obliged to check in regularly for questioning with a member of the local Gestapo. When, at one of these meetings, the Gestapo agent greeted Edith with the traditional, "Heil Hitler!", she responded instead "Laudate Jesus Christus!" ["Praise be Jesus Christ!"] The official just stared at her in confusion and amazement.

Sensing now that the Stein sisters were in grave danger, their prioress in Holland desperately tried to get them transferred to a convent in Switzerland, one of the final neutral holdouts in Europe. But to no avail. Edith continued to work on her latest study-- a systematic analysis of the life of St. John of Cross called The Science of the Cross, It was a work she would never complete.

On July 11, 1942, a coalition of Protestant and Catholic clergymen throughout Holland sent a telegram to Seyss-Inquart, sternly stating their "outrage" at the imminent deportation of the Jews of the Netherlands. Such actions against the Jewish people, the clergy wrote, "ran counter to divine commandments of justice and charity," and must be cancelled at once. The clergy also declared that they would proclaim their protest from their pulpits on the following Sunday morning.

In response, Seyss-Inquart said that any such public proclamation would be greeted as an act of hostility against the Reich, and that protection would be removed from all the Jews of Holland, including those who had converted to Christianity. When the Catholic priests of Holland refused to back down, and issued their protests in their churches on July 26, Seyss-Inquart immediately declared that "because the bishops had interfered" all Catholic Jews were to be deported by the week's end.

On August 2, the orders of Seyss-Inquart were carried out. At five o'clock that evening, just as evening prayers were beginning, there was heavy pounding on the convent's front door. The SS had come, and before the worried sisters even knew what was happening, Edith and Rosa Stein were being led away. At first, Rosa seemed disoriented and confused. But Edith held her firmly by the arm, and said to her gently, "Come, Rosa, let us go for our people." These were to be the last recorded words of Edith Stein, Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross.

First they were taken to the local police headquarters, then to the central deportation camp at Amersfoort; there, they joined 1200 other Catholic Jews, herded onto cattle cars on trains heading eastward. Within hours, they were at the prison camp at Drente-Westenbork. "What distinguished Edith Stein from the rest was her silence," wrote a survivor. Many mothers were on the brink of insanity and sat moaning for days, without giving any thought to their children. Edith Stein immediately set about taking care of these little ones. "Every time I think of her sitting in that barracks, the same picture comes to mind," one witness said later. "A pieta without the Christ."

On August 7, just five days later, she and the other Jews with her began their final journey-- toward Auschwitz. Two days later, in the early hours of August 9, they reached the notorious death camp in southern Poland. Almost immediately, she was stripped, examined, and led to the gas chamber. Her body was then cremated; the remains dumped into a common grave.

The official Nazi notation of he death read as follows:

Number 44074: Edith Therisia Hedwig Stein, Echt
Born-- October 12, 1891, Breslau
Died-- August 9, 1942, Auschwitz

She was just fifty years old when she died.

And yet, of course, her life lived on. Her writings were voluminous (indeed, when Pope John Paul II was asked why it had taken so many years for Edith Stein finally to be named a saint, he responded, "She has written too much!") Her studies-- of philosophy and theology, of church history, of the place of women in society and the church-- found an even more receptive audience after her death than when she was alive.

On October 11, 1998, in an impressive ceremony at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II decreed Edith Stein, Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

It was a decision not without controversy. Many Jewish groups objected, saying that the Pope's action was an attempt by the Church to co opt the Holocaust, and to cover over the Church's failure adequately to protect the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. "It's outrageous," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. "This is a very public slap in the face to the Jewish community. The pope is sending an extremely negative message to the Jewish community that, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, the best Jews are those who convert to Catholicism."

One can sympathize with Jewish feelings. Nonetheless, one can also celebrate the profound choice of Edith Stein as a distinctly modern saint for our own times.

She left Judaism, true, and became a Roman Catholic-- a Catholic nun, at that. But she never "turned her back" on her heritage as a Jewish woman. She always declared that her Jewishness was perhaps the most fundamental aspect of her very being. The new insights she gained from Christianity drew her even closer to the faith of her ancestors; it lived again in her eyes and in her life. She was extremely loyal to her people, and sought to protect them at all costs. "Come, Rosa, we are going for our people," she told her sister. She would stand by them; she would die along with them-- not because she was a Catholic nun, but because she was a Jewish woman.

She is a modern saint to celebrate, too, because she was a woman: a fully actualized, brilliant-minded woman, who knew from an early age that she had particular gifts to offer the world, and who knew that the world would not be saved until all women were empowered to offer their gifts. She succeeded in a field where few women had dared to tread before. "There is no profession that cannot be practiced by a woman," she wrote. And, she believed, every field where women practiced was made better and more complete because they were there.

Edith Stein was a thoroughly modern woman of the twentieth century. What better intercessor and exemplar do we have for these difficult times than this powerful daughter of Abraham, this blessed elder sister of our age?

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Road from Constantine to Oberammergau

          With April usually come the holiest days of two of the three Great Faiths of Western civilization: Passover in Judaism and Easter in Christianity. As we approach this season, historical questions of the relationship between the long and involved relationship between these two faiths lies never far from the surface. And any discussion of that relationship leads almost immediately to a consideration of the long and tragic heritage of anti-Semitism in the West.

          Where does anti-Semitism come from? Why, throughout history, have the Jews been so hated by others? Why do the rushing currents of prejudice and hatred seem to flow, never too far beneath the surface of Western civilization?

            There are theories for why Jew-hating has come lurching down through Christian history, “like a drunk who can’t quite find his way home,” as one writer has put it. The grand-daddy of all these theories—the one that seems to hold on most virulently--  tells us that so many (supposedly) “good Christians” hate the Jews because the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. “His blood be upon us and our children,” the crowd at Jerusalem—representing the Jewish people as a whole—are said to have exclaimed, just before the crucifixion of Jesus.

            All of these theories have resonated within the addled mind of the West to one degree or another over the years, and they have produced, throughout history, a most unsavory brew.

            By the time of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity was declared the state religion. But under Constantine and his successors, Jesus the man—the teacher, the moral example, the great prophet—became less and less important. What mattered now was not his life, but his death—his crucifixion, his blood sacrifice, his execution (at the hands of the Jews, of course, and not at the hands of the Roman emperor and his minions). The Cross of Jesus became the predominant symbol of the Empire, and so often, of course, the Cross was set on its side to become a weapon, a sword, “Constantine’s sword” of power and conquest, as James Carroll has characterized it.   

            The emperors declared that only those who accepted Christ—only those who were baptized—would be saved. They were not just talking about salvation after death, in heaven, either; they were talking about being saved (or not) in this life, too. Accept Jesus—or die: that was the choice the subjects of the Emperor, including his Jewish subjects, faced.

            The first mass slaying of Jews by Christians occurred in the year 414 in Alexandria in Egypt. An entire Jewish community—one of the oldest in the world--  was massacred by an “unruly mob”. The Church didn’t condone the violence, but it didn’t condemn it either; it just sort of looked the other way.

         Around the same time, the Bishop of Milan, hardly a random member of an “unruly mob”, declared that he  was ready to burn down synagogues in his diocese, if need be—so “that there might not be a single place where Christ is denied.” A synagogue, this “man of God” declared was a “haunt of infidels, a home of the impious, a hiding place of madmen, under the damnation of God himself.” If one were to rebuild a synagogue that had happened to be burned down, the bishop said, that person would be committing “an act of treason to the Faith”.

            So it was in the name of the Christian God that the great Crusades were launched to wrest control of the Holy Land from the Infidel. When we hear the word “Infidel”, we usually think of Muslims, but of course, the term also meant the Jews as well. In 1099, the Pope declared that Crusaders who died in the act of killing an infidel were automatically guaranteed salvation, guaranteed eternal life in paradise. During the First Crusade in Jerusalem, all of the Jews that could be found were herded into a single synagogue and burned alive. In 1449, “Jewish blood” itself was declared dangerous, polluting, defiling; the very state of “being Jewish” was a crime. (I suppose when a Jew converted, that all of the taint and poison in his blood was miraculously removed, perhaps?) During the Inquisition, anti-Jewish mania reached an even hotter fever pitch. Jews were herded into ghettos throughout Europe, lest they “infect” the rest of the population with their Jewishness. (James Carroll calls the Jewish ghettos of Europe the “ante-chambers of the concentration camps.”)

            “The Jews are condemned to eternal slavery,” Pope Leo XI declared in 1555—in language strikingly similar to Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws of four hundred years later:  “They are to own no real estate. They are to attend no university. They are to hire no servants. Their roles in society are to be strictly limited… They are to wear distinctive clothing and badges. Jews are not to be addressed as 'sir' by Christians…”

            Undergirding these official pronouncements was a foundation of popular lies. The Jewish community was accused of killing children; of mixing human blood with their matzo at Passover; of desecrating the Eucharist; of poisoning the wells; of spreading the Plague (even though as many Jews died, proportionally, in the plagues that swept Europe as non-Jews did).

            Nor are such calumnies against the Jews merely the product of an overactive medieval imagination. They continued into the Modern era:

            During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (later lauded by Hitler himself as “the greatest German reformer of all time”) wrote a book titled The Jews and Their Lies (the title sort of gives away Luther’s main point). He wrote of the Jews as “a brood of vipers”. “This miserable, blind, and senseless people,” Luther continued. “Their arrogance is as solid as an iron mountain.” Luther’s solution? Burn their synagogues, of course!

            Then came the Enlightenment—which wasn’t really so “enlightened” as far as the Jews were concerned. Voltaire, especially, hated the Jews because they wouldn’t let go of their tribal God (as he saw it) and their “cultic” superstitions. Later, even Karl Marx (hardly a Christian saint; a Jew himself actually, and the grandson of two rabbis) seems to have drunk the anti-Semitic Kool-Aid. Marx, too, ranted against “the insipid vapor of Judaism” and the need for “the emancipation of humanity from Judaism”. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution—that basic, scientific building bock of modern society—was used by some to justify the extermination of older (supposedly) more “savage” races—like the Jews.

          Perhaps it took the horrors of the Holocaust – which can, in some ways, be viewed as the logical culmination of 2000 years of anti-Semitic poison in the Western bloodstream—to wake Christianity from its deadly trance, and to set the Christian faith on a new and different path, as far as its relations with the Jews were concerned.

            Could it be, too, that the twisted, difficult road to right relations takes us a highly beautiful, but (given its own history) highly unlikely place, high in the mountains of Bavaria?

            Oberammergau is a town of a little over 5000 people in southern Bavaria, nestled in the valley of the Ammer River. It’s about 60 miles south of Munich, and only about 15 miles from Germany’s border with Austria.

            Oberammergau is most famous, of course, for its Passion Play, which the townsfolk have been performing since 1634. In that year, the bubonic plague threatened the region, and the townspeople, it is said, swore a holy oath to God that, if their town was spared, they would perform a production of the Passion of Christ every ten years. Apparently, the plague by-passed Oberammergau, because the Passion Play (Passionspiele in German) has been  performed once per decade since then.  (It was cancelled only once—in 1940, due to the Second World War; with special performances added in 1934 in honor of the 300th anniversary; and in 1984, in honor of the 350th).

            One of the observers at that special performance in 1934 was none other than Germany’s Chancellor (soon to be Fuhrer), Adolf  Hitler, in power only about a year. The Nazis exploited the production for their own ends, and Hitler himself praised the Passion Play for showing “the muck and mire of Jewry”. In Oberammergau, the Nazis had found precisely the sort of grass-roots peasant drama that was ideal for their racist ideology. It is true, too, that, through most of its 300 year run, the play had hewn pretty closely to the anti-Semitic tenor of traditional Christianity.

            But after the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, a group of American Jewish intellectuals, including Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein, signed a petition condemning the play’s portrayal of the Jews. They were soon joined by well-known intellectuals within Germany, including Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass. With the Second Vatican Council, the Church itself got into the act. The Council’s Nostra Aetate proclaimed that the Jews, as a people, were not responsible for the death of Jesus. Church authorities asked the directors of Oberammergau to change their script to reflect the Church’s revised opinion; when they did not, the Vatican withheld its canonical approval from the 1970 production of the play. Then, in the 1970s, representatives of various Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, were invited to Oberammergau to enter into dialogue about the Passion Play’s content.

            Those early dialogues represented an early planting that took years—even decades—to bear fruit. The first thing to go, in 1984, were the horn-shaped hats worn by the High Jewish Priests, that made them look more like Norsemen (or—more to the point—Devils) than Jewish holy men. The blood oath from Matthew-- “His blood be upon us and our children”—was excised from the script in time for the year 2000’s production.

In 1870, King Ludwig II of Bavaria visited the Passion Play himself and was so moved that he commissioned a large marble Crucifix to be placed top a hill overlooking the town.

            Then, in preparation for this year’s production, an entirely new script, developed under the auspices of a council of rabbis and a theological adviser appointed by the archbishop of Munich and Freising, was adopted after heated discussion by the Oberammergau town council (who are the play’s official sponsors).

            From my experience at Oberammergau this past summer, the Passion Play itself is an almost other-worldy production of incredible power, stunning pageantry, and immense talent. It represents, in my opinion, a near-perfect balance between spectacle and piety; a merger both of intense drama and deeply held faith. It is one of those things everyone should experience at least once in their lives. (I feel truly privileged to have been able to have done so.) Christians, especially, will find it a deeply inspirational experience.

            But what about the theology? It’s a great production, certainly. But is it still held down by its anti-Semitic baggage? It is a fair question to ask. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and as moral men and women, we cannot detach a particular artwork from the ideas it represents. So does the Oberammergau Passion Play, as beautiful and well-crafted as it may be, simply perpetuate the anti-Semitic nightmare that has marked our common Jewish and Christian history?

            I think not. Rather, Oberammergau, to me, represents a great sign of hope, as far as religious dialogue and understanding are concerned.

           Of course, not everyone is equally pleased with what the Passion Play represents and the story it tells. It is a Passion Play, after all: the story of the final days of Jesus, from his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his Crucifixion on Good Friday (and, yes, his Resurrection on Easter Sunday). It is a distinctly Christian story; told from a Christian perspective; based upon Christian sources; aimed at a predominantly Christian audience. People who have problems with Christianity, for whatever reasons (and such is their right, absolutely) are not going to be satisfied with any changes the producers of the Passion Play might make.

            But for people genuinely interested in dialogue—not in changing one another’s minds so that everyone agrees with us, but genuine dialogue, where we hold out the possibility that we might be changed, as surely as the other—the results are heartening and deeply moving. In my opinion, they add a deeper resonance and a whole new level of context to the Biblical narratives.

          In previous productions, the Romans didn’t appear until the arrest of Jesus at Gethsemane. Now, they stand guard at the gates when Jesus makes his entrance to Jerusalem in the first scene, making it clear who is really in control. There are extended (maybe a bit too extended, dramatically speaking) theological debates between the members of the Sanhedrin, as well as an expanded role for Pilate, who now threatens Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, with the might of the Roman army should there be an insurrection. Along with Pilate, Caiaphas is clearly the main villain; but there are enough dissenting Jewish voices to make clear that the High Priest doesn’t speak for all the Jews.

          Perhaps most surprising is the amount of sympathy for Judas, who is portrayed as wanting to facilitate dialogue with the priesthood and is duped into betraying Jesus. When Judas understands that he has been manipulated, he storms the Temple, demanding Jesus’ release. During the wrenching suicide scene that follows, we are allowed to glimpse Judas’s deep humanity—and our own, when he struggle between good and evil, or when our own good intentions go tragically awry.

          Also remarkable is an undeniable Jewish sensibility that permeates the entire play. The scenes of the Passion are interspersed with scenes from the Hebrew Bible, showing the unmistakable link of the faith of Jesus with the faith of his ancestors. Christian Stuckl, the play’s director, also stressed the link to Judaism. “Jesus never lived as a Christian, but rather from the day he was born to the day he died he lived as a Jew,” explained Stuckl. Jesus enters the Temple holding high the Torah, as he recites the prayer “Sh’ma Yisrael,” which is answered by the entire crowd onstage in Hebrew. During the Last Supper, Jesus says the Kiddush in flawless Hebrew, and John even asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

            In his introduction to the text of the script given to each person who attends (and which, very handily, translates the German original into English) Luwig Modl, the theological adviser to the archbishop of Munich, summarizes the changes that have been made. The heart of the Passion Play, he writes is that “Jesus, the Jew, sought to renew the religion of his fathers, a religion built on the foundation of the law and the prophets.”

            And Modl continues:

            “This play of redemption seeks to capture the fears and longings of the people of our times and give them the kind of hope offered by faith… the play is not museum-like folk theater, it is a theater of the people for the people that reaches deep into life and seeks to convey hope.”

            A hope based on a true reading of history. But a hope which seeks to redeem our history through a fearless searching of the past, and a fearless commitment to the worth and dignity of all people with whom we share this planet.

At Oberammergau this summer.