Faith, fear and the Holocaust

Back in March, this title on a New York Times news analysis grabbed my attention:

The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking

I found the article itself fascinating, but the headline struck me as more suited for a New York tabloid than the Old Gray Lady. I mean, I'm not sure how the systematic killing of millions of Jews could be any more shocking.

While no expert on the atrocities that occurred, I was blessed in 2004 to write an in-depth Associated Press story about the children of two Holocaust survivors finding each other — and finding answers. That piece remains one of the most memorable I have had the privilege of writing, and I remain enthralled by survivors' stories.

I want to pull one such story, published a few weeks ago, out of my GetReligion guilt file. It's a front-page feature by one of our favorite Godbeat pros, Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal. 

This is one of those cases where I wish GetReligion had a simple template for posting links and screaming, "READ THIS!!!"

The top of the story:

As a Jew living in neutral Switzerland in October 1942, John Rothschild took the extraordinary risk of walking into an internment camp in Nazi-dominated France — unnerved but undeterred by the ominous closing of the gate behind him.

He arranged to speak to the French camp commander, part of the right-wing puppet government of France that was shipping Jews by the trainload north to death camps such as Auschwitz.

Rothschild recalls placing a package of Swiss cigars on the commander’s desk, along with the business card of a helpful local lawyer whom the commander owed a favor. As Rothschild introduced himself, the commander said, “Oh, for the Swiss I would take the moon down from the sky.”

“I told him, ‘You don’t have to do that much. Let my fiancée go,’ ” Rothschild recalled.

His fiancée, Renee, was on a list to be deported to Auschwitz. The commander told Rothschild to return in two days for his decision.

In the meantime, Rothschild sought Renee out in the camp.

“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Renee Rothschild recalled in a recent interview with the couple more than 70 years later in Louisville, where they now live.

OK, you say, but what's the news angle?

Glad you asked:

Earlier this month, at his Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Louisville, John Rothschild celebrated the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah, the traditional Jewish right-of-passage from boyhood to manhood for 13-year-old Jews. He put on the same woollen prayer shawl he wore that March day in 1933 in Zurich, Switzerland, and with a clear, firm voice, chanted the same Hebrew passage from the book of Exodus.

Renee Rothschild was there to celebrate with John, just as she has been by his side from their escape from the Nazis through more than 70 years of marriage and moves from Switzerland to Michigan to Kentucky.

For GetReligion, a key question is always: What role did faith play in the actions taken by the main characters? Reading the story, it's obvious that Smith explored that question.

The story's riveting ending:

The Rothschilds say they still remember the relief of their first night of freedom in Geneva, when, disheveled, they drew stares as they entered a hotel lobby — and were given its best suite when the clerk learned of their ordeal.

As they closed the door to their room, Renee said, “I thanked God to be alive.”

John Rothschild said the couple owes their lives to a combination of faith, hope, luck and initiative.

“It’s a big question about religion,” he said, referring to many people who “in their desperation (are) saying, ‘God will help,’ ” he said. “You have to help yourself.”


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