Pastors book helps fellow clergy understand Shoah

Almost 20 years ago, on his way to visit Auschwitz for the first time, the Rev. Douglas Huneke's life was changed by a story told to him by his Polish taxi driver.

It was the story of a young Polish nurse who smuggled more than a dozen young children from the Krakow ghetto beneath her large hoop skirt. The woman, the taxi driver's sister, was shot to death when a child's cough betrayed his hiding place.

More than the nurse's violent end, it was her heroism that moved Huneke, who had never heard of a Christian rescuer before the taxi driver told his story.

"Those people were faithful remnants who gave me back something," said the senior minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon. "They restored my faith in the church."

That faith was devastated when, following graduation from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1968, Huneke began to explore in depth the Holocaust and its theological implications. He chronicles that exploration in his compelling and very personal new book "The Stones Will Cry Out: Pastoral Reflections on The Shoah." It is the first in a series of 10 books by several authors, called "Christianity and the Holocaust: Core Issues."

At the San Anselmo seminary he attended, Huneke explained in a recent interview, theological discussions on the Holocaust didn't emphasize what happened to the Jews but focused on those instances when the church resisted Nazism. "Those were two very different topics," the 50-year-old pastor stressed.

"I, like most Presbyterians, cut my teeth on the theological formulations of German schools of academic theology," Huneke said. "Nobody ever said `one of the primary biblical philosophers was a Nazi, or that ministers actually ran mobile killing units.'"

Once Huneke's eyes were opened to such facts, his own choice to enter the clergy was painfully called into question.

"I had to think: `How did those people do the kind of things they did and carry the same vocational standards that I do?'" he said. "The real question is, `Can I continue as a minister in the Christian tradition?'"

His meeting with the Polish taxi driver helped Huneke discover the answer. So did the words of Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, one of the people to whom Huneke dedicates his book. Once, when asked how he could bring children into the world after the horror he endured, Wiesel answered that if only the killers procreated, the world would be filled with people like them.

Likewise, "I realized that if I walked away from the church without letting myself affect and change it, the church would remain anti-Semitic, homophobic, whatever," Huneke said. "I'm not going to give killers the last word, not in the world and not in the church."

That essentially, is why Huneke wrote his book, which weaves stories of his Holocaust studies with a lengthy compilation of resources for worship services and interfaith observances that honor Christian rescuers, as well as Holocaust survivors and victims. A section on liturgical resources includes models for seasonal services, sermons, prayers, readings and hymns on the subject.

At his own church in Tiburon, Huneke tries at least four times a year to weave into his liturgy elements or responses to the Holocaust. "It can't just be once a year at Yom Hashoah," he said. "If my friends the survivors have to live with this everyday, I consider it minimal for the church to focus on it and pray [about it] at least four times a year."

The Holocaust, in fact, has become something of a crusade for Huneke, who has written numerous articles and essays on the subject. His past books include "The Moses of Rovno: The True Story of a German Christian who Rescued Jews" and "In the Darkness — Glimpses of Light: A Study of Nazi Era Rescuers."

Huneke often speaks on the Holocaust in public and parochial schools. Recently, he started leading workshops for interdenominational clergy that teach about the Holocaust and offer resources for dealing with its horror and heroism. "You have to do both," he stressed. "You can't just jump over into the rescuers."

In his work with clergy Huneke has found that the younger generation is generally more well-versed on the Holocaust than the older, though many older clergy have read such classic Holocaust authors as Primo Levi and André Schwarz-Bart.

But what neither generation has explored, Huneke said, are the implications of the way theology and scripture can be interpreted to demonize elements of society. He cited Pat Robertson, who recently stated that homosexuals will burn in hell, as will the people who do not oppose them.

"That interpretation of a theology is so anti-Christian, yet it is in the guise of Christianity and people listen to it and they're filled with venomous hate," he said.

Similarly, in the Holocaust, he said, a theologically-based hostility toward the Jews led people to believe the "Christ-killers" were getting what they deserved.

"I don't think the problem was with God. I think it was with what people conceived God wanted them to do. The Nazis thought they were doing God's will."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.