Protestant Holocaust scholar confronts years of denial

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Robert Ross feels at home in a synagogue, has spoken from pulpits across the country and has been the target of anti-Semites.

Yet Ross is a Protestant. He's also a leading Christian expert on the Holocaust.

Currently a professor on the faculty of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, Ross is the author of "So It Was True: The American Protestant Press and the Nazi Persecution of the Jews." This book, published in 1980, forced America's Christian community to confront its unwillingness to aid European Jews during World War II.

In his book, Ross reprinted hundreds of articles that originally appeared in the American Protestant press before and after the war. These articles clearly documented Nazi atrocities, and prove that Christians knew much about Nazi activities, despite widespread protestations to the contrary.

The facts were just ignored.

On four consecutive Sundays beginning Oct. 22, Ross will be in Oakland delivering a series of lectures titled "After 50 Years: Remembering the Holocaust." The series is sponsored by Oakland's Beth Jacob Congregation and Park Boulevard Presbyterian Church,where the lectures will take place, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Ross will examine the growth of Nazi ideology and the rise of anti-Semitism, beginning with Hitler joining the National Socialist Workers Party in 1921. He will also analyze the operation of concentration camps and slave labor camps and will discuss the development of Hitler's so-called "Kingdom of Death."

A letter from a Jewish-American camp liberator to his parents, photos from slave labor camps and pages from the Mauthausen book that recorded deaths are some of the original documents Ross will introduce. On Nov. 5, Ross will be joined at the lectern by Ernie Hollander, who survived several Nazi camps.

Ross' final lecture will explore the meaning of the Holocaust, not just as an example of man's inhumanity to man but as a metaphor for evil in the world.

A veteran lecturer with over two decades of experience, Ross will also offer his perspective on shifts in attitude and reaction to the Holocaust.

At first the Christian community didn't want to hear Ross' message, he said recently. Ninety-five percent of his early speaking engagements were hosted by Jewish organizations. Ross remembers one speech he gave at a Protestant seminary: Only five people showed up.

After delivering lectures to Christian groups, Ross was regularly barraged with anti-Semitic literature and insults, he recalls.

But now, he says, many Christians who once denied or claimed ignorance of the Holocaust have come to accept the truth and their own responsibility for ignoring the facts.

While many church groups today invite camp survivors to deliver lectures and speeches, survivors were largely ignored before the 1960s.

Perhaps the most significant change has been in overall church policy.

"The church has become much more proactive," Ross said.

Many churches supported the anti-war movement of the 1970s, and other social issues since then, he said. And Ross sees this as a direct result of the churches' miserable neglect of the Nazis' victims.

His quest started 23 years ago, inspired by a fellow University of Minnesota professor of religion who, speaking of the Holocaust, said, "Five hundred thousand, maybe. But 6 million, no."

"I knew he was wrong," said Ross. "I was so embarrassed not to have enough information to challenge him." So he did what any academician would: He headed for the library. His primary goal was learning exactly how much American Protestants knew about the Jews' situation in wartime Germany.

Digging through libraries and basements at religious colleges and seminaries, Ross found over 600 articles about the Jewish situation in Germany that had been published in 52 different American Protestant periodicals between 1933 and 1945. But Ross was surprised to note that even the newspapers' editors doubted the articles' veracity.

"We hear this; we know it's being reported but we have no witnesses," Ross said the editors claimed. The news managers said they were leery of false reports, such as those printed during World War I.

As a Christian and as a professor of religion, Ross had to understand the whats, whys and hows of Nazi Germany, he said.

"Ninety-two to 95 percent [of those] who participated in [the Holocaust] were baptized as Christians. If the Jews are the victims, then Christians are the perpetrators," he said. "We must accept, as a Christian community, what happened to those" victims.

Ross has interviewed survivors and liberators, visited death camps and slave labor camps, read Holocaust literature and published many articles. His collection of original documents continues to grow. Eventually these documents will be donated to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. but until then, he uses them to illustrate his lectures.

Ross sees the Holocaust as the natural result of the kind of bureaucracy that carries out orders and never asks questions. When he started his work, Ross wanted to gain knowledge in order to join Jews who declare, "Never again."

But he still sees widespread evidence of bureaucratic indifference, noting that requests for aid to troubled nations often sit on diplomats' desks for months and even years on end, eliciting no response.

Does such passivity amount to complicity or complacency — or both? Ross said. Paraphrasing U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, he said, "Complacency is complicity."