Racial antisemitism begins in Europe beneath the symbol of that cross. At the beginning of the first crusade, these holy pilgrims of death began their ill-fated conquest of Jerusalem by slaughtering entire communities of Jews along the Rhine–even killing the occasional bishop or lord who might dare to protect them out of legal responsibility or religious duty. In a ghastly parody of the Mass, Jewish blood was shed for their role in causing the Black Plague. Good Friday was a deadly day for European and Russian Jews to be out of home.
And in the shadow of steepled crosses, the ghetto was invented. Once a poorly conceived policy of protection and control, the ghetto’s efficiency in creating the conditions for social decay became the model for our treatment of North American blacks and aboriginals. Ultimately, the world came to realize that ghetto was a centuries old prophecy of Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Anna Fisk is right that “the crucifixion has cast a long shadow” (Sex, Sin, and Our Selves, 105).
Although I have written a book on the history of antisemitism, I am still an outsider looking in on the conversation. It is hard for me to know exactly what to do with the way Jews after the Shoah have taken up the cross as a symbol. Marc Chagall did this on the first mornings of the Holocaust, capturing Kristallnacht–the Night of Broken Glass, Nov 9-10, 1938–within his White Crucifixion. I was visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, touring its incredible depths with my students. Alone and unaware, late in the day, I turned the corner and found this painting that I had studied for so long. I was undone, and saw nothing else that day.
Jewish writers too have struggled with the image of the cross. Chaim Potok uses Chagall’s crucifixions to help capture the troubling questions an observant Jew asks in the wake of the Holocaust. The cross becomes the central image of My Name is Asher Lev, capturing the tensions in the novel–tensions that are not merely difficult, but impossible. It is a sad and beautiful book.
I cannot imagine the complexity of feeling and history, the struggles of theology and identity, that go into a Jewish artist as he or she takes up the image of the cross. Even as late as 2001, we see Neil Gaiman using the cross at the mythic centre of his American Gods. My first image of a Jewish crucifixion in literature, though, came in Elie Wiesel. In his impossible memoir, Night, Wiesel tells of a scene on a gallows that has always slayed me. It is the scene of 3 condemned rebels within the concentration camp, one a little boy.
One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains—and, among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.
This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS took his place.
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Caps off!” screamed the Lagerälteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping.
“Cover your heads!”
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving; being
so light, the child was still alive. . . .
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this
gallows. . . .”
That night the soup tasted of corpses (64-5).
How does one read this passage? Beyond the emotional weight of millions of victims, beyond the human betrayal of brutal intensity, and beyond the ages of violence that press down upon those gallows, there is the ambivalence of God’s death in this scene. How do we read it?
In one reading we can see how God in the cross suffers with the victim in his suffering. In this reading, Elie Wiesel takes up this medieval Christian idea of suffering with Christ–a deepening of symbolism within an age of suffering. The little boy evokes the image of Christ, hung between two insurrectionists and bearing the penalty of all. In this sacred image, God is both repulsed by the moment and still living within it. In the incarnation, it is God who dies at the hands of the powerful for the sake of the weak.
It would be untrue to the text, though, to read only in this way. We also see in the text “the death of God in the soul of a child” is the death of the Jewish faith for Wiesel. The Nazis took away his family, his liberty, his dreams. Yet, much of Night is a lament for the loss of his own faith. He loved being a Jew, and he loved loving God. The death of God on those gallows is the death of the faith of a child.
We must see in this scene Nietzsche’s cry that “God is dead. We have killed him, you and I.” Yet, I am not sure that Nietzsche’s madman foresaw the manner of God’s execution. Instead of the death of religion–the loss of this invention of men–it was the crumpling of God beneath the feet of human invention that finally made the madman sound. As François Mauriac writes in his foreword to Night, the concentration camps were not just machines of death for human bodies, but were also the crypts of Jewish faith. He writes:
I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the ac- cused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long (xx-xxi).
Yet, even in this loss of faith, Mauriac’s faith was not lost. The accusation is both prayer and creed. “And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give…?” Mauriac speaks of “that other Jew, this crucified brother … whose cross conquered the world….” He speaks of the transformation of the symbol of the cross and the crematorium. He speaks of Jewish resurrection.
There are other ways to read. Some see the death of the modern era on that gallows, the death of certainty, the death of the good of technology, the loss of the nations. Others see the death of the idea of “man”–the human project where civilization and nature is both paint and painting of human endeavour. I suspect that Wiesel was tempted to this last view. When he received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he used his experience to speak to the atrocities taking place in the world even then. His speech, with 40 years of distance from the gallows, betrays a hope for humanity, and that “one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death.” Wiesel has faith, he says,
Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.
Elie Wiesel died this weekend at the age of 87. He has been on my mind lately. My work is primarily on the image of the cross as a pattern for a healthy spiritual life. Some might be tempted to forget that the cross is not ambivalent and problematic. Some are content, I suppose, to see the cross merely as a piece of art, a relic, a symbol, or an accessory. But, as Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “The cross is not and cannot be loved” (The Crucified God, 1). The cross never was a lovely thing, and any loveliness in it comes with the horror.
Upon the death of this great man who suffered so much and has inspired so many–including myself, and my students–I find that I am still struggling with what to do with the cross. For those of us who see hope and a model in the cross of Christ, we cannot do so without recognizing the long and sorrowful shadow it has cast–from Golgatha all the way to the gallows.
Rest in Peace, Elie Wiesel.