By Prof. John J. Michalczyk
Exclusive for Shalom Magazine
The journey has been long and winding, with the most recent experience being the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7. It marked the loss of approximately 1400 Jewish lives, and indicated that the hatred of Jews continues, as if the Nazi work in the Shoah had not yet finished.
This obliged me to ask why this hatred of Jews rears its ugly head time and time again. My thoughts turned to my own journey toward understanding antisemitism. It began for me at Harvard, writing a doctoral thesis on fascism, art and propaganda in 1970. I saw fascism in Germany through a political lens, as it destroyed the lives of the Jewish community in Germany and trickled into Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
However, it was a decade later that I saw visually the impact of German fascism and totalitarianism reflected in the Shoah. Through the kindness of Sharon Rivo and the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis, I had the opportunity to view their entire Holocaust film collection with graphic works like Death Mills and Nuremberg. I saw close up on a small screen what racism, prejudice, and a mindset that some peoples are inferior can do in a genocidal attempt to eliminate 11 million European Jews, a goal for the Nazi government at Wannsee in 1942. I presented my findings on The Origins of the Holocaust Film at a conference in the early 1980s.
However, the turning point came in my Christian-Jewish relations understanding in 1991. A student in my Freshman Honors Program class raised a question from our classic studies of 5 books of the Hebrew Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Job, Isaiah and Psalms) and the Christian Testament (Gospels of Matthew, John and Acts of the Apostles). She asked why the Jews were the heroes in the first semester and the villains in the second semester, especially in the readings of Matthew and John. We pursued this question in depth.
This troubling quest for me, a former Jesuit priest dedicated to education and social justice, impacted the rest of my career as a teacher, documentary filmmaker and author focusing on the Holocaust, genocide and conflict resolution. It resulted in a conference and my first feature documentary film, The Cross and the Star: Jews, Christians and the Holocaust, and then a series of films and books on Jewish themes, drawing together local Bostonians like Lenny Zakim, Nat Hentoff, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Larry Langer, and a host of Holocaust survivors such as poet Sonia Weitz, Cantor Gregor Shelkan, and Schindler’s List survivor Rena Finder.
These were my guides as I penetrated deeper into the tragic arena of antisemitism, the Holocaust, and later the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In my film on the latter conflict and the tragedy of 9/11, I began to see how Jews and Arabs were both Semitic peoples and considered that their shared humanity was at stake.
Earlier on, I was delighted when at last the Catholic teaching about the Jews took a radical turn for the better in the 1960s Vatican Council teaching of Nostra Aetate (In Our Times) with Boston Cardinal Archbishop Richard Cushing taking a lead. He was a strong voice in changing Catholic teaching about Jews and the accusation of deicide, which my parents were unfortunately exposed to on Good Fridays.
In our several taped film interviews with Holocaust survivor Cantor Gregor Shelkan, he expressed pride in Cardinal Cushing’s coming to Congregation Mishkan Tefila to speak about the goodness of his Jewish brother-in-law. Cantor Shelkan also repeated, “Don’t forget, Jesus was a Jew!”
In 2003, my collaborative work on the six-part film series Walking God’s Paths with Rabbi Gil Rosenthal and Professor Phil Cunningham opened my eyes to more important dialogue that had to be conducted on Christian-Jewish relations.
Along with producing documentaries such as Nazi Medicine, In the Shadow of the Reich, and Of Stars & Shamrocks: Boston’s Jews & Irish, narrated by Brian O’Donovan, my courses on Propaganda Film and Holocaust and the Arts have helped convey how the visual image – whether in Nazi Germany or the dark corners of the web in white supremacists antisemitic podcasts and manifestos – spread messages of hate.
The strident chant of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017, “Jews will not replace us!,” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil,” still echo today. The Jewish blood spilled in the Tree of Life synagogue still haunts me.
In 1955, only a decade after the death camps emptied, the Holocaust survivor Jean Cayrol, narrator of Alain Resnais’ powerful documentary Night and Fog, comments over the images of the remnants of the crematoria on screen: “We survey these ruins with a heartfelt gaze, certain the old monster lies crushed beneath the rubble. We pretend to regain hope as the image recedes, as though we’ve been cured of the plague of the camps,” Cayrol said. Yet unfortunately, the mythic and unfortunately real hatred of Jews continues to plague me today.
Prof. John J. Michalczyk is the Co-Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Boston College.