Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem tells terrible truth about the complicity of many, including Christians, in Hitler’s campaign of hatred and genocide across Europe. I leave darkened halls of that museum shaken, remembering that at least a few of my own people — Mennonites — actively participated in Hitler’s mass murder.
How could such evil prevail? Never again can people of conscience remain silent when political leaders target the vulnerable, stoke racism, debase democratic institutions, disparage the free press, spew lies and rally against scapegoats.
The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem honors non-Jews who resisted such bigotry and risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust. Twenty-seven thousand Gentile names fill great wall plaques under shade trees. The garden names only four Americans — including a Mennonite from Indiana named Lois Gunden.
Gunden went to Europe in 1941 as a 26-year-old volunteer to establish an orphanage in southern France. Several Jewish children, smuggled out of a nearby internment camp, were in her care during the Nazi occupation of France. Gunden twice held off a policeman who came to take the children into custody and almost certain death.
Later she herself was arrested, taken to Nazi Germany and incarcerated for more than a year until released in a prisoner exchange. Jewish children she sheltered survived.
In 2013 Israel posthumously named Gunden as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Recently I visited Yad Vashem with a pilgrim band that included Gunden’s nephew Bill Clemens. Her name finally was on the wall!
“She wasn’t one to draw attention to herself,” Bill said of his aunt, who died in 2005. Relatives “knew she had been a prisoner of war, and she answered our questions. But she did not talk about what she had done to save Jewish children.”
Why did tears fill my eyes? Perhaps those were tears of gratitude and pride, though I never knew Gunden. But having learned in recent years the terrible truth that some Mennonites were complicit, it was a relief to see a fellow church member named among the righteous.
I also felt grief at the ease with which Christians in my own country today let chauvinistic nationalism and dog-whistle racism warp the gospel. I grieved the way some Israelis treat Palestinians.
“What does the Lord require of you,” asked the prophet Micah, “but to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” Jesus taught us to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” rather than align with empires or kingdoms of this world, especially when they stoke prejudice and hatred.
Asked what his aunt’s witness should teach us, Bill said, “When confronted with bad actors and bad situations, we can thoughtfully come up with stratagems to thwart evil.” In the current debate over immigration, for example, we at least can “act in ways to prevent family separations at our national border.”
At risk of her life, Lois Gunden took practical steps to protect the most vulnerable. What gospel-inspired risk will I take today to stand with people in need who have little protection?
J. Nelson Kraybill is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more writing and information about his upcoming tours to Israel-Palestine at peace-pilgrim.com.