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Broken Continuities: "Night" and "White Crucifixion"

by Karl A. Plank

Dr. Plank is an assistant professor of religion at Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 4, 1987, p. 963. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Around 3:00 A. M. on November 10, 1938,. gaping darkness began to spew the flames that were to burn unabated for the next seven years. On this night Nazi mobs executed a well-planned "spontaneous outrage" throughout the precincts of German Jewry. Synagogues were burned, their sacred objects profaned and destroyed; Jewish dwellings were ransacked, their contents strewn and pillaged. Shattering the windows of Jewish shops, the growing swarm left businesses in ruin. Uprooting tombstones and desecrating Jewish graves, the ghoulish throng violated even the sanctuary of the dead. Humiliation accompanied physical violence: in Leipzig, Jewish residents were hurled into a small stream at the zoological park where spectators spit at them, defiled them with mud and jeered at their plight. A chilling harbinger of nights yet to come, the events of this November darkness culminated in widespread arrest of Jewish citizens and led to their transport to concentration camps. Nazi propagandists, struck by a perverse poetry, gave to this night the name by which it has endured in memory: Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Irony abounds in such a name, for in the litter of shattered windows lies more than bits of glass. Kristallnacht testifies to a deeper breaking of basic human continuities. Shattered windows leave faith in fragments and pierce the wholeness of the human spirit.

In that same year of 1938 the Jewish artist Marc Chagall would complete a remarkable painting titled White Crucifixion. Here the artist depicts a crucified Christ, skirted with a tallith and encircled by a kaleidoscopic whirl of images, that narrates the progress of a Jewish pogrom. The skewed, tau-shaped cross extends toward the arc of destruction and bears particular meaning in that context. Whatever the cross of Christ may mean, in 1938 it was circumscribed by the realities of Holocaust: the onrush of a weapons-bearing mob overruns houses and sets them aflame; a group of villagers seeks to flee the destruction in a crowded boat, while others crouch on the outskirts of the village; an old man wipes the tears from his eyes as he vanishes from the picture, soon to be followed by a bewildered peasant and a third man who clutches a Torah to himself as he witnesses over his shoulder a synagogue fully ablaze.

Chagall’s juxtaposition of crucifixion and the immediacy of Jewish suffering creates an intense interplay of religious expectation and historical reality that challenges our facile assumptions. He does not intend to Christianize the painting, certainly not in the sense of affirming any atoning resolution of the Jewish plight. Rather, in the chaotic world of White Crucifixion all are unredeemed, caught in a vortex of destruction binding crucified victim and modern martyr. As the prayer shawl wraps the loins of the crucified figure, Chagall makes clear that the Christ and the Jewish sufferer are one.

Chagall has not been the only 20th-century Jewish artist to appropriate crucifixion imagery. David G. Roskie’s compelling study Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modem Jewish Culture discusses the cross symbol’s use not only in Chagall’s painting, but in the literary work of Der Nister, Lamed Shapiro, Sholem Asch, S. Y. Agnon and the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg (Harvard University Press, 1984 [pp. 258-310]) In literature written before World War II (and under the influence of biblical criticism that had emancipated Jesus’ image from its doctrinal Christian vesture) , these authors used the cross symbol variously; for Asch, the crucified figure in all his Jewishness symbolized universal suffering; for Shapiro and Agnon, on the other hand, the cross remained an emblem of violence and a reminder of Christian enmity against Jews. But to depict the Jew on the cross after the war was to confront a stronger taboo, for to do so required the victim to borrow from the oppressor’s cultural tradition. And the potential for being misunderstood would be immense: by fellow victims who would perceive apostasy and betrayal instead of solidarity, by oppressors who would hear forgiving consolation instead of indictment.

We must not misunderstand Jewish appropriation of the cross in the context of Holocaust art and literature. Where used at all, the cross functions not as an answer to atrocity, but as a question, protest and critique of the assumptions we may have made about profound suffering. Emil Fackenheim puts the matter in this way:

A good Christian suggests that perhaps Auschwitz was a divine reminder of the suffering of Christ. Should he not ask instead whether his Master himself, had He been present at Auschwitz, could have resisted degradation and dehumanization? What are the sufferings of the Cross compared to those of a mother whose child is slaughtered to the sound of laughter or the strains of a Viennese waltz? This question may sound sacrilegious to Christian ears. Yet we dare not shirk it, for we -- Christians as well as Jews -- must ask: at Auschwitz, did the grave win the victory after all, or, worse than the grave, did the devil himself win? [God’s Presence in History (New York University Press, 1972) , p. 75].

Questions such as these spring off Chagall’s canvas and into our sensibilities. White Crucifixion depicts a world of unleashed terror within which no saving voice can be heard nor any redeeming signs perceived. Separated from the imperiled villagers by only his apparent passivity, Chagall’s Messiah, this Jew of the cross, is no rescuer, but himself hangs powerless before the chaotic fire. The portrayal of Messiah as victim threatens to sever the basic continuity we have wanted to maintain between suffering and redemption (or to use Christian imagery, between cross and resurrection) To have redemptive meaning, the cross must answer the victims who whirl here in torment, for, in the Holocaust, the world becomes Golgotha turned on itself, "one great mount of crucifixion, with thousands of severed Jewish heads strewn below like so many thieves" (Roskie, p. 268)

Yet precisely here the language of redemption seems trivial, if not obscenely blind to the sufferer’s predicament. Can one speak of redemption in any way that does not trifle with the victim’s cry? Before the mother’s despair, words of redemption offer no consolation; instead, like the laughter and music which accompany her child’s murder, such words mock her torment and deny the profundity of her suffering. The rhetoric of redemption, no matter how benevolently used, remains the ploy of oppressors even decades later. No one may invoke it for the victim in whose world it may have no place.

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine gun trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains -- and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel. . . . The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. . . . "Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked. At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. . . . Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. 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 not yet glazed.

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 . . ." [Avon, 1960, pp. 74-76].

This powerful tableau, haunting in its cruciform reflection, strikes and challenges Christian readers of Night. To use the apostle Paul’s term, this scene provides the word that scandalizes, that makes us stumble over our own expectations and knock down the comfortable prop we have made of resurrection faith. Here, Wiesel’s readers confront the new Golgotha. The cross put no final end to the reign of evil, for here crucifixion recurs all over again. Only now the victim is a young boy with the face of a sad-eyed angel; only now the darkness is lit by no Easter-dawn, but by the torch of a crematory fire, a fire whose smoke issues an unbroken night; only now God dies, instead of redeeming.

And I who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him -- the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished?. . . But I could only embrace him, weeping ["Foreword to Night," pp. 10-11].

Mauriac, long a poignant witness to the connection between suffering and love, knew well that the cornerstone of his faith was at stake in Wiesel’s narrative. And yet, at the point at which he might have been tempted to proclaim his gospel, he finds that the only fitting response is to embrace the victim, blessing him with tears. The reason is clear: the death of the sad-eyed angel creates a stumbling block not only for Wiesel, but for Mauriac; not only for the Jewish victim, but for the Christian onlooker who cannot interpret away the scandalous scene without trivializing its grossly unredeemed features. In Mauriac’s embrace human compassion stifles theological conviction, rescuing it from becoming an oppressive utterance. The word of faith gives way to silence, but perhaps therein returns to its authentic ground.

Mauriac’s tearful embrace of the victim, Wiesel, provides us with an emblem that at once interprets the tableau in Night and becomes an apt metaphor for Christian devotion to the cross. As an emblem, Mauriac’s act keeps before us three fundamental features that should shape our response to both the sad-eyed child’s cross and Jesus’ cross: silence, humility and waiting together for God.

Mauriac’s response is, first, essentially silent. The point at which he would announce the victory of the cross gives way to the tacit embrace. In silence his act witnesses to the breaking of an essential continuity in our language of faith, the continuity between our words of redemption and the utterly unredeemed circumstances of radical victimization. We lack the words even to describe the plight of the victim, much less the words to make that plight whole. Where all is broken, words of promise turn rotten and oppressive, robbing the afflicted of the integrity of his or her own suffering.

Mauriac’s silence is ambivalent; it does not break the word of redemption as much as it hushes its utterance. In light of the Holocaust, the word of the cross can only be a personal and genuine confession. But we cannot presume to speak for the victim or, as reality, impose upon his or her world the expressions of our own desire. As the word of the cross shatters any pretentious language of strength, wisdom and power (I Cor. 1:18-31) , so does the word of Night stifle any Christian triumphalism. Silence must say No to the human boast.

Second, Mauriac’s tearful embrace expresses a profound humility and repentance. We misread the scene if we assume that the writer’s tears are tied only to his perception of the victim’s tragedy. The conversation between Mauriac and Wiesel begins with Mauriac’s recollection of the German occupation of France, admitting his painful knowledge of the trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. As Wiesel responds "I was one of them," Mauriac sees himself anew as an unwitting onlooker, the bystander guilty not of acts undertaken, but of acts not taken. The indictment is not Wiesel’s but Mauriac’s own, born of the self-perception that not to stand with the victim is to act in complicity with his or her oppressor. Mauriac’s tears signify his humble repentance, his turning away from the role of onlooker to align himself with the victim. The observer becomes witness, testifying on behalf of the victim. Crucifixion indicts, for in its shadow we are always the guilty bystander. Humility, such as Mauriac’s, puts an end to any assumption of benign righteousness; repentance denies complacency to the viewer of another’s passion.

Third, the embrace of Wiesel and Mauriac creates a community of victims and their witnesses who wait together for God. The powerless, in their very plight, dramatize the need for redemption, enabling us to see ourselves more humbly and indicting us when we do not. In them, our need for God and their forgiveness becomes blatantly apparent. When we become the victims’ ally, we receive the reconciling gift that only they can offer: the possibility of waiting together for the inbreaking of the Messiah’s reign. Waiting together, we effect not redemption, but the community that is its annunciator and first fruits.

Crucifixion, be it the cross of Jesus or the nocturnal Golgotha of Auschwitz, breaks the moral continuities by which we have considered ourselves secure and whole. To mend these fragments of human experience lies outside our power. We cannot repair the broken world. Yet, as we yield these broken continuities to narrative -- to memoir, to literature, to liturgy -- we begin to forge a new link that binds storyteller and hearer, victim and witness. But here we must be most careful. We rush to tell the story, confident that it is ours to tell when, in fact, it is ours to hear.

Ours is a season for listening and silence. Not when we speak to victims but when we listen to their testimony do we truly perceive the cross, the cross that breaks our moral certainties and shatters our continuities of power. We cannot give our victims the cross, for they are already its true bearers. Rather, it is they who present the cross to us in the form of its awful scandal. White Crucifixion and Night -- expressions of Jewish anguish distinctly not our own -- return to us the meaning of the cross in its most powerful form. The Jewish testament enables us to see anew what centuries of resurrection enthusiasm have obscured in our own tradition: the fractured bond between God and the world; the lived moment of forsaken-ness to which we are vulnerable and for which we are responsible in the lives of one another.

In the world of victims, our language of victory -- the language of redemption -- may alienate, echoing only the speech of oppressors. Though current, this perception is not distinctly modern, but dates at least from the ordeal of an early Christian apostle. Writing with critical fervor in I Corinthians, the apostle Paul reminds his readers that Christ’s resurrection, in its fullest expression, is eschatological, a word spoken in the future; when Christians claim its fullness prematurely, he argues that word becomes illusory and destructive. To approach the cross with too much faith, to stand in its shadow with certain confidence of Easter light, is finally to confront no cross at all, only the unrepentant echoes of our religious noise. Amid the creation which groans for redemption, the church must stand as if before Easter: open to its inbreaking, but unassuming of its prerogative. There, in the community of victims and witnesses, the faithful silently wait together for the Kingdom of God. There the church must express its humility, for, as the Holocaust chronicles make starkly clear, the Lord whom the church confesses is also its victim.


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