Against Indifference

Four Christian Responses to Jewish Suffering during the Holocaust (C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, André and Magda Trocmé)

by Carole J. Lambert (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 178 Pages


Against Indifference analyzes four responses to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, moving on a spectrum from indifference to courageous action. C. S. Lewis did little to speak up for victimized Jews; Thomas Merton chose to enclose himself in a monastery to pray for and expiate the sins of a world gone awry; Dietrich Bonhoeffer acted to help his twin sister, her Jewish husband, and some other Jews escape from Germany; and the Trocmés established protective housing and an ongoing «underground railroad» that saved several thousand Jewish lives. Why such variation in the responses of those who had committed their lives to Jesus Christ and recognized that His prime commandment is to love God and others? This book provides answers to this question that help shed light on current Christians and their commitment to victims who suffer and need their help.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. C. S. Lewis
  • Chapter 3. Thomas Merton
  • Chapter 4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Chapter 5. André and Magda Trocmé
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion
  • Index


I am grateful to Dr. Heidi Burns, who died in May 2014, for sharing my vision for this book and encouraging me to complete it by offering me the contract for it and by supporting me in the editing of my three previous books for Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. Her successor, Ms. Michelle Salyga, has kindly continued this encouragement and deep understanding of my topic of “indifference,” for which I am most appreciative. Ms. Jackie Pavlovic has graciously and efficiently served me again as my Production Editor, and I am greatly indebted to her as well.

Dr. David Esselstrom, Chair of the Department of English at Azusa Pacific University, enabled me to research intensely during Fall 2014 by offering me three credits of research time. Without that assistance this text would not have been completed by its contractual date. Hence I owe him much for this support and our friendship since 1986 when I began teaching at A.P.U.

Many university colleagues have also promoted this project by permitting me to speak about C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on campus at philosophy forums and Common Days of Learning. I am particularly indebted to my philosopher friend, Dr. Teri Merrick, who reads ← ix | x → Bonhoeffer with me in German and who guided me through a major reorganization of the chapter about him that appears in this book. It definitely needed her reasoning power, offered with her usual gentle kindness and good humor.

Students, also, have contributed to this book, particularly my brilliant, well organized, and competent research assistants, first Chad Seiler and then Andrew Soria after Chad’s graduation. All of the students of my Freshman Writing Seminars of the past two years have read pages of this text and shared their thoughts about “indifference” and Holocaust studies in general. I am profoundly grateful to Chad, Andrew, and my wonderful, thoughtful students.

Finally, I have been loved and supported in countless ways by my husband, David Eugene Lambert, a historian and dynamic teacher, to whom this book is dedicated. ← x | 1 →

· 1 ·


“I believe with all my heart that whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness. Once we have heard, we must not stand idly by. Indifference to evil makes evil stronger” Elie Wiesel (quoted in Sahagun AA4).

Atrocities occurred during the Shoah, but too many Christians were indifferent to them. In retrospect, from the point of view of twenty-first century Jews and Christians alike, this can seem incomprehensible. Why did C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton, well known Christians who lived in that era, not react resoundingly to the brutal genocide of Jews about which Polish underground agent Jan Karski informed Great Britain and the United States as early as November 1942 (Karski 384, 387–88)? On the contrary, why did brilliant German Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer become involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the evil force behind the Jewish genocide? And, why did Protestant pastor André Trocmé and his wife Magda risk their lives both hiding Jews and helping them to escape from their provincial town in southern France on to freedom beyond its Nazi occupied borders? What can persons concerned about ethics and ethical behavior today learn from these responses to Jewish suffering which range from minimal action to maximal intervention? This book intends to answer these questions. ← 1 | 2 →

One simple definition of “indifference” follows: “a dulled, insensitive, and uncaring disposition toward people” (Johnson and Ridley 124). W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley note that “[c]ompassion stands in opposition to” indifference (124). Although Johnson and Ridley are writing for an audience of business professionals, their simple definition works well for both personal and professional life since the “dulled, insensitive, and uncaring disposition” is present at the deepest psychic levels in human beings and hence can manifest itself in all aspects of their lives. The dynamics of altruism overcoming this “disposition” are worthy of study. The compassion of the Trocmés is clear, but can this word be used to describe Bonhoeffer’s actions? Definitely not indifferent to Jewish suffering, and certainly most concerned about the destruction of the German Church by Hitler’s attempts to invade and control it through his henchmen, Bonhoeffer must have struggled with whether or not intense compassion for some required the murder of others, even others as evil as Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s response is the polar opposite to those of Lewis and Merton who did little to help Jews in distress. The chapters that follow explore the spectrum of reactions to the Shoah from indifference (Lewis) to silence (Merton) to violence (Bonhoeffer) to a dynamic pacifism (Trocmés) in an order of increasing activity in opposition to genocidal Nazi forces and social structures.

I have chosen to analyze the responses of these five people because they are all basically good persons, four males and one female, from diverse nations (the Irish Lewis, the French/American Merton, the German Bonhoeffer, and the French André Trocmé and his Italian/French wife Magda), who lived through World War II and knew more or less about the Shoah, and who professed a deep commitment to Jesus Christ and His teachings about love, a love that definitely did not encourage indifference to the sufferings of others. There are many other fine people that I could have added to this study, but I wanted to focus on both the famous (Lewis, Merton, and Bonhoeffer) and the less known (the Trocmés). I trusted that important lessons about indifference—and the fight against it—could be learned from these committed Christians. As Thomas Merton noted in his bestselling autobiography of 1948, The Seven Story Mountain, “Human nature has a way of making very specious arguments to suit its own cowardice and lack of generosity” (363).

It is important to note that some committed Christians were not the only ones indifferent to Jewish suffering during World War II. Sadly, many nominally Christian politicians and a few American Jews also registered minimal responses as Isabel Kershner describes: ← 2 | 3 →

But the [Peter Bergson] mission abruptly changed in November 1942 after reports of the Nazi annihilation of two million European Jews emerged. Like earlier reports of the mass killing of Jews, the news barely made the inside pages of major American newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post….The Bergsonites were appalled by what they saw as the indifference of the Roosevelt administration and the passivity of the Jewish establishment, which staunchly supported the administration and largely accepted its argument that the primary American military objective was to win the war, not to save European Jews. The group embarked on a provocative campaign to publicize the genocide and to lobby Congress to support the rescue of Jews, roaming the hallways of Capitol Hill and knocking on doors, displaying a degree of chutzpah that made the traditional, pro-Roosevelt Jewish establishment uncomfortable….In October 1943, the Bergson group organized a march of 400 Orthodox rabbis on the White House, most of them in traditional black garb, a spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in Washington.

It will be out of the range of this book to analyze politicians’ and certain Jews’ indifference to the Jewish genocide occurring in Europe under Hitler’s tyranny. Many Holocaust historians and commentators have already pondered this tragedy. It is enough in this tome to examine five Christians’ responses and to learn from them so that in the future authentically ethical people may maintain an acute sensitivity to the sufferings of others and, hopefully, choose to avoid remaining indifferent to their agony. This becomes vital when Victoria J. Barnett can acknowledge that “[t]he genocide of the European Jews would have been impossible without the active participation of bystanders to carry it out and the failure of numerous parties to intervene to stop it” (11). Paradoxically, indifferent “bystanders” participate “active[ly]” when they do nothing to “stop” genocide, even though they may have the illusion of not being involved in it. Barnett adds, “the effect of indifference was as devastating as active hatred would have been. For the victims, the ‘indifference’ and silence of bystanders had the same consequences as the active hatred of perpetrators” (118).

It is also necessary to acknowledge that “indifference” is a positive term in some strains of Roman Catholicism, for it suggests being unmoved by worldly temptations. For example, Chris Lowney speaks of Jesuit self-awareness including “indifference-inspired freedom from unhealthy attachments” (166). Jesuit “indifference” also embraces an emotional freedom to both give and take orders without anxiety or frustration “in order to deliver results” (160). It is an attitude cultivated during the seminary years to rid oneself of inordinate attachments so as to be fully available to respond quickly to challenges that may arise (118–19): “Inordinate attachments fog one’s ← 3 | 4 → vision” (119). Hence, Lowney explains, “[o]nly by becoming indifferent—free of prejudices and attachments and therefore free to choose any course of action—do recruits become strategically flexible. The indifferent Jesuit liberates himself to choose strategies driven by one motive only: achieving his long-term goal of serving God by helping souls” (119). This understanding of the term “indifference” is different from the definition used throughout this book, as described above; there were many Jesuits who were not “indifferent” to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and used their own understanding of “indifference” to indeed accomplish their “goal of serving God by helping souls,” specifically the “souls” of Jews trying to survive and needing to be hidden or guided to safe countries.

For example, Martin Gilbert notes in his The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust numerous Jesuit priests who risked their lives to save Jews: many who hid children during the War (xvi), Father Bronius Paukstis who saved Jews in Kaunas, Lithuania (87), another Jesuit “who had hidden eighty Jewish children destined for deportation” (262), eight Jesuit priests in Lyon “who had refused to surrender ‘several hundred children’ for deportation; children they had kept ‘in buildings belonging to the religious order’” (263); these priests suffered arrest and imprisonment (263); and Father Jakab Raile, Prior of the Jesuit College in Budapest, Hungary, who “saved ‘close to 150 Jews’ at the Jesuit Residence” (391) there. The Jesuits’ “indifference” to the brutal, unethical norms of Nazi policy fortified them to repeatedly rescue Jews from destruction.


X, 178
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Holocaust-related lens Holocaust World war II jews
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 178 pp.

Biographical notes

Carole J. Lambert (Author)

Carole J. Lambert is Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University in California. In addition to four National Endowment for the Humanities grants, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research in Brussels, Belgium, and recently participated in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts Seminar. She is the author of The Empty Cross: Medieval Hopes, Modern Futility in the Theater of Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Claudel, August Strindberg, and Georg Kaiser, Is God Man’s Friend? Theodicy and Friendship in Elie Wiesel’s Novels, Ethics after Auschwitz? Primo Levi’s and Elie Wiesel’s Response, as well as co-editor with William D. Brewer of Essays on the Modern Identity and editor of Doing Good, Departing from Evil: Research Findings in the Twenty-First Century. She earned her PhD in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and has been published widely in several journals.


Title: Against Indifference
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