A Personal Journey – Dr. Spitzer's Preface
I was born in Brooklyn in 1957, during that peculiar and optimistic period of American life and culture that sought to forget the pain of the Nazi past even as we faced the prospect of nuclear war with communist Russia. We were stereotypical New York Jews, assimilated over four generations, progressively forsaking Hebrew and Yiddish for English, striving to achieve the American dream of economic success (with varying degrees of success), and trying to balance our deeply rooted sense of Jewish identity with the loss of traditional Jewish religious fervor and observance. My relatives never spoke of the Holocaust and its impact on our family in my presence, and even at the present time I am uncertain of how many of our forebears perished in pogroms, concentration camps, and persecutions that ravished Europe in the twentieth century.
As my family moved from Brooklyn to Far Rockaway, and then followed the Jewish exodus to the nondescript suburbs of Long Island, my personal awareness of the Holocaust slowly emerged by way of academic learning. I was a voracious reader. History, geography, politics, science, and philosophy were my favorite topics. However, I preferred to focus on the brief history of the modern state of Israel and its struggles with its Arab neighbors rather than on the Holocaust era. The silence of my family on that dark period reinforced my preference to pursue other areas of historical interest.
I converted to the Christian faith when I was fourteen years old in response to a recurring dream, and prompted by a private mystical experience that revealed its significance to my life, I became convinced that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah on Christmas Eve 1971. My teenage years were spent studying the Bible, devouring it from cover to cover more than half a dozen times before reaching my high school graduation. In my senior year, I felt led to forsake my dream of becoming an Ivy League–educated lawyer specializing in either constitutional or international law in order to fulfill a call to serve the church as a pastor-teacher.
During seminary, I finally discovered my place in the perplexing world of Protestant Christianity. I was ordained as an American Baptist pastor in May 1981. In those years, I was so focused on establishing my vocational identity as a pastor and developing relationships throughout the fellowship of the American Baptist Churches USA that I ignored a question that popped into my consciousness from time to time: “How did American Baptists, my new spiritual family, respond to the Holocaust?” The personal acceptance I felt as a Jewish Christian lulled me into a comfortable and peaceful valley, and I did not feel the urge to explore whether my denominational family had a history of anti-Semitism or, as I hoped and assumed, a generalized attitude of acceptance, respect, and love for the Jewish people.
In April 1985, my sense of peace regarding Baptists and Jews was shattered by the announced travel plans of Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States, to Germany. As a pastor in Rhode Island and with the help of friends from that region’s American Baptist Peacemakers, I organized a statewide campaign, asking President Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany to cancel the visit to the Bitburg cemetery, where Nazi Waffen-SS officers were buried, and replace it with a more appropriate symbol of American-German friendship. Some three thousand signatures were gathered, and the campaign was supported by the Christian and Jewish communities. However, one negative incident tempered my idealism.
At a meeting of the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island, I waited my turn to speak and encourage delegates from all of our churches to sign and distribute the petitions in an effort to secure as many signatures as possible. I sat two-thirds of the way back in the sanctuary and overheard the conversation of two women in the pew in front of me. Unaware of my presence, one woman said, “Look, Rev. Spitzer is going to speak about his campaign against Bitburg.” Her companion responded, “I don’t trust and won’t listen to anything he has to say.” Startled, the first speaker asked, “Why not?” Her friend replied, “He’s a Jew. You can’t trust anything a Jew says.” Minutes later, I was called to the pulpit, but I did not permit myself to look at the women who had been in front of me. I did not want to know their identities or to let their conversation diminish my love for the others who I knew did not identify with the anti-Semitic prejudice I had just overheard.
In my subsequent experience within the American Baptist world, I have only rarely encountered anti-Semitism. It usually takes the form of subtle criticisms regarding how good Jews are with money and negotiating good deals. More often, I have encountered various manifestations of an exaggerated philo-Semitism, in which people elevate my Jewish background to a semi-idolatrous appreciation. Most of my friends express a more nuanced attitude between the two extremes. They recognize and affirm that my Jewish background is an integral part of my personal journey and pastoral ministry.
In 2011 the question of the relationship between Baptists and Jews during the Holocaust roared back into my consciousness. I am not sure why; there was no precipitating event associated with its reemergence. As circumstances permitted, I probed what several respected American Baptist scholars and denominational leaders knew about this question, and each of them admitted that they did not possess a satisfactory answer. This provoked my curiosity, and a new intellectual journey soon consumed me.
It did not take me long to realize that scholarly attempts to answer this question were inadequate and incomplete. What I did not expect was to discover a fascinating and complex historical narrative, whose threads would require me to visit archives throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. This book represents the first-fruits of my journey into the Baptist past, as it relates to the Jewish people. It does not reveal everything I have discovered but rather focuses on how Baptists in the United States reacted to Jews in their midst, recognized the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi anti-Semitism, and responded to the unfolding of the Holocaust.