The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People (CMJ) has been active in Israel since the 1820s, moved by an awareness of God’s love for His covenant people, with both Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) and Gentile Christians recognizing that God has promised to restore the people of Israel to their land and to their Messiah.
Prompted by a desire to understand more about what Jewish believers encountered during WWII under the rule of Hitler in Nazi Germany, the church recently began a comprehensive project to look at the lives of Jewish believers in Europe and how they and their families were affected by the Holocaust.
Rev. David Pileggi, rector of CMJ’s Christ Church in Jerusalem - an Anglican church inside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City – explained that the church's undertaking to investigate and retell the stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors began almost as soon as the war ended, but that looking specifically at the effect on Jewish believers, Christ followers who are Jewish, is very recent and according to him, “started way, way too late. And it’s very regrettable.”
Pileggi’s colleague, Kelvin Crombie, who has devoted his time to research and writing about the plight of the Jewish believers during the Holocaust, among other things, is heading the Jewish Believers Holocaust Project on behalf of Christ Church. In 2018, Crombie began the process of interviewing people for a book about believers who perished in the Holocaust.
“Other people have started this work and we don't want to steal their glory or to take all the credit,” Pileggi explained, “But I think this is the first large, systematic, long-term research project looking at the life of Jewish believers in Europe before and during the war,” Pileggi said in an interview with Paul Calvert, a Christian journalist based in the Middle East. He said Crombie is currently in the midst of the research and is laying a foundation from which others can build. Crombie believes there were at least tens of thousands of Jewish believers across Europe during WWII. So far the study has focused on Holland, Belgium and Poland, among others.
The research looks at how they suffered from the hands of the Nazi, not for being Christians or Jewish believers, but for being Jews, Pileggi emphasized.
Pileggi was quick to qualify that all human suffering is difficult and that they are not trying to downplay the suffering of one group over another.
“We're not trying to Christianize the Holocaust or to somehow remove the horror or the sting of Nazi anti-Semitism. Of course, many Christians suffered as well. But the Holocaust, the Jewish Holocaust, or the murder of the Jewish people by the Nazis was something unprecedented in all of human history,” he said. I would like to emphasize that the suffering of the Jewish people in some ways doesn't lessen all the suffering of non-Jews. Suffering is suffering, and in some ways we have to be very careful about the way that we compare. And in our comparisons, we need to be careful not to minimize the pain and trauma suffered by one group or another.”
He did say, however, that when compared to the suffering of non-Jews, there are some unique distinctions to take into account.
Pileggi talked about the dilemma about identifying what identifies a Jew person as a Jew and who should be counted in this number when it comes to quantifying the identity of a Jewish believer in Yeshua.
“Who is a Jewish Christian? Why did a Jewish person “convert”? Why did a Jewish person become a follower of Jesus?”
“We can't go back and investigate the motives of every Jewish believer,” he said. “The definitions are kind of murky here. We're simply counting all of them….And some people may say, ‘Well, you're just counting those who were nominally Christian; who maybe wanted to escape the stigma of being Jewish.’ And the answer to that question, ‘Yes, we are, because we don't know the intentions of the heart.’ So therefore, we just have to stick with the broadest definition.”
Pileggi explained a person may have identified as a Jewish believer for social reasons or because Jews were born into families of Jewish believers, or perhaps because they genuinely encountered the Jewish Messiah and they became believers out of choice.
There is a degree of urgency regarding the Jewish Believers Holocaust Project, Pileggi said, because there aren't many Holocaust survivors still alive. Therefore, they are talking to families and getting the stories documented as quickly as they can. He and Crombie “lament and almost shed tears” over the fact that they didn't start his project 20 or 30 years ago when there were many Holocaust witnesses who were still alive.
During the interview, Pileggi shared some of the amazing stories that they’ve learned so far that were seemingly “somehow forgotten or swept under the rug.”
He said while many people are familiar with the story of Corrie Ten Boom, for example,” they won't be able to tell you about the Jock family from Lvov or they won't be able to tell you about the different congregations of Jewish believers that existed in the huge ghettos.” Many of them were either taken to a pit and shot, or sent to places like Treblinka or Auschwitz,” he added.
"Pileggi said that the project is challenging because it's quite different to read historical accounts versus meeting the people whose lives have been affected by the tragic events of the Holocaust.
"The study is about “people who have the faith, who want to be disciples of Jesus,” Pileggi said of Crombie’s research. “And then you read about their deaths or you hear about their deaths. So it's no longer just a statistic or a number, but you're dealing with the lives of real people. And not only people who were Jews, which we as Christians, you know, have a great affinity for the Jewish people and a great connection with the Jewish people. But you might say there's a double affinity and that these are Jewish believers in Jesus. They share our faith as well as sharing a common heritage, which we do with the Jewish people.
Pileggi said one important aspect of the research project has been learning about Holocaust trauma on families and how it affects future generations.
“We know that Holocaust trauma – or the trauma of an event similar to the Holocaust – is passed down from generation to generation.
“It's passed down not simply in the way children are nurtured and raised, but it's passed down actually in the DNA,” Pileggi noted, “So it's something that doesn't go away.”
“We oftentimes hear non-Jews complain in a manner such as this: ‘Why don't the Jewish people just forget about the Holocaust and move on? I mean, after all, it happened 80 years ago and they can't keep focusing on the past. You know, they need to move forward.’
“Well, I think there are some really good sociological and historical reasons why that's simply not possible.” Pileggi said, adding that the Jewish people have a history of focusing on the past, because God gave the Jews a repeated biblical commandment to remember.
“So God tells the Jewish people, he tells people who receive the Hebrew scriptures, write over and over again. Remember, remember, remember, remember. History should become meaningful and it should become a guide as to the way a nation or even an individual moves into the future,” Pileggi explained. “you might think of Judaism as a religion about memory,” he emphasized, and gave examples such as an Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah head covering; praying three times a day; and the Jewish nation celebrating the Shabbat day of rest.
“All of these help a Jew, either a man or a woman, remember God and what God has done for them. And it helps them to stay focused right on the character of God. And so these things are evoking memories throughout the day are essential simply because as human beings, we are so, so forgetful, whether we're a Jew or a Christian.”
“We remember in order to obey and to be faithful to God.” Pileggi added.
He admitted that there is so much to be researched that truly it “will never be all collected,” but some of the practical things they hope to do is to make the research available online with a central archive or database here in Jerusalem.
The initiative hopes to build a memorial dedicated to those who died at Christ Church in Jerusalem, where the church had and continues to have a connection with many of the congregations that were destroyed in the Holocaust.
Crombie has already written two books based on the research from the project, Pileggi shared. One contains stories about Bazyli and Anna Jocz, members of a messianic Jewish family that lived in the Polish city of Lvov. The other book brings to light previously untold stories of Jewish believers in Poland, including a family from Belarus that was executed in May 1942. It tells the account of a Baptist pastor who heard the family, prior their execution, declare: “When they shoot at us, we will not cry. As soon as we hear the shooting, we know that we will be with Jesus.”
“They went to their graves, you know, confident in the resurrection that they were murdered because they were Jews. And this is just one of hundreds, probably even thousands of stories that Jewish believers in Jesus in Europe had in common,” Pileggi added.
For more than 40 years, Pileggi has lived in the nation’s capital with his wife Carol. He serves as rector at Christ Church and is also a researcher and journalist. He served for 19 years as the director of a study tour program dedicated to teaching Christians about the Jewish context of their faith. As a licensed tour guide, Pileggi leads the “Narrow Bridge” 12-day study tour to Poland each year. Narrow Bridge, he said, comes from an old Hasidic folk song that states: ‘All the world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid.’
“Its like a risky passage over a bridge that may be not very safe or quite narrow. And this summarizes, you might say, Jewish life in Poland for the last thousand years,” Pileggi said.
During the tour, while visiting sites they discuss Jewish-Christian relations and talk about how Jews managed to flourish even in the midst of hostility and misunderstandings. The tour also gets more in depth about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, the history of Poland and its influence on the Jewish people and vice versa.”
“So that's what we do in Poland in 12 days. We have a lot of fun and Poland is a beautiful country and it's not always heavy, heavy, heavy. But it is a mixture of good fellowship and at the same time some very stimulating or challenging history."
CMJ welcomes any contributions to their research – stories, diaries, letters, photos.
Visit Christ Church – Jerusalem or go directly to the Jewish Believers Holocaust Project website to learn more about the research initiative. Click Narrow Bridge Tour to learn more about the 12-day trip to Poland during July 13 – 25.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.