Where was God when the Six Million died? What was He doing as His people suffered and perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators? Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, begins this Sunday evening and lasts until sundown on Monday. It’s the official Israeli day for remembering the Nazi murder of their 6 million Jewish victims and its observed by Jewish people around the world. But the question of “Where was God?” persists, like an open, unhealed wound.
I was raised in an observant Jewish home and my parents were both Holocaust survivors. As a result, two facts helped shaped me. First, I was raised to believe that God exists and that He chose the Jewish people to represent Him on earth. The second fact taught to me was the horror of the Holocaust. I heard about the Nazi persecution, oppression, torture and murder of the Jewish people as a fact of life. It really happened and it happened to my family, the people I loved most in the world. But it was only when I was in college, having read Night by Elei Wiesel, that I began to deal with the question of “Where was God?” Since God certainly existed, and loved the Jewish people, I struggled to understand, why He allowed the Holocaust to happen, why He didn’t defend His people. And now, after all these years, I still don’t have a perfect or simple answer as to why God allowed the Holocaust. No one does.
But as to “Where was God when the six million died?” there is this simple answer the Scriptures give: God was present with the Jewish people, suffering with them, in the ghettos, in the concentration camps, in the gas chambers. Isaiah 63:9 says, “In all their afflictions, He was afflicted.” When the people of Israel suffer, the God of Israel suffers with them.
God’s presence with the Jewish people in their suffering is also evident in Zechariah’s vision of the Angel of the Lord among the myrtle trees, found in Zechariah 1:8-17. There the myrtle trees represent the people of Israel, and the trees are in a ravine, indicating that the Jewish people were in a lowly, oppressed place. In their midst, in that place of suffering, is the Angel of the Lord, the preincarnate Messiah.
More than 50 years ago, the great scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Merrill Unger wrote, the Jewish people are “still scattered throughout the world in unbelief and still persecuted with frightful cruelty in the modern world. It is a great consolation to Zechariah, however to know that . . . the preincarnate Messiah is identified with His people in their sufferings, degradation, and woe. He is still standing among [them] . . . . We may be sure, moreover, that if the earthly high priest used to carry the names of the twelve tribes of Israel upon the breastplate nearest his heart (Exod 28:29), the true High Priest, who is the King of Israel as well, has them just as near His loving heart. He loves Israel and yearns for the day . . . when they will crown Him Lord of all” (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory, pp. 28-29).
In the course I teach on the Holocaust, when we discuss rescuers, I always ask students if the Lord Jesus would have been a rescuer? Virtually all classes say “absolutely, Jesus would have certainly been a rescuer of the Jewish people.” And then I always remind them that the Lord Jesus, since He is Jewish, would not have been a rescuer but rather one in need of rescue. The real question is not “Where was God” but “Where was man?” Would they, would you, rescue the Lord Jesus? Because He taught, “I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine (the Jewish people), you did for me” (Matt 25:40).