I heard a sermon preached one Christmas Eve that went beyond the usual pieties about a babe lying in a manger. This one included a story about a Jewish child born in the midst of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe during World War II. The newborn’s crib was not a manger in Bethlehem but an open grave at a cemetery in Vilna, a city in Lithuania that was the site for the earliest mass extermination of Jews by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, himself a refugee from the Nazis, had originally used the story in an Easter sermon, based on a long narrative poem by an unnamed Yiddish poet who had survived the killings in Vilna. The poet later bore witness to this atrocity at the Nuremburg war crimes tribunals. In the poem, a Jewish grave digger who witnessed the birth cried, “Great God, hast Thou finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?” One can see how the story fits with the Easter theme of death and resurrection. But at Christmas?
I was sufficiently moved by the story to track down Tillich’s original sermon and then to find out more about the unnamed poet from Vilna. The poet had a name, of course: Abraham Sutzkever, arguably the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th century. There are those, in fact, who believe Sutzkever might have won the Nobel Prize had he not written in a language with a rapidly dwindling population of native speakers, thanks in no small part to Nazis efforts to eradicate the Yiddish-speaking population of Eastern Europe. For Sutzkever, who escaped the Vilna ghetto along with his wife and who fought alongside partisans in the surrounding forests, writing poetry during this dark period was an act of defiance. "If I didn't write, I wouldn't live," he told an interviewer more than 40 years later. "When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death."
As it turned out, Tillich's sermon had garbled certain details of Sutzkever’s story. The poet did testify at Nuremburg but not about the events described in his poem, “The Grave-Child.” Sutzkever’s testimony did mention a child born during the Holocaust -- his own. His wife had given birth at a hospital in one of two Jewish ghettos in Vilna during the Nazi occupation. The Nazis had decreed that no Jewish children should be born in Vilna. On an inspection tour of the hospital, they heard the cries of the newborns hidden away in a locked room and murdered them all. When Sutzkever, who was in hiding himself, arrived at the hospital, his newborn son’s lifeless body was still warm.
The mass murder of Jewish children was hardly unprecedented. In addition to the many pogroms that have blighted human history, there were biblical narratives going back millennia. According to the Book of Exodus, the Egyptian pharaoh decreed that all newborn males among the Hebrews should be killed, and Moses survived only because his mother hid him away. There is a similar story in the New Testament in which King Herod, upon hearing that the Christ child had been born in Bethlehem, ordered that all the male children in the region under age two should be killed. Jesus survived because his family fled into Egypt. Roman Catholics remember this massacre during the Feast of he Holy Innocents, held just three days after Christmas as a grim counterpoint to the Nativity.
Why bring up Sutzkever’s poem on the happy occasion of Christ’s birth? Although Tillich’s original sermon was delivered on Easter rather than Christmas, he addressed this question, noting that “our Christian symbols, taken from the gospel stories, have lost a great deal of their power because [they are] too often repeated and too superficially used.” He added, “It has been forgotten that the manger of Christmas was the expression of utter poverty and distress before it became the place where the angels appeared and to which the star pointed.” Strip away the angels, the shepherds, the wise men from the East, and what remains? A babe wrapped in swaddling clothes who would one day be wrapped in a shroud. He might just as well have been born in a grave. The truth is that this figure whom Roman soldiers mocked as the king of the Jews came into the world to die, a child of the grave. But then, of course, the story doesn’t end there.
Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations