Do what you have to do, say what you have to say – and never give up.”
Dr. Franklin Littell, American Methodist minister, scholar, and bold voice of conscience of the Holocaust, gave this advice many years ago to a young colleague who was hesitant to speak his mind.
Back home from a conference at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, a conference that Littell and retired scholar Hubert Locke founded 40 years ago, I’m still thinking about that adage. It echoed through tributes to Littell, who died last May at age 91.
The conference was the 40th Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches and – sadly – the first without him.
Littell did not envision a career that would bear witness to causes of genocide. But at age 22, attending a rally in Nuremberg in 1939 while traveling through Europe, he saw the spectacle of a cheering crowd idolizing Hitler. Sickened, he left, only to return to Germany post-war to be involved in de-Nazification efforts.
Before and after the conference, I browsed through Littell’s works, which include The Crucifixion of the Jews and Wild Tongues: A Handbook of Social Pathology. I also read Locke’s Learning from History: A Black Christian’s Perspective on the Holocaust. As I read, I am reminded why Littell’s name (pronounced Lih-tell) caught my eye in the Cleveland Jewish News many years ago. Not one to mince words, he called on people of conscience to examine roots of anti-Semitism, at times fostered in churches.
When Notre Dame College’s Tolerance Resource Center opened a decade ago, I perused the shelves in hopes of further understanding the Nazi era and seeds of intolerance. Littell’s name is there, too.
A conference on the “Holocaust and the Churches” is not only academic for me; it’s family history. My father was a survivor of several concentration camps; my mother, a German civilian with Catholic and Lutheran forbears. There was too much heartache to communicate; like most children, I learned about my father’s devastating experiences by reading between the lines of gestures and words. I depend on scholars to fill in the picture, so when I saw a tiny ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the conference, I made immediate plans to attend.
Littell’s works suggest that even the most sophisticated civilization may tilt toward barbarism. He used the phrase “early warning system” to suggest that ears and eyes stay open. When religious institutions, the legal system and schools falter, we are in danger of falling victims to vicious propaganda and tyranny.
Littell was a true mensch. He was generous to even the most inarticulate. He was a prophet, too. But he was absolutely fierce when it came to denouncing hate.
Temple University, where he taught for 20 years, has acquired Littell’s papers and collection. The digitization process will soon make widely available the wealth of his wisdom.
Documentary-maker Pierre Sauvage (www.chambon.org), himself a child of the Holocaust hidden by French Protestants, produced two films shown at the conference, one about Littell. It was gripping.
In 1959, Littell helped create some of the first courses examining the Holocaust at Emory University. The New York Times obituary stated that he was “was among the first intellectuals to delve into the question of how baptized Christians in the heart of Christian Europe could have either killed or ignored the killing of six million Jews” (http://tinyurl.com/y7oltn6).
At Temple University in 1976, he started the first doctoral program in Holocaust studies. In 1998, at New Jersey’s Richard Stockton College, he and his wife created an interdisciplinary master’s degree.
“When Franklin Littell started his work … there was no such thing as Holocaust studies as a field,” Dr. John Roth said to the Times. “Now hundreds of colleges offer courses on the Holocaust, and many states require public schools to teach about it.”
Conference co-founder Locke kindly asked me after a session on the future of the conference in difficult economic times, “How are you holding up?”
Some days, in the light of world events, I am not sure. The more I learn about the Holocaust, the easier it is to feel frustrated that the word “genocide” itself is not yet extinct.
Back home, I learn that a teenager made a racist comment on a loudspeaker at a store. A college newspaper ran a revisionist-sponsored ad. People “know” bits of history, but their knowledge doesn’t lead to wisdom, integrity, conscience or courage. “Do nothing; say nothing; give up” is a temptation when a new pattern of hate is beginning to form. In the face of intolerance, one must be vigilant and follow Littell’s timeless advice: “Do what you have to do, say what you have to say – and never give up.”
Maria Shine Stewart is a teacher and writer in South Euclid.