The Santification of Life among Jews and Christians in the Nazi Concentration Camps

By: Eileen Lyon  

Several studies of spiritual resistance in the camps have demonstrated the key role that religious and cultural activities played in the maintenance of both individual and collective identities and higher survival rates. Jewish writers speak of Kiddush Ha Hayyim, the sanctification of life, as an important component in Jewish resistance both in the ghettos and the camps. Christians, too, exhibited powerful forms of resistance in their continuation of traditional religious and cultural practices. While conditions in the camps were such that many questioned or set aside their religious faith, there are also remarkable stories of continued religious practice. Fasting in Auschwitz for Yom Kippur, keeping some elements of Shabbat observance, crafting rosaries out of the meager bread rations, confession of sins to priest-prisoners, clandestine celebrations of the Mass, or continual dedication of Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept what they saw as God’s will were powerful reassertions of individual and communal identity in a context that was designed to eradicate such identities. Prisoners took tremendous risks to engage in such activities. In some cases, their activities were discovered and the result was severe punishment or death. Yet, such martyrdoms seemed to serve as inspiration for further activity rather than a deterrent. This paper will look at examples of Jewish and Christian spiritual resistance and demonstrate the similarities in the ways these actions functioned.

Spiritual Resistance, Nazi, Concentration Camps
Religious Community and Socialization
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Eileen Lyon

Professor, History, State University of New York at Fredonia, United States
United States