In 1942, a small passenger boat called the Struma was torpedoed by submarine off the coast of Turkey. On board were almost eight hundred European Jews, including one hundred children, fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust.
An aging boat in poor repair, the engines of the Struma failed almost immediately on leaving port in Romania. Wedding rings and all remaining possessions were sold to pay for repairs, and the ship limped into Istanbul. As the result of pressure from the British, who wanted to curb further Jewish immigration into Palestine, the Turkish government refused to allow refugees to disembark.
After weeks of failed negotiations, which resulted in the release of only a handful of passengers, food supplies on board ran out, and the crowded Struma was towed back out into Black Sea, where she drifted aimlessly. The torpedo, fired by a Russian submarine, hit the next morning. There was only one survivor.
The following year, not long after escaping Vichy France for America, the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall painted The Yellow Crucifixion. The sinking Struma, with figures of drowning refugees, can be seen clearly on the left. On the right, flames rise from a burning ghetto. At the foot of the painting, a mother and child flee in terror.
The fiery yellow of the background conjures up the yellow star of David, and the crematoria of the concentration camps. In the centre, an angel holds a Torah scroll, whilst blowing a trumpet: the ram’s horn sounded on the day of atonement.
But it is the figure on the cross that dominates this painting. This is no Aryan Christ. This is not the blond, blue-eyed Jesus of Nazi propaganda, nor of our childhood bibles. Chagall’s is a thoroughly Jewish Jesus: a prayer shawl round his waist, prayer straps on his arms, and a phylactery on his forehead for carrying tiny parchments of scripture.
The Yellow Crucifixion was not an expression of Christian faith by Chagall. Instead, Chagall deliberately used the ubiquitous iconography of the cross to represent centuries of persecution of the Jews, often at the hands of Christians and their followers. 20th century anti-Semitism did not arise in a vacuum: it had deep roots in Christian history and theology.
It was a portrayal which shocked both Christians and Jews alike: a powerful statement of the Jewishness of Jesus, and a presentation of Jesus as the icon of Jewish suffering and persecution.
For Christians, The Yellow Crucifixion helps us understand again the meaning of the incarnation. Here is a picture of God, in the person of Jesus, present in the suffering and persecution of his people, entering into solidarity with them, himself betrayed, beaten, and crucified. A God who is not distant from his people, but with them, and one of them.
In the novel Night, based on his experience as a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the Jewish writer Elie Wiesel tells the story of a child who is hung in a concentration camp as other prisoners are forced to watch. As the boy slowly asphyxiates, a man cries out: ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ And from within him, the narrator says, he heard a voice rise up unbidden to answer: ‘Where is God? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’
Where is God? Where is God in the midst of suffering? Where is God in the face of evil, in the gulags and the pogroms, the killing fields and the concentration camps? He is there, Wiesel says, in the midst of it, in the suffering, in the pain, on the gallows.
In the crucifixion of the world, God, too, dies.