One of the most popular electives at the Marist School in Brookhaven is Brendan Murphy’s “History and the Holocaust,” a class he’s been teaching for almost 30 years.
A graduate of St. Pius High School and Notre Dame University, Murphy began teaching history at Marist in 1994. He soon found his world history class left “about 12 minutes” to teach one of the most significant events of the 20th Century, the Holocaust, during which the Nazis murdered approximately 6 million Jews – two-thirds of the entire Jewish population of Europe.
“I felt the history of the Holocaust demanded further study and proposed an elective on the topic. It went on the curriculum at the start of my third year,” he said.
The first time the class was offered, only 12 to 15 students signed up. Now, it’s so popular it forms the bulk of his work. He has also added meaningful action called “Bearing Witness,” which includes an annual student trip to key Holocaust sites in Europe, a December memorial event during which students plant daffodils as part of the global Daffodil Project and an evening version of the class for adults.
I contacted three students to find out why they took the class and what they’ve gotten from it.
“It’s very important to know why the Holocaust happened so it will never happen again,” said Lake Degitz.
“My biggest takeaway from this class is that anti-Semitism existed many years before the Holocaust started,” said Layne Sherman.
“Before the class, I hadn’t understood why the Catholic Church had stood to the side during the Holocaust,” said Lyric Hoff.
Given that Marist is a Catholic school, the class analyzes in depth the role of the Church in the persistent antisemitism of the past 2,000 years, as well as the Church’s efforts to make amends.
Unexpectedly, this topic led to another expansion of “Bearing Witness” – the acquisition of a significant work of art, a large cast-bronze sculpture recently installed on campus to symbolize these efforts.
Called “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” the sculpture is an enlightened reinterpretation of the statues called “Ecclesia and Synagoga” that adorned Medieval European churches and affected attitudes into modern times.
Shown traditionally as a pair of graceful young women, Ecclesia, representing the Church, was crowned, serene and victorious, while Synagoga, representing the Jewish people, was blindfolded, sad and defeated.
The rest of the sculpture’s title comes from the Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), a declaration signed in 1965 at Vatican II, stating that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other religions and specifically rejects the common teaching that the Jews were guilty of deicide.
Marist’s acquisition of the sculpture began in the fall of 2015, when Murphy read that Pope Francis had come to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to bless a new bronze sculpture that reinterprets the ancient symbols of Ecclesia and Synagoga. He called the sculptor, Joshua Koffman, and asked if he would consider creating a second one for Marist. He said he would.
“I marched right into Father Rowland’s office and pitched the statue,” said Murphy. “I gave a 20-minute presentation on these two female figures, how the new depiction is so powerful. The new work takes a terrible past and reimagines a better future. He was sold right away.”
It took a full six years for the school to raise the funds and Koffman to create the final work he calls a “monument.” At a ceremony involving leaders from both the Catholic and Jewish communities of metro Atlanta, the sculpture “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time” was unveiled on Oct. 13. The school website says its purpose is to “inspire current and future generations of students to live a life of friendship with the Jewish people.”
The sculpture shows two equally serene and beautiful young women, Synagoga on the left and Ecclesia on the right, facing each other, holding their sacred texts. The effect on a viewer is so profound it defies words, yet the meaning is clear in a way only art can convey.
The paradox of the Holocaust is “the more you study it, the less you understand it,” said Murphy. “The thing that gives us forward motion is art.”
Like all great art, the sculpture will leave a different impression on all who see it. I must agree with Brendan Murphy that its ultimate message is of hope for a better world of understanding, peace and love.
See a video of the sculpture here.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Marist School President Rev. William Rowland’s name.