Evangelist Who Escaped Nazis
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ story behind gospel outreach to Jews
With the annual Holocaust Memorial Day in view, it is worth being reminded not only of how many perished, but also of those who escaped the jaws of Nazism – often miraculously.
It is a little known fact that in spite of terrible persecution in Eastern Europe, thousands of Jewish people were very open to the message of Jesus. In fact, research is currently being undertaken on the so-called ‘Messianic’ believers who died in the Shoah.
Among those who experienced miraculous deliverance from the death camps was Jakob Jocz, a Lithuanian-born third generation follower of Yeshua who became an evangelist to the Jews of Poland under the auspices of CMJ (the Church’s Ministry among Jewish people), a British-based international society already reaping a plentiful harvest of souls throughout Europe and North Africa by the 1930s.
Such was the response to their work that the Warsaw branch CMJ chief Martin Parsons expressed the need for over 700 staff rather than the mere ten suggested at the time.
Jocz was sent to Birkenhead, near Liverpool, to train for Anglican ordination, and when he returned to Poland, he wrote: “In spite of anti-Semitism and increasing hatred, the Jews met us in many places with an open mind and with great readiness to hear the gospel.”1
He added: “Today when the cross is being twisted into a swastika…Jewish men and women flock into the mission halls to hear and to learn about the wonderful Saviour.”
In May 1939, he received an urgent call to England to replace the main speaker of the Church Missionary Society’s annual summer conference, who was unavailable due to illness.
In a recent research paper The Rev Dr Jakob Jocz, Dr Theresa Newell writes: “This was indeed a miraculous deliverance as members of his family died at the hands of the Nazis soon afterwards…” Jakob’s father Bazyli was betrayed to the Gestapo and shot to death.
The family’s story has something of a Fiddler on the Roof2 ring to it. Jakob’s grandfather, Johanan Don, was the local milkman in his shtetl (village) who first encountered the good news of Jesus when seeking medical help for his teenage daughter Hannah (Jakob’s mother) who had been crippled in a fall.
The doctor was a Jewish believer and gave Johanan a Hebrew New Testament. He subsequently became a disciple, but died soon afterwards.
In order to make ends meet, his widow Sarah took in a boarder, a young rabbinic student named Bazyli Jocz. When he read Isaiah 53, he asked his teacher, ‘Who is the prophet speaking about?’ It was of course a situation very reminiscent of the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion in the Book of Acts (chapter 8). But the teacher was no evangelist, instead hitting him over the head and calling him a ‘detestable Gentile’ for asking such a ‘foolish’ question.
Bazyli was shocked, but undeterred, and after consulting the same doctor who had pointed Johanan in the right direction, he too became a believer.
He duly married Hannah, and Jakob was born in 1906. He became a noted evangelist and theologian whose writings represent a rich legacy of inspiration and encouragement for Christians – all called to preach the gospel to Jews.
As the Third Reich stormed across Europe, he wrote a booklet appealing to churches to speak out against the persecution of his people. As an Anglican bishop pointed out in the foreword, “he rightly calls attention to apathy in the church on the subject of missionary effort amongst the Jews.”
Indeed, he challenged the church to become ‘missional’ as its raison d’etre and to remember the call in that mission is “to the Jew first” (Romans 1.16).
If the church has no gospel for the Jews, he believed, it has no gospel for the world. He had total confidence in the authority of Scripture and stood on the premise that “loyalty to Jesus Christ is the ultimate test of the disciple,” adding: “Commitment to Jesus Christ makes universalism (the idea that all roads lead to God) impossible.”
He was highly critical of Rabbinic Judaism, lamenting that “making Torah into a religion robbed it of life” and saying that the removal of the sacrificial system (following the destruction of the Temple in AD 70) without their acceptance of the “once and for all times sacrifice” of Jesus led Judaism to a preoccupation with the study of the law. The irony of this, of course, is that the law was anchored in the fact that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin”. (Leviticus 17.11)
One of his theses was that the early church was much closer to the Old Testament than Rabbinic Judaism is today. And he advocated Jewish believers to fulfil the prophetic call to take the gospel to all nations.
Jakob certainly practiced what he preached. It is estimated that, through outreach efforts like his, there were as many as 100,000 Jewish believers in Yeshua by the time war broke out in 1939, many of whom would no doubt have shared the fate of their brethren in the concentration camps but who would also no doubt have shared the life-giving gospel of their Saviour.3
- The Rev Dr Jakob Jocz (Olive Press Research Paper – obtainable from email@example.com) by Dr Theresa Newell, to whom I am greatly indebted for the basis of this article.
- The musical about Jewish survival amidst the oppression of early 20th century Tsarist Russia starring a poor milkman famously played by Topol.
- Peace in Jerusalem (olivepresspublisher.com) by Charles Gardner, p28