Auschwitz, 60 years on

30 January 2005 at :00 am

Sermon for Eucharist, 30 January 2005

by the Reverend Chris Chivers, Minor Canon and Precentor

Auschwitz, 60 years on

In the summer of 1993, having spent ten glorious days in Prague, I caught a train to Cracow in Poland. The focus for my stay was, not, however, Cracow itself but a marginal town a few kilometres towards the outskirts of the city. This town – which Poles call Oswiecim – is reached by a somewhat rickety old bus on a journey which takes forty minutes to an hour. The journey ends at a place better known to us by its German name, Auschwitz.

For visitors to Auschwitz the bus first stops where the train stopped for the one million Jews who were exterminated there: before a watch-tower, now an icon of all that was worst and most evil about the last century. Stretching far into the distance from this tower is a railway track which signalled the end of the line – in all senses – for those who had been herded into the cattle trucks which arrived there. The birds – so they say – never sing in Auschwitz. And this is true. For as visitors wander around this part of the camp – called Birkenau – passing through barrack-blocks which still contain poignant, crumbling pictures of camp life, painted by the prisoners themselves, an eerie, oppressive silence surrounds them.

Returning to the bus the next stop is the main camp itself where a visitor’s arrival is heralded by perhaps the sickest joke in human history, the simple German phrase, ‘Arbeit macht frei’ – ‘work makes you free’ – emblazoned above wrought-iron gates.

Passing through the gates, and normally greeted by an Auschwitz survivor – there are fewer of them of course these days – who soon reveals the number branded on her left wrist, visitors are shown perhaps the most harrowing evidence of human depravity to be seen anywhere in the world. A room filled with shoes leads onto others of human hair, teeth, and suitcases – one pathetically small one bearing the name of Maria Frank, Ann’s little sister. The tour ends with a visit to a gas chamber after which visitors are left to roam around the camp for themselves. By this time I was feeling so sick that all I could do was to stumble towards a pile of rubble in the hope that near it there would be somewhere simply to sit down. A Chinese American must have felt much the same for he ended up next to me. When we were beginning to regain our composure, quite by chance we turned towards the pile of rubble behind us and began to read the sign placed next to it. This informed us that we were in fact sitting next to one of the ovens in which bodies had once been burnt. It lay in ruins because the retreating Nazis had tried to destroy as much evidence of their murderous activities as possible. But the Russian advance was too swift. Hence we were now sitting amidst the evidence which remains. And the realisation that we were surrounded by stones from those once blazing ovens was simply too much for both of us as we broke down in floods of tears, hugging one another. Though we were strangers, what else could we do but cling to each other as we sat on ground from which – like the blood of Abel – the blood of all those million or more victims seemed to be crying out to us?

I have seen, and even lived among, much that is most awful about human suffering – in the slums of Calcutta in India, the shanty-towns of Sao Paula in Brazil, the crowded tenements of East Manchester in this country, and the townships of Cape Town in South Africa – but I have never been so devastated by such suffering and evil as I was that day in Auschwitz.

And ever since I have found the story we heard as our first reading – the endurance and release of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego from the burning fiery furnace [Daniel 3: 13-26] – awfully difficult to stomach. For whenever I read it I cannot escape the memories it evokes of what it felt like to sit next to a tiny pile of rubble which once blazed with the bodies of living children and which – as Elie Wiesel, that great Auschwitz survivor heard for himself – echoed with their terrifying screams. For those children – unlike their three Jewish compatriots in Daniel’s story – did not emerge safely from the flames. Rather they went up in smoke and disappeared in ashes like so many of their fellow Jews.

Nothing shakes my faith in God so much as the thought of all those children. And I find, as a result, that all the comforting words so often uttered by Christian preachers – who seek to address the problem of human suffering especially by reference to the death and resurrection of Christ – have, largely, a hollow, unconvincing ring about them. Is it really possible to say – as the Church so often has – that suffering is the route to glory or that a fiery furnace is somehow a refining thing, that what emerges from the flames is a reshapen, a redeemed humanity? The test for such words must be whether they could actually have been spoken in the presence of those dying children in Auschwitz. And I for one cannot envisage that.

Which is why I cannot now reach up to the shelf of piously hopeful platitudes – so dangerously close for any Christian preacher – and trot-out the usual line that suffering is a glorious and a noble thing and that it will one day lead to resurrection, that the troubled waters of despair will be changed into the wine of the kingdom because, in the face of actual suffering, all that religious language seems somehow outrageously inadequate, especially when it leads, as it too often does, to the suggestion that only in heaven – and not here on earth – will things ever be different.

But which of us can claim to understand or explain the suffering we experience or observe in the lives of our neighbours? I doubt that one of us could truly profess to do so.

We can however – and we must – somehow respond. And this past week, on 27 January, when we marked the Sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on National Holocaust Memorial Day, the immensely moving ceremony in Westminster Hall, which some of you will no doubt have seen on television, offered us, I believe, a way forward. Throughout the commemoration grandchildren of the 600 Holocaust survivors who were there read the names of some 3,000 men and women, all relatives of those survivors, family members who perished in the Holocaust. It was a very moving and symbolic way both to underpin the whole event, and to counter the facelessness that the Nazis so desired for the Jewish People. And, as if to articulate this still further, the commemoration ended with words written on a postcard by a twenty-two year old Jewish electrician, David Berger, as he faced death, trapped in the Wilna Ghetto in Poland, late in 1941. He had addressed the postcard to his girlfriend, Else, and it said simply this: ‘I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger’. We had listened to 3000 names. We ended with but one name, and somehow this reduction in scale to one person, to his act of resistance to evil from within the heart of evil itself, to his attempt to reassert life and human dignity by writing that postcard, really brought home the horror of the whole Holocaust. But it also showed us a way forward. It challenged us to do something, and the following morning, in the post, when I received a book that a rabbi friend had promised earlier in the week to send me, that challenge really hit home. For the book, entitled 60 days for 60 years, contained a postcard invitation to be part of perhaps the largest educational project of its kind in the world, certainly one of the most significant, a project which invites anyone who wants to, to set aside a mere 5 minutes each day for sixty days to read a short chapter of the book – focussing on some aspect of the Holocaust – and to do so in memory of one of its victims. Since Friday morning I have been trying to learn about the Holocaust to remember that there once lived a person named Abrham Wollner, who was from Hungary, and who died in Auschwitz in 1944, aged 58.

And I commend this project* since what more direct, yet imaginative and worthy response could each of us make to the Holocaust’s victims than that we join such a venture to remember, recover, and reverence the image of God in but one human being who perished? For if we can do that, we will surely never thereafter, for instance, be prepared to tolerate the arguments of those who have also been trying to hold centre-stage this past week, and talked so chillingly about immigrants and asylum seekers, refugees and the dispossessed, as if they were merely numbers on a page, statistics, simply part of a quota system. No, the David Bergers and Abrham Wollners of this world were never that. It was the Nazis who wanted to reduce them to data on a spreadsheet. They were God’s children, our neighbours.

I did not begin with a text but allow me end with one from the Book Deuteronomy: ‘Behold, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life’. Amen.

* for details see www.60for60.com

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