AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU a reflection by Bryan Owen Every article I read about the concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau seems to begin with the belief that ‘no birds sing at Auschwitz’.Whether it’s true or not I can’t say but I can assure you that in the midst of all that desolation you can hear the sound of grown men crying.
And if you stand quietly and listen very carefully, if you allow your own humanity and natural compassion to surface, you can hear the screams of those who were beaten or hanged, of those who were starved to death or who were shot. And you can hear the screams of men, women and children as white pellets containing hydrogen cyanide – the infamous Zyklon B - were thrown down into the imitation shower rooms by SS guards standing on the roof. Those closest to the holes in the roof died instantly. During the twenty minutes it took for all the others to die – several hundred at a time – you could hear them recite Judaism’s holiest prayer, the Shema: ‘(Shema y’Israel, Adonai elohenu, Adonai Ehad - Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God! The LORD is One!’
UN Holocaust Memorial Day The Holocaust was, of course, the greatest genocide of all when some 6 million Jews were murdered in extermination camps across Nazi-occupied Europe. The largest of those camps was Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 27th January as Holocaust Memorial Day so that we might not just remember the evils of the Nazi regime but of all the genocides that have continued since then and are still going on today.
The theme for 2008 was ‘Imagine… Remember, Reflect, React’.
It’s a theme that challenges us all to imagine the unimaginable. It asks us to focus on the lives and experience not only of the victims of genocide but also the survivors both of Nazi persecution and of all the other genocides we know about. For so many people around the world there is so much darkness and so very little light.
I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau with a friend because we are both concerned about the ‘big questions’ of life and existence... the questions to which there are no easy answers. We wanted to see for ourselves this place of such dreadful horror and depravity.
Not so long ago I spent a day at the Louvre in Paris, that wonderfully elegant art gallery that contains Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and so many other beautiful paintings and sculptures representing human achievements and aspirations at their highest, at their most creative and innovative. In Glasgow where I live I often go to the Royal Concert Hall to listen to beautiful music – the symphonies and chorales and concerti that, too, represent all that is the best in human endeavour. Through all the creative arts our minds are expanded, our values challenged and our spirits are lifted up.
But then in Poland on a cold January day I saw for myself, as others have seen before me, our human culture at its lowest, at its most cruel, at its most degrading.
I walked under the cynical sign that read ‘Arbeit macht frei – Work sets you free’. The only way work set anyone free at Auschwitz was through death and death would come from overwork, malnutrition, beatings and disease. Every prisoner was expendable and could easily be replaced. Three months was the longest anyone could expect to survive.
I knelt at the Wall of Death in the yard outside the infamous Block 11 – the camp’s internal gaol and punishment block - where thousands of mostly Polish officers, soldiers and civilians were shot in the back of the head.
I walked on the ‘Judenramp’ – the platform between the railway tracks at Birkenau 3km away where the trains came in with a thousand Jews at a time. They were offloaded after three or four or even up to fourteen hellish days locked in freezing and unsanitary wagons. Immediately families were violently separated: men on one side... the elderly and women and children on the other. SS doctors would cursorily check those deemed ‘fit to work’ – about 15-20% of each trainload. The rest were marched off to the four gas chambers at the rear of the camp and executed.
I stood in one of the gas chambers, a tight claustrophobic concrete space where thousands of men, women and children died crying for mercy. They had committed no crime. They were murdered simply because they were Jews... Jews like Jesus... the carpenter from Nazareth whose teachings had so formed the Europe in which this was happening.
Reflection One of the big questions Christians are asked by atheists and humanists is this: ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’
How can there be a God of love when people suffer so much? Didn’t those Jews and Poles and Russians and gypsies and homosexuals and handicapped people and political prisoners all cry out to God for mercy... for freedom from starvation and torture and arbitrary murder? If God exists why didn’t God hear their prayers?
If there IS a God, they say, why is that God is so weak, so helpless, so remote, in the face of such evil? Why didn’t God DO something?
The same questions are asked even now. Didn’t the frightened people seeking sanctuary in the church in Eldoret in Kenya cry to God for mercy as their church was burned down by marauding youths outside? Didn’t the people pray as they tried to run for their lives as those same youths with machetes in hand cut down those who tried to flee? Weren’t the same prayers offered in years past in Rwanda or Cambodia or the Soviet Union or the Balkans or in the gaols of Latin America?
Christians can argue about God giving us free will and Christians can argue that God hung upon a cross in the person of Jesus. But do such answers cut any ice with those incarcerated in the punishment blocks and torture chambers of the world?
There is another question that needs to be asked, of course, and this is one that atheists need to ponder: ‘Where was man at Auschwitz?’
That is the question I ask in my poem ‘Murder in Eldoret’ about the racial killings taking place in Kenya after the rigged elections at the end of December 2007. Where was human decency, where was human compassion, where was our humanity on the Judenramp or in the punishment cells in Block 11 or in places such as Block 10 where dreadful experiments were held on non-Aryan women to find the quickest way of making them sterile?
These and other tough questions have puzzled me for so many years. I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau hoping the experience would help me towards finding some answers that make at least some sense. I don’t think I found them. I did find points of light that shone in the hellish darkness of that Polish plain. There are many, many stories of individual and group acts of kindness. That was how thousands of prisoners reacted – by forming themselves into groups, by emphasising their own humanity, by exercising compassion in small ways among themselves.
In one of the punishment cells in Block 11 there is a crucifix carved on the cell wall by a Polish officer before he was taken out and shot... he was one of those who kept his religious faith despite it all.
And the story we know so well is the one of Fr Maximillian Kolbe. He was arrested because he had sheltered over 2,000 Jews in his Franciscan friary. One day he volunteered to take the place of a man with a family who had been condemned to die in the starvation cell. The SS officer agreed. During the three weeks it took for him to die he ministered to everyone in the cells of Block 11 whoever they were. The man whose place he took survived the war to tell the tale.
So maybe God was there in the hearts of those who held to their faith and maybe God was there in the many acts and words of compassion prisoners offered to one another - some of which we know about but most of which will never be recorded and will never ever be known.
But constantly we have to remember that Auschwitz-Birkenau is not unique and neither were the Nazis. The communist regimes in the Soviet Union, Albania and China executed without compassion those who were deemed to be counter-revolutionary or bourgeois. Millions died in the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Today, members of the Janjaweed militias in Darfur rape and kill at will despite UN and African Union intervention. In the 1990s members of the Interahamwe militias in Rwanda massacred local Tutsis. Such suffering continues in Afghanistan and Iraq and in Palestine... the land where Jesus the carpenter was also executed even though he never committed a crime either.
Even the Western powers succumb to bending morality when it’s in their interest - remember those held without trial in Guantanamo Bay, and those who have been sent by the Americans for ‘aggressive interrogation’ (their euphemism for torture) to third countries whose laws are less restrictive than those in the United States. Special rendition is not something to be proud of.
But the United Nations asks us to remember and reflect... but to avoid sinking into despondency we also have to react...
Each one of us has to DO something ourselves in the countries where we live. It may well take the form of resisting or challenging racial prejudice or tabloid xenophobia or the stereotyping of people because of the colour of their skin or their religion or their sexuality or their looks or their social class. It may well involve pressurising our elected representatives to take a more moral stance in world affairs. Curtailing or compromising our own freedoms in the name of freedom simply cannot hold. We must resist any Western government that seeks to impose more and more draconian restrictions on our liberty to speak, believe, question or oppose those in power.
Martin Luther King, when fighting for the dignity and freedom of Afro-American people, made this perceptive remark: ‘In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.’
How can we, then, remain silent in the face of injustice and hunger and fear and suffering wherever it occurs in our world? How can we?
Murder in Eldoret
They had crowded into the tiny church for a day and a night - two hundred souls seeking sanctuary - the crowd outside chanting war songs, yelling and screaming, pangas in hand, murder lust in their tearless fearful eyes.
Flames licked around the door. Mattresses soaked in sin were pushed through windows and set alight. No candles there. Dirty black smoke billowed around the altar like some devil’s unholy incense rising from all that is hell in man’s fear of man.
Some children escaped only to be thrown back like some wretched sacks into the dying flames by men who knew their names. Did God hear their terrible terrified screams? Where was God in Eldoret?
But there is a sharper, harsher question each of us needs to ask: for where on Earth was Man?
Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
I stood in the dead grey, concrete grey, lightless, lifeless room. Others had once stood where I was standing now, beaten and bruised and obscenely naked, shivering with fear and blue-veined cold, waiting for the shower of water that would never come.
I stood where they had stood yet not where they had stood for I was clothed and not afraid.
Yet in the entombing grievous darkness of this concrete monument to the fall of man and the betrayal of humanity’s grace I was afraid after all – for then I knew the day is coming when these sorrows will return.
Truth be told, such terrors continue even now but in lands so far away we choose not to know.
Instead we fill our thoughts, our lives, our living days, with shallow pleasures and dreams of no consequence. That’s the way we keep the nightmares at bay.
I stood in the silence. ‘No photos, please,’ said the guide. ‘Remember what happened in this place and those who died.’
The heavy sad doors shut out the light of those once-enlightened days and in the suffocating, cloying darkness all the terrified people could hear was a grating sound above and the pellets of poison being dropped by young men whose lovers and mothers knew not what they did and never would.
And in the silence of that godly godless place I heard the ghosts of Abraham’s seed cry out for justice but justice there is none and all that remained in the still lifeless air were the dying echoes of men and women screaming in bitter, betrayed anguish to Abraham’s God:
Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And as the last accusing cry died away it was done.