I have been traveling on sabbatical in Central and Eastern Europe. This journey has taken me to Prague, Berlin, Warsaw and Cracow. Today I visited for the first time Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps outside of Cracow, Poland. I have been previously to other camps in Germany but Auschwitz is the largest death camp, and its iconic status in terms of the scope of Nazi killing compelled me to visit.
As I traversed these two camps located near each other, a verse from the Psalms came to mind:
“What is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:4-8)
What happened to humanity? The unchecked cruelty. The silence of the world. I asked the question that everyone asks themselves after visiting this horrible place: Why?
We know how the Nazi SS created two camps that murdered over a million Jews, in addition to Poles and Gypsies and Soviet prisoners, amongst others.
Yes, there were heroes, such as the famous Polish priest number 16670, Maximillian Kolbe, who gave his life to save his parishioners in Auschwitz. The stories of Jews who risked their lives to save others have been recorded in personal accounts from survivors. People like the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, who wrote “Survivor in Auschwitz,” provided us with firsthand accounts about many stories of martyrdom.
No matter what I read, the same question remains. Why? If there is any place where God could shed tears for the victims of death camps it was in Auschwitz, and in all the other hundreds of camps in the Nazi empire.
I felt the moral outrage well up in my stomach and the incomprehensible sadness press against my heart.
Even though the Psalmist said that God created us with such hope for our potential to make holiness exist in this world, Auschwitz revealed the failure of humankind. It shows how we could profane everything God created that was good in this world. Still all I am left with is: Why?
I walk through Auschwitz-Birkenau and see the remnants of a city of the dead. I see the broken fragments of destroyed gas chambers, the crematorium and the infamous railroad tracks that cattle cars from all over Europe packed with frightened and exhausted people entered into the middle of the camp where the Nazis made the selection of who shall live and who shall die.
It is simply unfathomable to us in America that such atrocities could happen. Yet, despite the crackpots who say that the Holocaust did not happen, the proof is self-evident. The tour leads us to exhibits of Nazi-collected human hair, children’s shoes, suitcases and eye glasses that once belonged to victims of Nazi brutality. Again I ask: Why?
Sadly, I cannot answer the “why” question, yet, I can affirm that memory matters.
Everyone who visits this concentration-death camp, no matter who they are or what religion they have, understands that they can never forget a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They know that we all have a mission to bear witness to these broken fragments of evil in a world that not long ago thrived on and fed off of pure hatred, not only against Jews but of other peoples who fell into the grips of the SS killing machine.
Children separated from their parents, never to see them again, and vice versa. Husbands and wives separated, mothers and fathers taken away and immediately upon arrival gassed and incinerated. The smoke rises straight up from the chimneys into the skies. Why?
It is absolutely critical that visitors from all over the world come here and experience Auschwitz-Birkenau.
To enter this world is to realize a place and a time devoid of compassion and conscience. We must never forget this history because genocide has happened since then and, I fear, it will happen again.
We must remember and do what we can to be vigilant, confronting hate-speech everywhere and anywhere.
It began in the heart of Adolf Hitler and spread throughout Germany and to the rest of Europe. If it can happen anywhere, are we prepared to bear the consequences again? Is that what God taught us to do? Is that what we want for our children and grandchildren? Never again.