I concede that I write this post out of selfish necessity. A week has gone by since I visited Auschwitz and I need this output to fully digest the horror. I write this blog with the heaviest of hearts. I warn you it is not for the faint or sensitive.
Why visit Auschwitz?
I was invited alongside twelve other Ministers in Wales to attend the European (Christian) Leaders Forum in Poland with a view to setting up a “network” in Wales.
I will write again about the Forum, so I will just say that it was a wonderful learning experience; we lived like Kings for a week, all thanks to the generosity of the American backers. We are all very grateful to them.
The forum was just two hour’s drive away from Auschwitz, so before the conference started we all went.
I knew that I ‘should’ go as it was on our doorstep, but in truth I was dreading it. Being away from home is hard enough, especially for a week of study that convicts the soul. Did I need to start the week on such a low?
When we arrived outside Auschwitz (I), it was a bit like a theme park, coaches and buses filled the car park with hundreds of people queuing outside the gates. The mood was oddly jovial and it lifted my spirits. This turned into a cruelty that allowed me to fall from a higher peak when I walked through the gates and was exposed to the horrors.
Our group pre-arranged a tour guide who took us through the entrance gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei” written in the iron arch (I will come back to this later). Jewish captives would walkout under this gate each morning to the sound of an orchestra, as they began their day of hard labour.
We visited various buildings of significance throughout the camp, where the Nazi’s used to house and work the Jews and POW. We saw the firing wall where they shot women, this was next door to their dorms (notice the blacked out windows so nobody could see ). We saw the offices of the Nazi generals with Hitler’s picture still hung on the wall, the “courts” (a paradox in themselves), the gas chamber and furnaces (to burn the bodies) and Rudolf Hoess’ house, where he lived with his wife and children in perfect luxury next door to the torture.
As you can imagine the camp was well enforced with imposing wooden turrets, barbed wire electrified fences and large bleak concrete walls.
We were then taken through various displays that evidenced the atrocities. This is where I broke down.
Amidst a room of hair taken from the prisoners (estimates of about 50,000 scalps) I saw the blond plats of a young girl, she could have been no older than my daughter and it suddenly became personal. Tears running down my face we went on to see piles of glasses once used to read poetry and love letters, pots and pans used to share a family meal, and stacks of tins containing Zyklon B (the killer gas). There were photographs of deformed and starving people experimented on in the name of “science and progression” and various other logistical and bureaucratic records, showing how far these poor people were shipped in from.
The tour guide was very clear in regards to the evidence throughout. She stated the factual and told us with great honesty what was assumed knowledge. There was clearly a belief that some would doubt the horror (or the level of it), so the information was presented candidly for us to understand for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.
We went back to our coach, our heads face down and in silence.
We took the short drive to Auschwitz (II) Birkenau. I did not think it could get any worse…..I was wrong.
In the middle of nowhere you are greeted by an imposing tower of the camp entrance where cattle trains drove people, human beings, in like cargo.
Nothing could prepare me for the size of the compound. It was huge!
All that is left of most of the buildings that housed the Jews are the superfluous chimneys either end of what was a wooden structure. These lifeless towers of despair stretched in their hundreds all the way to the trees on the horizon, on either side of the track. The camp was surrounded by viewing posts and electric barbed wire fences.
The original Jewish arrivals were re-homed in these buildings. The conditions were awful but at first there was some provision for them. These first families were welcomed and told it was a short term arrangement during the war effort.
This “testing period” was not a gracious one, but callously conjured for PR purposes. These unsuspecting souls, men women and children, once accommodated for, were told that they could write postcards home welcoming their friends and relatives to come and join them with nothing to fear but hard work… they did write, and they did come, by the hundreds of thousands.
Many people died on the journey. They were crammed into a carriage like cattle from all over Europe enduring extreme temperatures and suffocation.
On arrival Men got off the train and were placed on one side of the platform and the women and children on the other. They were greeted by POW in striped pyjamas who took their belongings off them “for the time being”.
The men walked up the platform ramp on one side and met Nazi doctors who chose (at most) eighty from every five hundred, fit enough to work, the rest were sent to the “showers” to get “cleaned up”, along with the women and children on the other side of the platform. They were all stripped, and sent into the “showers” under false pretenses and were gassed to death.
The deceased would then be taken from the chamber by the Jewish prisoners, often numbering some of the eighty men and boys “saved” from their party earlier.
During the murder of their kin those deemed healthy enough, had been marched down to collect their striped uniform and immediately sent to work, their first task was to be reunited with their family (whom moments before they had left on the platform alive) and now had to endure pulling out the gold teeth from their lifeless bodies and then drag them into the incinerator.
At peak times, it would take just thirty minutes for people to be turned into dust, from landing onto the platform to the incinerator. Jewish slaves would then spread the ashes on the surrounding fields as fertiliser.
The ‘surviving’ slaves lived in extreme conditions, with little food, no fuel, poor facilities and thin clothing, in a punishingly cold environment. Among their many tasks was to conduct the extermination of their own and destroy the evidence. They themselves had a life expectancy of about two weeks, before being subject to the same fate; killing eye witnesses meant that nobody could speak of the horror afterwards.
When the war turned against Hitler, the Nazi’s began to destroy the evidence, the gas chambers now sit as rubble.
This was clearly not a normal historic tour, it was grim with an air of evil and I am grateful to God that I experienced it with some of the wisest and loving men I know. We spent the week in deep philosophical debate trying to come to terms with what we had seen.
I could hear many comment on the “business-like” process of the camp; it was a production line of death. But it was far more than that. If this killing was just a business, it would have been deemed insufficient to transport two Jewish people all the way from the Channel Islands to die in this camp. The expense and resource required to achieve this slaughter when fighting battles on both fronts was unwise and probably contributed to the Nazi demise. No, this was beyond the coldness of business, it was beyond the evil of war, the force driving this “extermination” was of biblical proportions, it was a glimpse of the Horrors of Hell.
Now I know some would say, “how could twelve Ministers, who preach a God of love, take Him seriously after visiting such a place of evil?” I do answer such a question in a previous blog which I hope is helpful (Why does God allow evil – an answer to Stephen Fry). All I would like to say at this point, is if we went with the alternative world view and denied God’s existence, Auschwitz still happened.
Without God, we are in a meaningless universe of chance, where according to Darwinism the best equipped species survive and at this time and place in History, it was the Nazi’s. The Nazi’s had the power to commit these atrocities, so in a godless world view, the question of immorality should not even be considered, these events should simply be regarded in much the same way as natural history. It was one natural force outbidding another for the success of their “selfish gene”. But as we all know such a viewpoint is utter nonsense.
We know at our core that what happened at Auschwitz is wrong, we know that the victims of such crimes, have souls of unlimited value and this is why we all (even alleged atheists) mourn this tragedy as we do. Because human beings are more than randomly evolved proteins, we are body and soul, we are all transcendent image bearers of God with a propensity to love. So we are upset when we see such suffering and injustice.
My fear is that in our modern western world that continues to reject the God of love, where churches are closing and our popular scientists are fast becoming society’s demigods, driving philosophical thought outside of their remit, the very same thing will happen again in our culture in the name of “science” and “progress”. There is already signs of such dehumanization in our society in regards to the less fortunate, or refugees. We see the very same narratives being used today by politicians that Hitler used initially to gain power.
On that train platform at Birkenau you had the brutality of ‘natural selection’ in action, those fit enough to work survived, those without such desired attributes could no longer exist.
Without God, at best we are dying in a world run (at the moment) by an evolved ape driven by an amoral natural force of greed, lust and pride, for no reason or purpose.
Without God we live in a world where the horrors of Auschwitz happened and will continue to happen and as living accidents of time+matter+chance you have no rational way to explain why it terrifies you, or why you know it was wrong, because there is no such thing as ‘wrong’ in a meaningless (Godless) universe.
However, with God, there is meaning and purpose, a higher morality which can condemn and protect us from such horror and give us hope amidst the trial.
Like God, guilt cannot be seen touched or measured, but it is very real, guilt is the ‘call to action’ for the soul and guilt lead these Nazi’s to run and hide, just like Adam and Eve hid in the garden.
It is this uniquely human property of morality (that we all share as God’s image bearers) that drove the Nazi’s to demolish the camp and destroy the evidence in a bid to evade justice – they knew what they were doing was wrong!
It is this ‘meaning’ or ‘conscience’ that convicted me to tears whilst walking through the camp. I was reminded of my own capacity to have done the very same evil (Matt 5:22). In my weakness I was once intolerant, at my lowest I sought strength in hate, until I met Jesus who told me “blessed are the meek”(Matthew 5:5) and showed me that strength comes as a servant (Philippians 2:7).
Later investigations proved that there was nothing unique (genetically or psychologically) about the Nazi’s behind the atrocities. They loved their families just like us, they enjoyed relationships just like us, they ate and drank just like us and just like us they had a vein of evil at their very core.
The Bible gives the best explanation for this phenomenon in the account of the “fall”, that caused the total depravity of mankind (Romans 3:10). Our capacity to love is matched with a capacity to “sin”, we are all driven by pride, greed and lust – the fuel of hate! We are all in some way guilty of such evil and this means that we all need a Saviour. Jesus Christ.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts this innate sickness of man perfectly in his book about the Soviet forced labor camp system, The Gulag Archipelago.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
This sickness is in us all, the cure is Jesus Christ.
What struck me most was how so many were lead to their death in utter compliance. Over 1.3 million people (Jews, Gypsy’s, Poles and POW) were murdered in Auschwitz by just 7,000 SS troops during this period.
Why did they not revolt in great number? If a cruel death was a certainty, the electric fence or being shot in the back would surely have been a mercy that could have allowed others to escape?
Perhaps the dehumanisation got to the Jews themselves, as they were tasked with the barbarianism of sorting through the valuables of their beloved deceased. Did they begin to think that they were not worth saving? That their lives were not worth fighting for?
Or perhaps many of them did not even know that they needed saving? To them this cruelty was short term and relative. Many were grateful for the housing during the war effort, it was no better in the ghettos they had been brought from, perhaps they just thought they should keep their heads down and get on with it?
You will remember from earlier I spoke of the words arching over the entrance of this epicenter of utter evil “Arbeit macht frei”. This translates to “Work will set you free”.
Perhaps the captives genuinely believed this. Each day they bravely battled through their arduous existence, cold and hungry, along with everyone else, not knowing the inevitable cruelty that awaited them.
Is this reasoning not metaphor for today’s culture?
Millions of our kin arduously work through life, not knowing the judgement that awaits them in eternity. Our cultures demigods tell them that there is no God, that you are just evolved accidents here by chance and that your value is defined by your ability to work, you are told each morning as you hit the grind by a televised orchestra of media and advertising that “work will set you free”. “Be slaves to commodity and know happiness,” yet all remain hungry and nobody rebels because all are bought into the lie. It is death by compliance.
It is poignant to note that at a place of most extreme evil, you are welcomed with the anthem of this cursed world “Arbeit macht frei” (work will set you free). The very opposite of the heart of Gospel message that proclaims “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
Heaven’s gates read “you have been saved not by works – but by the blood of the lamb!”
Such evil that I passively experienced and the emotions it conjured reaffirms to me the reality of the Biblical narrative. We are truly in a cursed world and mans propensity for evil is great. Never have I been more inspired to preach the love of God, for only in the Gospel do we have a saviour who chose to come low and suffered the trial and injustice that these Jewish people knew. He can sympathise with their weakness and His grace is sufficient, for He tasted such brutality on His own lips!
Only in the Gospel do we have meaning in trial and hope amidst the reality of such evil. The gospel that says “love thy enemy” is our best weapon against such hate!
In the gift shop I bought the below postcard, a picture of Christ on the Cross scraped into the wall of cell 21.
I wrote on its back the words of John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it”.
“To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be praise and honour and glory and power forever and ever.” Revelation 5:12