Friday, 27 January 2017

How can life go on? Reflections for HMD 2017

Personal reflections following a first visit to Auschwitz in January 2017

Archbishop Justin Welby at Birkenau, January 2017
Two weeks ago I flew out of Cracow having been in Poland visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time. It was my first visit to Auschwitz and I was there as part of a group of Anglican clergy led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

That question: ‘how can life go on?’ is addressed to all humanity. The implications of the question are huge. How can life go on in the face of crimes against humanity, genocide and pernicious, virulent anti-Semitism? How can life go on after the Nazi’s brutal, systematic attempt at exterminating a whole people?

But I want briefly to give a very personal, rather unformed response in the wake of my visit to Auschwitz.

I have woken today with a heavy heart and, as I knelt to say my prayers this morning, tears that filled my eyes, just as when I was there, remembering that this day marks the ‘liberation’ of Auschwitz.

Those tears were prompted as I walked around Auschwitz 1 and the site of beatings, hangings, shootings, starvation, torture, gassing and sadistic brutality.

Those tears were prompted as I stood by the railway line at Auschwitz 2, Birkenau, where families - men, women and children - were separated and sent to die by gas or by hard labour, starvation or random acts of malice.

The railway at Birkenau and 'Death Gate'
I stood there considering what would happen if I and my family had been taken there: would I be judged fit to work? What of my fit, sporty 17 year son? Would he be assigned to the Sonderkommando to the work of removing bodies from the gas chamber and putting them in the crematorium, after extracting gold teeth and cutting off women’s hair? What of my skinny 14 year old son, the right age to be spared the gas but would he be judged strong enough? What of my 12 year old son, could he be passed off as 14 and thus not go straight to the gas chamber? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What of my 8 year old daughter? What of my wife? The chances they would live beyond their first day at Birkenau would be limited, and I would never see them again and not be able to say goodbye. How can life go on?

The entrance to Auschwitz 1 - 'Works Makes Free'
Images and thoughts assaulted me throughout my visit. I know others in my group were

struck by the same things as me: walking under the Arbeit Macht Frei gates; through the death gate at Birkenau; the close proximity of the Camp Kommandant’s house where he lived a normal family life next to his murderous day job and where he was hanged after the war because of his crimes.

And there were other images that will stay with me. Being January there was snow on the ground and the landscape looked beautiful and innocent as snow does. But the dissonance between the beauty of the snow and the sunsets over Birkenau with what happened there was acute.

I was astonished not to see any walls, but just thin strands of barbed wire meaning that the prisoners could see out and the locals see in. I was revolted, almost physically, to learn more about the programmatic degradation of human beings so that they felt disgusting to one another and to themselves. I simply stood in silence by the pits into which the ashes of the dead were dumped, and where they still remain. How can life go on?

But life did go on for some. And, thanks be to God, the Jewish people were not eradicated, but are here and contribute to the diversity of society and our world.

The liberation of Auschwitz came 72 years ago tomorrow.

What sort of liberation was it? Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s accounts as survivors of Auschwitz remind us that the liberation for them was not a joyous time for a party like VE Day 1945 here. Rather, it initially meant being force marched in appalling weather to other camps.

But following the end of the war and the uncovering of all that the Holocaust was, the question ‘how can life go on?’ is a haunting one. Perhaps after my visit my first response is that it does: life does go on.

One of the great contributions of the Jewish tradition to humanity is the priority of life. One of the great sayings of wisdom in the Jewish tradition, if not a direct quote from the Scriptures, is the toast ‘l’chaim’, which means, so I am reliably informed, ‘to life’ or ‘for life’.

Life goes on but never to be the same.

With the Archbishop and fellow clergy we reflected on deep and painful themes such as the Church’s relationship with God’s ancient people the Jews; deeply aware given where we were, of the inglorious part played by the Christian churches in fostering antisemitism in Europe over centuries and the almost total silence of the Church in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power.

How does life go on? It goes on in never letting the memory of Auschwitz fade or be denied. Life goes on in all the times we speak out about genocide, in all places where it happens. Life goes on in an uncertain world if we can name and expose anything which snuffs out life, or fosters hatred and death, for example, where people are identified in groups as somehow less than the ideal or norm, whether based on their faith, ethnicity, sexuality, gender or physical abilities.

Returning from Auschwitz my life does go on, but never to be the same again.

 © Andrew Bishop 2017

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