I had originally intended to return to the US and give a sermon on it, but I couldn’t. I would not have been able to hold back the tears.
I’m referring to my visit to Auchwitz, one of the worst of the Nazi death camps where six million Jews died. An estimated 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, most of them Jews. Men, women and children.
Most memorable in my mind was all the pony-tails cut off the heads of little girls. They were stacked up high behind a see-through glass wall. This was the hair of young female victims. All I could think about was my four young grand daughters! Auschwitz is set in a peaceful rural setting – what happened there could happen anywhere. I had had the same thought when visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, which reminded me of where my grandparents lived.
Auschwitz is the stuff of nightmares. At the arrival point, where families had to get out of box-cars and were immediately sorted into those who would live and those who were assigned to immediate annihilation, I felt their hopelessness. There would have been no opportunity to say good-bye to loved ones, none at all. People were treated like animals.
The gas chamber was particularly horrific. I stood under one of the vents through which came Zyklon B, the poisonous gas that quickly killed its victims. In an adjacent room we saw where the corpses were first taken – to remove gold from teeth and cut off hair that could be made into rope or wigs for fashionable ladies. The people who did all the work were inmates, forced to work on fellow inmates who had been selected to die. Bones were boiled and made into soap.
The dormitories left an indelible impression on my mind. Bunk beds were stacked to the ceiling. There were three levels and, I believe, nine people slept to a bed. Everybody would rush to get in the dormitory when bed-time came. If you could get to the top level, there was fresh air coming through a gap between the wall and the roof. Also, at the top, you would avoid human waste falling through the slats onto you during the night. Because the diet was so poor, concentration camp victims had permanent diarrhea. They could not use toilet facilities, such as they were, during the night and simply lay there relieving themselves onto those below. How could one forget such an image?
Today is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops. When they arrived they found 7,000 survivors, all ill or starving. In the West, we tend only to remember what our nations did in World War II. We fail to appreciate that it was the Russians who contributed the most to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Russia (the USSR) lost twenty million people. They were the first to get to Auschwitz and, a few weeks later, to Berlin, where Hitler had committed suicide rather than face a trial for war crimes that included the camps.
The cool and calculated way in which the Nazis selected Auschwitz as their biggest concentration camp is chilling. Auschwitz is close to Krakow, Poland, at the very heart of Europe. Trains from all over the continent could easily get there, bringing Jewish victims in their tens of thousands.
A tour of the Jewish quarter in Krakow is a suitable accompaniment to the day in Auschwitz. At one time the quarter was thriving. Now only thirty Jews congregate in the one remaining synagogue that is still used. Jews started moving to Krakow when they were expelled en masse from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. In the same year that Christopher Columbus was sent to discover the New World, the king and queen decided they wanted their country to be free of Jews. 450 years later, Hitler wanted the same thing for Europe.
I asked our tour guide in Krakow why people hated the Jews so much. His reply was that “the Jews are different. They go to church on Saturday, we Poles go on Sunday.” In other words, they were persecuted for keeping the seventh day Sabbath. Poles, like other conquered Europeans, co-operated with the Nazis when it came to handing over Jews. Some helped the Jews, but most people were too afraid.
James Carroll, a former priest in the Roman Catholic Church, traces anti-semitism back to the church, which always blamed the Jews for killing Christ. His book (also a DVD) is called Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews – a History. He did not set out to blame his own church for the holocaust but his book shows the historical connection. When Hitler visited Cologne Cathedral prior to World War II, he told the Archbishop that all he was doing was finishing the work the Catholic Church had started.
Sadly, anti-semitism is once again on the rise. Last year, almost 7,000 Jews left France for Israel. In Britain, a recent survey showed Jews are increasingly afraid to live there. The biggest single factor in anti-semitism is Europe’s rising Muslim population. France has 500,000 Jews, the biggest number in Europe; the Muslim population is ten times that, at five million. There have been a number of attacks on Jewish targets in recent years, the latest being the terror attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris last month. Anti-semitism did not begin with the Nazis and it didn’t end with the fall of the Third Reich, either.
Why did God allow it to happen? This is the question most often asked. To me, the answer is quite simple – man rejected God. Men do not want to obey the Laws of God. So they reap the consequences of disobedience, including the Holocaust. Auschwitz is a sobering reminder to pray fervently “Thy Kingdom Come” (Matt 6:10).
If you can ever go to Poland, be sure to visit Krakow and Auschwitz. One is a well-preserved medieval city, the other a constant reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.
Everybody should go to Auschwitz. Everybody. If they don’t, it could happen again.