Home Articles Spirituality 60th Anniversary

RSS Syndication

Subscribe to my RSS Feed!
feed image


60th Anniversary PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, February 01 2005 19:00
The ringing tones of the cantor crying out the Jewish prayer for the dead carried across the bleak snow-covered grounds. Around him in stark relief were the grim reminders of industrialized murder: barbed-wire fences, huge ovens, railroad tracks. Above the main gate were the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes Free), surely an ironic motto for a death camp. Nothing there made free.

There were tears in the voice of this bearded cantor as he commemorated the dead of Auschwitz. It was testimony to the murder of an estimated one million Jews, along with gypsies, homosexuals, and other branded by the Nazis as deviant. Listening to the prayer sung so eloquently, one could call up in imagination whole families of people put to death, ignominiously, without a shred of mercy.

This ceremony marked the 60th anniversary of the date when advancing Russian troops freed the surviving prisoners from captivity in Auschwitz. For the occasion, many survivors had come there, those who had long ago managed to escape death at the hands of their military murderers.

World leaders were there too, as was Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of this death camp and later Buchenwald. In his speech, Professor Wiesel appealed to his listeners, especially younger people, never to forget the event being commemorated.

"My good friends,” he said in fractured English, “if you after this day will be the same, then we have lost. An encounter with this memory, which now you are the custodians of, must do something to you and through the whole world."

He was right to say this because the holocaust has a spiritual significance that should never be forgotten. This mass murder, carried out with all the machinery of an efficient modern state, reminds us of the evil that so often lurks within the human heart.

This is how revelations about the Nazi death camps first struck me. As a teenager during World War II, I had no idea that Jews were being persecuted for their religious and ethic identity. Like most other Americans, I lived unaware of the mass murders organized and carried out by the National Socialist machine in Germany.

When the atrocities became known, I felt shock that has stayed with me over the intervening decades. In fact, this knowledge became part of my spiritual life then and now. Among other things, this evil showed me how much we need God.  Left to ourselves, I believe, we human beings can prove thoroughly unreliable.  

Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps make easy optimism about our human condition unrealistic. There is at work in the world a power that, if we do not combat it, can readily turn us into wielders of violence against our fellow human beings. From being our brothers and sisters, they become objects of our hatred and brutality.

Despite the graphic lesson of Auschwitz, events suggest that, as a world community, we have not learned that lesson. The mass slaughter of innocent people in Rwanda and Darfur, to mention only two places among many, shows how little we have backed off from killing those who get in our way.

We can be grateful for educators such as those associated with “Facing History and Ourselves,” the Brookline-based agency that teaches young people and others the lessons of the Holocaust. For the last 25 years this organization has not let us forget the awful facts about one of the world’s most horrific crimes.

There is something dreadfully askew in human life, a fact demonstrated over and over. To me, this points toward a spirituality that is not based on pessimism about the human prospect, but one that takes such evil into account. It also points to the central position in this spiritual outlook of hope in God.

The faith traditions that speak to me hold that God is the only one deserving of complete and utter trust. God is the one who will absolutely not falter in love. One of the sayings of Jesus that I often ponder is: “Why do you call me good? No one is good, but God alone.”

Of course, Jesus does not mean that humans lack goodness completely; rather, he contrasts us with the transcendent God in whom goodness is complete. The liberation that happened 60 years ago should be seen as a call to deepen our horror of evil and to direct hope toward the one who is all good.

Richard Griffin