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Reflections from Auschwitz

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Hell-on-earth doesn’t appear the way most would think it does. The day was nearly cloud-free. Leaves were changing colors. Buildings stood in distinct rows. Visual deception soon led to unimaginable truth.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” reads the sign arched over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Work makes one free. In reality, the only things setting one free were death and the eventual Soviet Liberation.

Much of Europe’s recent history is based on World War II. I had done the readings, visited Budapest’s Jewish Ghetto and spent time in prayer. However, there is no preparation for seeing remnants of such evil.

I saw what remains of the Nazi attempt to wipe an entire people from the face of the planet. I saw the places that brought death, backbreaking labor, starvation and mental, physical and emotional humiliation. I saw the denigration of humanity.

I walked within feet of a firing wall where hundreds of prisoners were executed. I walked underground into the dimly lit gas chamber and crematorium. I walked the barracks where sickness and disease ravaged defenseless and over-crowded populations.

Behind viewing glass are mounds of human hair that had been shaved off the heads of prisoners as they arrived. Suitcases with names scrawled on the front pile to the ceiling. There are pots, pans, clothes, brushes, glasses and shoes all in separate spaces but pulling at the same heartstrings.

Traversing the hallowed grounds of Auschwitz and Birkenau brought a strange feeling over me. Juxtaposed before me were a beautiful mid-September day and the earthen graves of more than one million innocent people. It was sickening to think of the pure evil that manifested itself just a generation earlier in the place where I stood.

The horror, sadness and degree of hate are far too much to grasp for one who has not experienced it. The more I learn about the Holocaust and Nazi death camps, the less I understand. It is not that I am above understanding Auschwitz and Birkenau or that it is above me. No, it is beyond me.

I will never comprehend what motivated an ideology targeting a single group of people for extermination. I will never know how fellow human beings could kill systematically and in such mass. I will never be able to answer the simple question, “Why?”

Many scholars, historians and survivors have asked a different question, “Where was God?” William Styron suggests the answer is another question: “Where was man?”

How God’s omnipresence and the Holocaust go together is something else I’ll never understand. We can and should question God, but I’m not interested in putting Him on trial. I want to view Auschwitz not by examining how Christ exists in evil, but how we manifest Christ in the presence of evil.

Neither the beliefs nor actions of the Nazi party resemble anything Christ-like. I have yet to hear of an SS Officer, camp doctor or executioner who displayed Christ-like character. Until we exhibit Christ in the face of evil, events similar in ideology to Auschwitz will continue to take place.

Think for a moment. Can we stop the gang violence that haunts the streets of Grand Rapids? Can Calvin College be the place where members of the LGBT community are free from hate? Can we reach around the globe and support the victims of Darfur even though we are half a world away? What would the world look like if we constantly exhibited Christ’s grace and left the judgment to Christ himself?

The world is at our doorstep and demands action. Nazi hatred started with small stipulations and grew into Auschwitz. We can wage love and change the way future generations think.

Contrary to the darkness of its past, the sun still shines at Auschwitz. We do not remember so as to not forget; we remember so as to not repeat. I don’t imagine a perfect world, for we are too fallen to bring it about, but I do imagine a better world.

We must give the lives of every different ethnicity, religion and class the love, respect and dignity it was denied during the Holocaust. Christ is love. Love is life. Life is beautiful.

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