Memories Haunt You…
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Luke 10:25-37
This week’s Thought for the Week is being written on Holocaust Memorial Day. It was not planned (at least not by me) to do this; it’s just that I usually sit down to write on a Wednesday and so it might be called a coincidence. I’m not so sure, though…
…because Holocaust Memorial Day and the Parable of the Good Samaritan have so much to link them together. We see in the parable how one person is victimised, mistreated and damaged by the actions of a mob. We can draw further parallels between the two as we see the religious leaders walk on past the wounded man echoing the inaction and compliance of sectors of the church during the Second World War. We might even want to compare the man with the donkey to Oskar Schindler, Sir Nicholas Winton or Irena Sendlerowa, whose actions saved so many from extermination in the Nazi Death Camps.
But then there is the difference between these stories. Sadly, abuse like that meted out to our story’s victim is still an everyday occurrence as victims of domestic violence and bullying will attest. The Holocaust of World War 2, though followed by subsequent genocides such as in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, has little impact on our everyday lives, unless we are directly linked to victim, survivor or perpetrator. The scale of such atrocities mean that they are major stains on the history of this world, but the daily abuse of people whose injuries mirror those in the story hardly leave a mark.
I have had the honour of visiting two former Nazi Concentration Camps in my life; Buchenwald in what was still East Germany in 1990 and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland in 2016. My memories of both of these visits are vivid and stark. Even though I was but a mere 15-year-old, spending time with schoolmates in what was still a divided Germany, I can still remember pulling up by the side of the road in the coach outside the camps and the silence from both British and German teenagers as the secrets held within those concrete walls were revealed.
It was not an easy visit; certainly, the trip to the market where it seemed that every type of German sausage was there to be sampled was more cheery, but some of the rooms we stood in come quickly back to mind even now. The most memorable was the room that was billed as the exit for the prisoners. This was the place where the prisoners were taken to be told that they were to be set free. Facing the doors, expecting to be released into the German countryside, they would not have noticed the narrow slit in the wall behind them. Nor would they have heard the sound of the machine guns until it was too late as bullets raked the room. That was the only freedom they would know.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is on a different scale. Whereas Buchenwald was one camp fully enclosed by walls and barbed wire, the scale of Auschwitz is terrifying. The two remaining camps that can be visited do not tell the full story of what went on; the fleeing Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of their atrocities with partial success.
We’ve probably all seen the gates at the front of the camp: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work brings freedom), the lie that helped hide the atrocities behind those metal barriers. Walking around what was originally a Polish Police training camp, it is hard to imagine life as it would have been. The buildings where administration rubbed shoulders with experimentation were originally barracks and training rooms; repurposed once again to remind us of humanity’s ingenuity when it comes to taking something good and making it fundamentally evil.
Being led into the cremator, following in the footsteps of the condemned, was a humbling and shocking experience. Touching the walls where fingers had clawed fruitlessly for freedom as the gas was poured in was truly terrifying. Possibly worse, though, was being led through the rest of the building, past the ovens and back into the fresh Polish air; something that only the Nazi guards would have been able to do. In that moment, we were walking in the footsteps of the perpetrators, more akin to them than the victims whose ash would have floated out into that same sky.
Birkenau, a mere 2 kilometres away, was a different story. Purpose-built for extermination, the railway tracks made famous by the film Schindler’s List lead the way towards the wooden doors that so few ever exited. The weather had taken a turn for the worst. The sun had shone on us in Auschwitz, but now the clouds gathered and rain beat down on us as we made an abbreviated visit to one of the few surviving huts that housed up to 150 at a time in a space about the size of our church hall. We were all relieved that though the buildings were still standing and the solid bunks where up to 12 people huddled together for warmth were still in situ, the passage of time had fumigated the atmosphere.
So much pain and suffering in what was after all quite a small patch of land. The conservative estimate of 1.1 million lives lost over a three-year period in a space slightly smaller than the city-state of Monaco (current population circa 40,000) continues to send shivers down the spine in a way that the story of one man being beaten up by robbers could never usually match up to, particularly as he lived to tell the tale. Except that this story was told by Jesus.
Fundamentally, though, there is a brutal commonality between these two scenarios and one that continues to resonate today: the attitude of the perpetrators towards their victims.
It is well documented that the Jews were viewed by the Nazis as subhuman. This crucially not only created the distance that made difference more than just religious observance and practice, but also relegated the Jews to an underclass that could be subjugated, even exterminated. Contemporary Nazi propaganda portrays the Jewish people as precisely not that – they were not people, therefore they didn’t have to be treated as such. This level of dehumanising fellow human beings led to Buchenwald and Auschwitz.
Likewise, the robbers who beat up our unwary traveller just saw the goodies that they could lay their hands on. They didn’t care about their victim, where he was heading, who would be waiting for him, or even why he was making this perilous journey. For them, he was a “wallet on legs”, not a person with feelings, family, and future.
The same is true for those who passed by on the other side. Too wrapped up in their religious straitjackets, unwilling to get themselves theologically and practically dirty by responding to the pitiful cries from the ditch as they hurried on for their never-as-important engagements in the city. Rules trumped humanity to such an extent that humanity ceased to matter, and as a consequence, exist.
Until someone came onto the scene who showed that humanity is more than labels, or even deeply ingrained cultural identity. To see beyond and behind the differences to find that one thing that unites everyone across all boundaries and borders: compassion.
We aren’t told whether the Samaritan went out looking for revenge, a one-man vigilante force against the robbers that would continue to beat up and harass travellers on that road; whether he did that once he left the man safely in the motel or not isn’t specified. Nor is it important. What is important is that he saw the man’s wounds for what they were, heard his cries for what they were, and responded with compassion and mercy.
We are now over 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, but we still haven’t learned the lessons of compassion that could stop it happening again. Maybe not on that scale, but every time someone is victimised because of a perceived difference, one that reduces their humanity in the eyes of the aggressor – there, that’s where we fail again.
Out of compassion, we visit these memorial sites, retell the stories and pray that we will learn the lessons of the past. And hope that our children won’t have to apologise for us in the future.