AUSCHWITZ


[A sermon preached at St Stephen's Lewisham, 23 October 1994] 


Some of you, I expect, will have seen the film Schindler's List which describes some of the atrocities which took place during the Holocaust in the Second World War just 50 years ago, when some 6 million people, men women and children were systematically put to death in places like Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belsen, Buchenwald and Ravensbruck.

Well, last week on our holiday in Poland we took up the opportunity of visiting the largest of these concentration camps, Auschwitz\Birkenau to see for ourselves what really happened there.

When the German Nazis realised that they were going to lose the war the started trying to cover up what they had done in such places by destroying the camps as they retreated before the victorious Allied forces.

However, in the case of Auschwitz/Birkenau they didn't have time: there was just too much of it to demolish anyhow.

As a result, much of what they left survives and it has been turned into an enormous memorial\museum.

Even more important, however, was the fact that when the Allies (Russians in the case of Auschwitz, British in the case of Belsen) liberated the camps there were several hundred survivors inside who were still alive and therefore able to write first-hand accounts of the terrible sufferings they had gone through.

Several of the survivors have written books about their experiences, two of which I have already read. So besides seeing the museum we learnt a great deal about something which happened during the lifetime of many of us here this morning, and so it seemed only proper to offer you some of what we learnt during our visit.

The first thing to say, of course is that it really did happen, and not so very long ago either.

Six million people, mostly Jews but including many gypsies, Russian prisoners of war, political undesirables, epileptics and other invalids were systematically poisoned in the gas-chambers of places like Auschwitz between 1940 and 1944, their bodies were cremated in vast furnaces in specially designed crematoria which worked night and day, and their ashes were then used a fertilizer on the fields in the surrounding countryside.

Why did this all happen? Well, Adolf Hitler had the idea that the Jews and other undesirable "untermenschen" (subhumans) were responsible for most of the problems in Germany since the beginning of time, and he proposed what he termed the Final Solution to this problem.

If you want to try and imagine what this "Final Solution" meant, try and think of some dictator who declares tomorrow that, on the basis of some scientific research it has now been proved beyond reasonable doubt that blue-eyed people are five times more likely to have a criminal character than anyone else.

As a result his parliament passes and enforces a law which allows the army to round up everyone with blue eyes to be "resettled" in camps so that the blue-eyed problem can be prevented from getting out of hand and completely cured once and for all. These camps, everyone is told, including the blue-eyed victims, are purely a temporary measure. Once the separation has taken place all the blue-eyed people will begin the appropriate treatment to cure them of their disability and they will be then rehabilitated, given jobs, and resettled in some different part of the country.

What actually happened was that six million Jews were rounded up from all over Europe, including Holland, France, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Hungary, Italy and Poland (to name but a few), stuffed into cattle trucks without sanitation, light, food or water, and subjected to a two or three day rail journey to places like Auschwitz in south Poland, chosen because there was a disused barracks there already and also because it was an important railway junction in the continental network.

Many of these deportees died on the way. Those who survived were let out with their luggage onto the specially constructed platform inside Birkenau, containing whatever they had managed to put together before they left. At this stage most of them still believed that they were indeed going to be "rehabilitated, given houses to live in and jobs to do. Over the gate at Auschwitz there still stands an enormous wrought iron inscription which reads in German Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work gives you freedom).

What actually happened next was this. Mothers with children were sent straight from the rail platform to the gas-chambers. The rest were divided into "fit for work" and "unfit" on the say-so of how they looked to a medical officer, who judged their condition solely by outward appearance.

The "unfit" followed the women and children quickly into the gas-chambers, followed in turn by those who became ill during their stay in the camp. Given the lack of food, heating, sanitation and drainage it meant that a large number of those who passed the first "selection" were subsequently sent to their death.

The hand-luggage of those appointed to die was left on the platform.

It was gone through and anything of value removed and sent to help the German war effort. One of the most moving points of the exhibition is the thousands of empty suitcases, clothes, books, brushes, combs, spectacles and other personal belongings which were discovered in the storehouse by the Allies when they liberated the camp. These were the items which the Germans had not had time to sent back to Germany.

So, yes: it really did happen. And it happened during the lifetime of most of us here today. And it happened because one man had an idea which enabled a whole lot of other people, women as well as men (for the female guards were every bit as cruel as the male ones) to work off their personal hatreds on a class of their fellow citizens whom they had been told were to blame, quite unjustly, for all the things that were wrong in society.

The fact that these Jews included scientists (like Einstein), doctors, musicians, scholars and writers seems to have been lost on them, as does the fact that Jesus Christ himself and his twelve Apostles were all Jews.

What lessons can we learn from Auschwitz? 1. Firstly we learn that things like the Holocaust to happen and they happen very much more easily than we like to thin,. As someone has said "The only thing necessary for evil men to flourish is that good men should do nothing" 2. Then there is the fact, proved over and over again in history that evil always gets checked in the end and receives its come-uppance.

good always triumphs and truth prevails; lies are shown up for what they are. But none of these things comes for free. The price of victory may be enormous. Six million dead in the case of the Holocaust, besides all those who died fighting and in air-raids.

3. Thirdly, we should always beware of political leaders who claim to have "final solutions" to any problem, whether it be poverty, crime, welfare, unemployment or anything else. The best that can be achieved in this world falls very far short of the ideals that we may dream up for ourselves.

4. Next there is the indisputable fact that those in Auschwitz who lost the will to live died very much sooner than those who, by whatever means, kept their hope alive.

They called those who had lost the will to live "musselmen" from a German work which means "lost interest, disengaged". Once surrender to evil then there is no fight left in you. Hope dies, and you yourself follow pretty quickly.

Those of us who are witnessing all the damage which is being done to the Body of Christ at the present time must ask ourselves if we are in danger of becoming spiritual musselmen. Because if we are, we shall quickly become spiritual dead men as the Jews in Auschwitz discovered.

5. Christians need to be honest traders in the truth. Remember the lines of G.K. Chesterton's hymn

From all that terror teaches
From lies of tongue and pen
From all the evil speeches
That comfort cruel men
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword
From sleep and from damnation
Deliver us good Lord!

Those words should be learnt by heart by every Christian and pinned up on the wall besides the many other inscriptions which adorn the walls of your house.

6. The last point I would like to make is this: We must never say of anything which is brought to our attention "That's not my business, it doesn't concern me" In a world where God himself has been revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ nothing human is alien from him. All human life is his concern, however unlikely this seems to be at first sight. Everything is God's business. Therefore nothing human is alien from us. It is all our concern as his followers and disciples.

Let me end with a quotation from Martin Niemoller, a Christian pastor in Hitler's Germany who lived through the Holocaust as it went on all around him.

"First the Nazis came after the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not object. Then they went after the Catholics, but I was not a Catholic, so I did not object. Then they went after the Trade Unionists, but I was not a Trade Unionist, so I did not object. Then they came after me. And there was no one left to object....."

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