Dehumanising: (A reflection on Auschwitz)

I’ve learned a new word this month: dehumanising.

It’s not that I didn’t know the word previously, but this month I’ve begun to learn what it means.  It has become a three dimensional reality for me, I’ve seen some of the scars of the horrors it leads to.

I was very privileged to be part of a pilgrimage to Auschwitz in January 2017.

The two concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenhau, have been preserved sensitively as historical sites, with some prison buildings at CampA at Auschwitz also re-ordered as a museum.  There’s no gaudy plastic or posters, there’s a simplicity and honour of the memories the place holds.  Those memories themselves are enough to impact the many visitors.  I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury and all those who simply reflect: ‘everyone should go to Auschwitz’.

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To visit the camps, to see the very cells the prisoners were kept and killed in, the execution wall, the display of empty tins of zyklon B,P1040373.JPG and to see the crushed mesh of  glasses, and piles of unlaced shoes, stolen from their owners, is to be saturated by the memories of human cruelty to humans.  (to steal someone’s shoes or glasses is itself barbarically disempowering)
The historical evidence of that cruelty is overwhelming.  We each respond emotionally to different things, for me personally the room full of recovered human hair and the wall of photos of prisoners were two of the memories which landed the most deeply, I had to stand still just to recover my breath.

In the museum I had to choose to remember the humanity amidst the static displays, which is why the hair and the photos reached deepest for me, this was my point of contact with the humans who had been treated so cruelly.  The other place where my heart was most wrenched by the reality was in a hut in Birkenhau, when I leant on the very beds which women and children had slept in, bare boards with 8 people per bed.  I touched the very wood they had slept on.

p1040435Story after story, display after display, and photo after photo exposed the way which the SS soldiers treated the prisoners, it was a conscious effort to realise these very things happened on this very ground, in these very rooms, within living memory.  Today, the Auschwitz museum has posted photos online of survivors returning to that very place on Holocaust Memorial Day.  The scene so familiar, the same sun pushing through the mist and the same snow I walked past, I count it a privilege to be linked in this way with them.

Throughout the day, as I let myself be carried by this flood of history, and engage with the reality, my mind kept returning to the same question: ‘How?’

The museum contains powerful displays, reminders and evidence, but to be there is to engage the imagination and realise not long ago, these victims were real people. Not merely living, breathing, washing in those sinks, using those loos, and all too insufficiently eating, but talking, relating, imagining, seeking to understand, trying to survive, holding onto love.

This process of imagining the reality of what was going on, was to ask a thousand questions.

Did they wash? How did they cope with the biting cold? What did it smell like? How did they relate to one another?  My imaginings led me to consider their powerlessness, they were stripped of everything.  Their clothes, their hair, all possessions, even their gold teeth.  Victor Frankl’s stunning book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ talks of the horror of being stripped of the manuscript of the book he was writing, his life’s work.  How he had to internalise what he had written, inside him, to a place they could not steal it from.

In order to manage crowds of prisoners, they found mechanical ways to control the prisoners, enabling them to survive in order to exploit them for work, but caring not if they died, because they had thousands more to replace them.  Once their possessions, hair and futures had been stolen, they could only treat them like machines, feeding them the very minimum food as fuel, to keep them working.

The first stage of dehumanising them, was to render them powerless.  As I attempted to engage in that sense of powerlessness, I recognised that when powerless we become entirely reliant upon the mercy of others.  In the SS guards, they found no mercy.

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In this, the SS guards themselves had also surrendered part of their power.  They had to let go of their own capacity for mercy.  They had to convince themselves that these people were not people.  I am still shocked that dehumanising was powerful enough to overcome the instinct of mercy.

There are rare stories of mercy.  In the account of the Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe, we hear how when 3 prisoners disappeared, the guards chose to starve 10 to death, chosen at random to be an example.  When one prisoner cried out ‘what about my wife and family?’, Kolbe offered to take his place and was duly starved for two weeks and finally murdered by lethal injection when starvation proved insufficient.  Amidst the horror and heroism of the story, I was surprised to hear of even that glimmer of mercy by the guard in responding to Kolbe’s request and granting the swap.   That small act of mercy stood out as a rare exception to the thousands of times the guards wouldn’t even listen to the pleas of their victims.

Wave after wave of evidence of merciless dehumanising.  In every photo, story and display the evidence is there that the guards ceased to see the victims as human beings, it is the only explanation I can find of how they could manage this. Part of this was that they stripped them, not just of possessions, relationships, hair and teeth, but of their names.  Survivors have shared the agony of being reduced to a number, all learning, qualifications, status and dignity, deleted, all part of the attempt to dehumanise.

To such a tiny extent I was invited to engage with the memory of horror which results from dehumanising.  I’ve come to a simple conclusion: to dehumanise is evil.

One theological reflection shared by Rev.Sam Wells on the trip was that evil is the systematic justifying of wrong actions as though they were right.  To paint thoughts or actions in conflict with God’s kingdom, as something which is morally acceptable.  By this definition, to dehumanise is evil.

Humans were created in God’s image, endowed with incredible honour by our loving God and described as ‘very good’.  Separation, rebellion and sin marred our creation and has led to untold suffering and division.  Jesus came to reunite and the New Testament passionately declares the re-establishment of dignity and honour of all people in God’s sight.  Bible passages such as Acts 2v17, Galatians 3v28, Ephesians 2v15 and Colossians 3v11 unequivocally declare God’s intention to restore humanity as equally loved.

Simple theology:  God looks on each human being as someone he has created and loves.  To dehumanise another is to disagree with God.

Facing up to the horrific results of dehumanising, raises many questions for me now.

How can we avoid even the slightest glimmer of dehumanising in the way we live?

We live in a vast complex world.  We share this planet, a gift from God, our home, with 7 billion other humans, each created and loved by God.  We can’t know everyone else, we will only relate to a minute proportion of these ‘others’ in our lifetime, global communications mean we will interact with far more than any previous generation in history.

Understandably we mentally clump and categorise others and consciously or subconsciously we use labels to categorise. This can enable cultural understanding, it can cause destruction and everything in between.  The worst categorising and labelling I have ever seen was the photos on the wall of Auschwitz.  Each prisoner was given a number and a coloured triangle to denote whether they were Polish, Russian, Romany, gay or Jewish (who were given a double triangle, the star of David).  Some triangles meant you were fed and survived, others meant you were deceptively led to the gas chambers.

Categorising and labelling is probably inevitable and so we have to be vigilant in one thing and that is to ensure labelling never leads to dehumanising.   There have been occasions in my life when God has rebuked me sternly by reminding me that my attitudes and actions impact his beloved children.  In every decision we make which impacts others, we remember that people are created and loved.   In every relationship and connection we make, we treat others as people not according to the labels we might have mentally put on them.

I went through a painful time in a close friendship.  Reconciliation was only possible when I recognised that I was relating not to my friend, but to a limited pigeon-holed version of him created in my imagination.  When we next met, I listened long enough to let him be himself and was able to demolish that false labelled version.  I realised I too have the capacity to dehumanise in almost every form of relationship and it could have been so destructive to a precious friendship.

The Holocaust arose in a political and ethical maelstrom, it developed unchallenged by a passive or petrified church.  The murder of millions of Jews was termed ‘the final solution’ by the Nazis because they had developed a mindset which justified dehumanising.

My reflection from engaging with dehumanising, is simply this.  Prize mercy.

God has given us the power to show mercy to others.  To treat them with honour, dignity and to empower them, not strip them of power.  In the kingdom of God, power is given in order to be given away, not to control, never to exploit.

That power he has given us, is called mercy, it’s a gift we’ve received and its a gift we must give to others.

[Photos supplied by Ian Dyble and others, with thanks, copyright is theirs.]

I have posted further thoughts on my trip here

Grief and prayer, after Auschwitz

It was the anger which took me by surprise.

I had anticipated sorrow, tiredness, and questions, but not anger.

I hadn’t really known what to expect on my return to Romiley after a pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenhau.  I was partly afraid that my emotional journey might take the familiar path of numbness to guilt and self criticism for being ‘shut down’.

It happened as I set off in the car to the Peaks to find space with God to process and pray.  The usual necessities had taken up time, few people knew I was unavailable this week and I had a flood to texts and voicemails to ignore and feel guilty about.  I remembered a trivial practicality and pulled over to call my wife, when she answered, I exploded.  Furious that my precious prayer day had been invaded, frustrated that the world felt it needed me when I was unavailable, judgmental on those who were carrying on normal lives, serving others.

mellor-cross-2There was no rational reason for my anger, no one had wronged me, no crisis had invaded my protected time.  Raw and slightly afraid at my outburst, I detoured to Mellor Cross,
a wonderful place of prayer for me.  The mists cut out the glorious views and the farmer’s no parking signs were officious, but that didn’t get to me.  The 20ft Mellor Cross has lost its top bar and we, God’s church in our area, have not yet restored it.  (another job to feel burdened by) The symbolism pierced my bubble and provoked the question I was avoiding:

“Is it all derelict? – even this cross is desecrated, is there any good left in the world?”

auschwitz-1-2That was when it hit me, my anger was grief.
In that moment, I could see no good in the world. If I looked outwards I could only see tensions, unresolvable problems or hollow frivolity;  If I looked inwards, I saw fear, guilt and heard the agonising screams of the victims of Auschwitz.

Recognising that my anger was grief, brought perspective,  but who was I grieving for?

I had asked the Holy Spirit to navigate my emotional journey this week, what was he wanting to do in this tunnel he was taking me through?

Grief is chaotic, it generates questions, throws them up into the air, bats them around, rarely answers them and then rushes onto the next one.  Amongst the many questions my grief generated, were some about prayer which I want to explore here.

‘If my grief anger is at those closest to me – Why am I not angry with God?

It was an irrational anger with no object to blame, so it spilt on those I had subconsciously calculated will forgive me or be unharmed by my unfounded outburst.

Why not God?  Why am I not angry at him?

A skilled psychoanalyst might try to lead me to a conclusion that I am, that I blame God for the mess and pain in the world.  Yet as I leant against that headless cross and wept in surrender, all I could feel was gratitude to him, because I know that he really is the present one, with us in sorrow, suffering, martyrdom and desolation.  Our teaching in Auschwitz was built on God with us before he is for us.  One of the most profound moments of my pilgrimage to Auschwitz was encountering again to a new level of emotional engagement with Jesus, my beloved older brother on the cross, carrying my suffering.  Through this trip, I have recovered a profound closeness to him as other preoccupations have been expunged.

auschwitz-1In my past experiences of intense grief, I have rarely turned to anger against God, usually I turn away from the assumption that he is to blame.  In the Psalms he gives us freedom to express our anger, he is bigger than our emotions and in so doing he opens his arms and invites us to come and pummel him, confident that he can bear it until we punch it out of our system, his unconditional love soaking it up.  But this doesn’t answer my question.

If I try to blame God for Auschwitz, somehow I can’t.  Because to do so, would be to attempt to place myself closer to the victims than he is.  To place me in solidarity with them and have the pride to judge God makes no sense.

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He was there and I wasn’t.

He was alive and I wasn’t yet born.

The victims were his family and not mine.

 

 

 

My mind bats away the vast and complex, ’is God powerless?’ but the next question which my grief, in its bleak outlook on the world raises, is terrifying.  When I consider how my heart responds to numerous prayer requests, I have to ask, “have I given up on the notion of God being powerful or likely to act? and has this trip further pushed that faith away from me?’

This is a substantial area of grief for me, a substantial challenge to my faith and ministry and mission.  In the face of Auschwitz, Syria and Donald Trump, the painful mess I see in so many churches, the frustrations of trying to share the best news ever with a world that so often shows little interest, and other disappointments, is there any point in asking God to do something?  When I look around me right now from a place of grief, the weight of evidence of what I focus on tells me that God is not active, not bringing change, not ruling from heaven and bringing resurrection life in the midst of the decay of this fallen world.

auschwitz-1-6My head might wrestle with the theological constructions, but when I catch a glimpse of my own prayer life and moments of ambivalence in prayer right now, I see that a big chunk inside is tempted to let go of hope, let alone faith, that God acts when we pray.

That is a scary place to be.  img_6127That is the decay of a central pillar of my life and ministry.  To play with this as a percentage game, when I start to believe there is a less than 30% chance of a prayer being answered, then why bother praying it at all?  Have I really lost the faith that when I pray, God will act?

img_6157What happened in the Holocaust was horrific, extreme and beyond imagination.  In so many ways  millions of prayers were left on earth unanswered and so it seems that God was powerless or disinterested.  We can of course refer to the bigger, eternal story, that God is responding in the long run, some theological answers are satisfying, others not.

But what about day-to-day prayer now?  How can I pray for the civilians of Mosul and Aleppo today? How can I pray for America this week? They are facing the alarming historical parallels of a sociopathic populist leader being democratically elected by a protesting disaffected people.  Hitler wanted to ‘Make Germany great again’.  How can we pray, if we start to feel like God isn’t going to act?

auschwitz-1-3When it comes to prayer, protest and resistance, Auschwitz was not binary.  In late 1941 three girls smuggled gunpowder out of the munitions factory and then blew up one of the gas chambers , this raises good questions.  450 prisoners were killed in response to this plot, but it put a gas chamber out of action.  That slowed down the killing by 20% for a few months until liberation. Each chamber could kill 2,000 at a time, potentially many thousands a day, maybe thousands of lives were spared because of that?

There are Holocaust survivors, Judaism was not eliminated, there are stories of those who escaped Nazi occupation, there are Oscar Schindlers and Nicholas Wintons.  Some prayers were answered.  Just because we may not see the whole outcome, we will see more of heaven invade earth if we pray than if we just watch.

Also, perhaps prayer is more instinctive than that?  As I consider the reality, I can’t stop praying.  We were led in meditations on the Stations of the cross around Birkenhau, one of the most moving parts personally was the prayers of intercession at each station, img_6137for women, for children, for Jewish and Romany people, for perpetrators of evil.  These were amazing moments, because my heart took over and in wordless cries turned to God for help in compassion for those who are powerless.  I will continue to pray and intercede, because I am unable to not pray.  I cannot bear the burden of compassion and empathy I feel with those I am otherwise powerless to help, I have to share that burden with God and carry it with him not for him.

“What are we asking God to do when we pray?” 

The lectures, worship, reflections and leadership of the trip was outstanding, it was a privilege to be with such exceptional wisdom and emotional intelligence.  However there was a moment when a typical litany left me yearning for more.  As we travelled around the world in a nicely constructed list of ‘people we ought to pray for’, I found myself deeply dissatisfied.  No words or time were  available to help us consider what we were asking God to do for these beloved people.  The prayers were devoid of verbs, and so the nouns became like tokens.  The only lists I write are shopping and ‘to do’ lists, a collection of things I lack, an expression of poverty or pressures.  These two words perhaps best describe how I feel about merely listing to God a series of people he is already fully aware of.

And so its redoubled my consideration on how can we encourage one another to pray with verbs.  Most (but sadly not all) of our collects manage it.  An example from next Sunday

Almighty God,
 in Christ you make all things new:
 transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, 
 and in the renewal of our lives
 make known your heavenly glory;
 through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
 who is alive and reigns with you…

We urgently need prayer which expects something to happen, prayer which does more than express empathy or train memory, prayer which turns to a powerful God and asks for change.

 

[Grateful to Richard Frank for his photography]

A follow up post on the dehumanising which happened at Auschwitz is available here. https://romileyrichard.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/dehumanising-a-reflection-on-auschwitz/