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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Auschwitz Remembered


Today Holocaust survivors and leaders around the world gathered to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the site of a Nazi extermination camp where more than a million Jews were killed.

The Jews suffered a fate we can never fully comprehend.

Try to imagine this scenario: you and your family are rounded up. Loaded onto a freight train with hundreds of other Jewish families. Sent to Auschwitz. Unaware of what is really going on, you think you are being deported. You are separated from your family almost immediately as you are inspected and categorized. If you are too sick or too young or too old or otherwise not fit to work, you are sent off immediately to the gas chambers, along with most of the other arrivals. You are told to undress and fold your clothes carefully – deceived into believing you’re simply taking a shower – until you realize this is no ordinary shower. And the haunted voices you hear around you as you die slowly by hydrocyanic acid in the locked room are an unspeakably agony. You do not know, but your body will be incinerated in a crematorium and forgotten forever. The next batch is being readied to enter the chamber of death. And your belongings are already being parsed. Anything of value – even gold teeth – snatched.

If you are healthy, there is a chance that you will survive, although life outside the gas chambers is really not much better. You are tattooed with a number: you are no longer identified by name. You are put on a strict regiment, given little to eat. It leaves you physically exhausted. You are instructed to work – and the work is punishingly difficult. The threat of brutal punishment hangs over every person. And every day you wait in fear, knowing that you might not pass the medical examinations. You may not be able to rouse your emaciated body to run and do push-ups and other torturous exercises in order to prove you are fit and stave off the gas chambers for another time.

Other grotesque things occur at this death camp. Medical experiments are done on human beings. Chemicals inserted into people’s eyes to find out if eye colour could be changed to blue. Sex change operations conducted without asking for permission.

And all of this – all of it – simply because you are Jewish.

None of this is adequate to fully explain the horror that was Auschwitz. If you really want to know, read Night by Elie Wiesel. It is a tragic and disturbing tale of a deeply religious young man battered by the horrors taking place around him, becoming dehumanized and losing faith in God’s justice. Although I read the short novel many years ago, it touched me so profoundly that I still think about it occasionally and mourn the evil that took so many innocent people.

Elie Wiesel later said, "...to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all..." I cannot answer the question of where God was when the tragedy unfolded. It would be an injustice to those who suffered and died to offer trite answers here. The questions I ask are about earthly beings. How could the suffering go on for so long? Why did so many Jews have to die before people took notice? The eloquent words of Elie Wiesel still haunt me: “They fought alone, they suffered alone, they lived alone, but they did not die alone, for something in all of us died with them.”

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