Auschwitz experience teaches students about humanity

Wed, Dec 14th 2016 02:15 pm
Transitional Deacon
Train tracks lead up to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp in Poland. While Nazi Germany occupied Poland from early 1942 to late 1944, an estimated 1.3 million people came by train to the camp. (Courtesy of Luke P. Uebler II)
Train tracks lead up to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp in Poland. While Nazi Germany occupied Poland from early 1942 to late 1944, an estimated 1.3 million people came by train to the camp. (Courtesy of Luke P. Uebler II)

"Come here, you free citizen of the world, whose life is safeguarded by human morality and whose existence is guaranteed through law. I want to tell you how modern criminals and despicable murderers have trampled the morality of life and nullified the postulates of human existence." - Zalman Gradowski, murdered at Auschwitz, 1945.  What a challenging invitation and a sobering reminder of the recurring power of evil.

Over this past summer, I had the opportunity to take up Gradowski's challenge firsthand and to examine the Holocaust for myself through a program called Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics. Our diverse interfaith, interdisciplinary group travelled to Germany and Poland in order to learn how professionals failed to uphold good moral convictions within their sphere of influence in the community.  

While there were many virtuous people that responded in love, the reality is most people were indifferent to the plight of those who were persecuted, resulting in one of the worst tragedies of human history, the Holocaust. At the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I saw storehouses full of stolen family heirlooms; I saw endless mounds of human hair harvested from individuals; I saw the torture and gas chambers where millions were murdered. The barbed wire fences of the camp seemed to go on endlessly, and I was made to feel isolated. Though it was but a fraction of the terrible realities that occurred there, I found all of this to be overwhelming.

The most unsettling part of the experience was sitting in Block 24 in Auschwitz, where I saw pictures of vibrant individuals and heard the laughter of children and joyful singing. I watched video footage of murdered families who were formerly enjoying a holiday meal or their time together at the beach. These were people, and now a great emptiness permeated the space there in their absence. On the wall was the inscription: "Remember only that I was innocent and, just like you, mortal on that day, I, too, had had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy, quite simply, a human face!" - Benjamin Fondane, murdered at Auschwitz, 1944.  

In that very room, life and death were simultaneously on display. Every fiber in my being wanted to get away, but I couldn't. I needed to witness to their lives. Somehow in that space, I felt like I was in true solidarity with all those who suffered and died and who continue to be victimized today. And then by some grace, I met God in that room, sitting there in the brokenness, suffering with us.  

We ask ourselves, "How could the Holocaust have happened?" Since the beginning of time, human beings have acted violently against their fellow human beings, and this sinful reality continues even unto the present. Today, there are still people being individually and systematically violated. We see this in the threats of terrorism, in the objectification of women and human trafficking, in the undercurrents of racism in our country, in the manifestation of extreme poverty. How could this be happening still?  Why don't we know better? Hasn't 2,000 years of Christian history, let alone God's work before the Incarnation, taught us anything?

At this point in our liturgical year, we find ourselves celebrating Advent, a hope-filled season to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. True, we believe that Jesus became Incarnate 2,000 years ago, but the reality of Jesus' coming doesn't separate history into a time without redemption and a new time of salvation on a timeline in history. In his book "What It Means to Be a Christian," then-Father Joseph Ratzinger claimed that the true dividing line between BC and AD, that is the time "Before Christ" and the time "In the Year of the Lord," exists in each of our hearts. The brief penitential season of Advent forces us to confront any illusions we might still harbor regarding each of ourselves, regarding humanity, even regarding God and the Church. On this side of eternity, all our answers remain fragmentary. I am forced to admit despite all our talk about the light that I and many others in this world are still in the dark. Indeed, we stand on the whole before God and his mercy, longing for the reign of Christ to more fully overtake our lives. The Church in Advent fervently petitions: "Maranatha - Come Lord Jesus.  Come make your home in our weary hearts."  

Like the experience of Auschwitz, seeing, staring at, recognizing the evil and potential evil in me and in humankind is frightening. When we are confronted with the tough realities of the world, we could easily give into despair. However, because of God's promise in Christ Jesus, we don't have to. Advent is the great season of hope for the whole human race, where we again turn to God and yet trust in God's grace for courage and strength.  

In Advent, I recognize that human beings are created in God's image and that I must witness to such goodness by my daily choices. During Advent, I am to realize that loving relationships are possible in Christ, and I must imitate his mercy so as to accept others beyond their imperfections. And in the tragic gap between where I am and where I should be, Advent teaches me to press forward in the Spirit, perhaps not solving the world's problems, but going about loving others through them. This is what it is to live in hope, and it gives meaning and direction to our lives. "In this time of Advent, let us ask the Lord to grant that we may live less and less 'before Christ', and certainly not 'after Christ', but truly with Christ and in Christ, with him who is indeed Christ yesterday, today, and forever. Amen." - Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Rev. Mr. Luke P. Uebler participated in the FASPE 2016 program, was ordained a transitional deacon in September, and is completing his studies for the priesthood at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora. 

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