I haven’t written in a few weeks because it has taken me awhile to reflect on all I have learned and experienced in the past month regarding the Holocaust. The task of trying to summarize what I've seen, read, and heard, and share about it respectfully and appropriately, has been daunting. It’s hard to put everything into words, but this is my best effort.
The Hungarian Holocaust
One afternoon while my parents were visiting last month was spent learning about Jewish history in Budapest and particularly learning about the Holocaust. We first reflected on the Holocaust memorial shoes along the Danube, in memory of the Jewish victims shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. We then made our way to the Jewish district and to the Dohány Street Synagogue (or The Great Synagogue). It is the second largest synagogue in the world and my first time ever visiting one.
The Synagogue has a clear Catholic influence, as the Jews who built it were looking to be accepted by their Catholic neighbors, show respect for Christianity, and blend in. However all hope of acceptance and co-habitation was lost with the beginning of the 20th century. Due to a variety of factors, including deep anti-Semitism and resentment towards Jews, Hungary’s history of defeat and desire to regain territory, and Hungary’s complicity with the Nazis and their goal of Jewish extermination, Hungarian Jews in particular suffered during the Holocaust and nearly 600,000 lives were lost (1).
Prior to deportations to Auschwitz, Budapest’s Jewish Quarter surrounding the Great Synagogue was walled up and became a ghetto. Many Jews lost their lives here due to poor conditions, starvation, and disease before they even made it to Auschwitz. Unlike most synagogues, the Great Synagogue has a cemetery and memorial marking the mass grave of over 2,000 Jews who died in the ghetto. A bit past the cemetery there is a Holocaust Memorial Garden with a large, metal weeping willow with the names of victims etched on the leaves. There are additional artistic monuments as well as a symbolic grave honoring the handful of Gentiles who risked their lives to save their persecuted neighbors. One such hero is Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who used his position to save over 60,000 Jews during the war.
Before World War II, 25% of Budapest was Jewish and today, only 1% is. Our tour guide at the Synagogue was a student around my age and she did an incredible job educating us on the Great Synagogue and Budapest’s Jewish history but also catching us up on the present situation. A Jew herself, she gave a personal look into her life, religion, and thoughts on the current political and economic situation in Hungary. Tragically, she expressed a concerning growth in anti-Semitism in recent years that has led many of the few Jews left in Budapest to practice at home; only around 30 people regularly worship at the Great Synagogue. She also mentioned her generation’s general discontentment with the Orbán government, leading them to want to leave Hungary and live and work abroad.
Fast forward a week and the wet gravel is crunching beneath my feet as I walk in the footsteps of a million ghosts. At the beginning of November we spent a weekend in Krakow, Poland, site seeing and learning about the city’s history, especially in regards to its Jewish population. Prior to World War II, Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish population at 3.5 million (1). During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered 4.5 million Jews in Poland and by the end of the war, only 300,000 Polish Jews survived (1). Similar to Budapest, today only a mere 10,000 Jews live in Poland. One day of our time in Poland was spent visiting the largest of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz functioned as a labor and extermination camp for the Nazis from 1942 to 1945 and is actually made up of two camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (also known as Birkenau). 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, and although statistics are disputed, it is estimated that 1.1 million people were killed here, 960,000 of them Jewish, with 430,000 of those being Hungarian Jews (1). All of the Hungarian Jews arrived within a ten-week period in the summer of 1944, thanks to the extremely compliant and willing assistance of Hungarian officials and citizens (2).
Our visit began at Auschwitz I, the originally camp, which held an average of 14,000 prisoners at a time. We were greeted by the ironic “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Works Bring Freedom) sign at the entrance gate of Auschwitz that welcomed new prisoners. Many of the buildings at Auschwitz were made of brick and survived the war, however several have been converted into exhibits and our tour guide led us through many, highlighting different aspects of the Holocaust and life at Auschwitz. One focused on how prisoners were killed, another on the living conditions and everyday life for prisoners in the camp, and one on the plunder of personal belongings.
Yet another block highlighted extermination and had a chilling model of a crematorium, showing visitors where the victims would enter, undress, be killed by the Zyklon-B poison in the “showers,” and then, now corpses, be taken by the elevators to the crematorium. When all four gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were in use, it would take roughly 20 minutes to kill 8,000 people (1). One deeply disturbing aspect of this whole process is the role of the Sonderkommandos, the Jewish prisoners forced to work in the chambers. They were ordered to remove the corpses’ gold teeth and shave their hair to be sold before putting them in the ovens. It was not uncommon for Sonderkommandos to come across their own family members or friends during their work. After a few months, the Sonderkommandos were gassed and a new group was brought in to replace them.
Next we went to Block 11, also known as “Death Block” since no one ever left alive, which was used to punish prisoners through torture. Here Nazis had, in addition to torture rooms, a starvation cell (for prisoners sentenced to starve to death), a dark cell (prisoners isolated in darkness), standing cells (prisoners forced to stand in crowded cells for hours at a time), and rooms where they first tested out Zyklon B on Russian POWs. The courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11 was where the executions of political prisoners, religious leaders, and leaders of the camp resistance took place.
Auschwitz also has several exhibits that highlight the different nationalities and people groups that suffered at the camp. We visited Block 18 which does a fantastic job of creatively telling the story of the Hungarian Holocaust. Our last stop at Auschwitz I was a deeply moving one, to the camp gas chamber and crematorium that could kill up to 700 people at a time. Still intact, although partly rebuilt, we walked through the changing room, to the “showering” room where the gassing took place, and finally to the ovens. To stand in the place where thousands of people spent their last moments on earth was incomprehensible. To try to imagine what life was like here seventy years prior, when naked, frightened people breathed their last in this musty room. A room strategically, efficiently designed to destroy them. How does one even begin to comprehend that?
From the outside of the crematorium we could see the house of Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz, where he lived with his family during the war years. Being in such close proximity to the camp, and the chambers, apparently did not bother him and following the end of the war, Höss was prosecuted and appropriately hanged just outside this place, between the chambers and his former home.
Following Auschwitz, we made a short trip to the nearby camp of Birkenau. In 1941 the Nazis realized Auschwitz was too small to meet their needs so they built Birkenau, which held up to around 100,000 inmates at a time.
Upon arriving at Birkenau, we entered through the iconic main gate, where the cattle cars came in, and walked along the railroad tracks to the landing platform. The platform is where hundreds of thousands of people got their first glimpse of the camp, that is, if they survived the treacherous journey at all. Deportees were loaded in overcrowded cattle cars with no food, water, and little air circulation for days, sometimes up to a week at a time, only being let out once they arrived at their destination. By the time they finally arrived, many had already passed away. So arriving at a concentration camp, as it is reported, actually brought a sense of relief.
The “selection” or “dividing” process often took place on the platform immediately after unloading the living and dead from the cattle cars. This is the process where a Nazi doctor evaluated the prisoners and decided if they were either fit to work, and sent to the left, or unfit, and sent to the right – to immediate death. This was the moment where families were forever torn apart. Our tour guide reported that around 80% of victims were gassed immediately upon arrival, walking straight from the platform to the chambers. As the doomed walked to their death, those seen fit to work were “marched off to the quarantine barracks, where they were initiated into a series of rituals designed to destroy their identity and their personality and thus their capacity for resistance” (3, pg. 34).
We continued walking along the railroad tracks, the same path those sentenced to death would have walked, to the gas chambers. It’s hard to put an experience like this into words; my soul was silenced with overwhelming somberness, with mourning, and a holy reverence. It’s as if I could feel the gravity of this loss of life, the multitude of mourning on behalf of the victim’s lives and their future generations that never got the chance to exist. It was if I could feel God’s silent, heavy heart beating slowly in this scarred place.
At the end of the gravel path we reached the ruins of where two gas chambers and crematoriums used to be. The Germans destroyed them at the end of the war, and all that is left now are gnarls of cement and metal twisted in a ramshackle mess, overgrown with grass and moss, appropriately grotesque and unpolished. Next to the ruins is a memorial in several languages, representing the different countries the victims came from and the different languages spoken in the camps.
Birkenau is quite large and the Nazis didn't have time to destroy everything before the war ended, yet many of the barracks were made of wood and burned to the ground, or were dismantled and used for fuel and building materials shortly after the camp was liberated. Despite this, and thanks to the reconstruction of some barracks, it was still possible to get a sense of what the camp looked like during the war.
We visited one barrack, that did survive the war, where prisoners slept. These barracks generally held about 700 people and were filled with three-level wooden bunks that slept 4 to 5 people on each level. Our guide shared that the most sought after level on the bunk was the middle one because the roof leaked and rain and snow could fall on the prisoners on the top bunk and those on the bottom level slept on the floor, in the mud with the vermin. The barrack had a small stove for heating, and the inmates were supposed to get coal to heat it, but of course no coal was ever given.
We also visited a reconstructed wooden barrack which housed latrines and washrooms. There was a row of exposed toilets, fostering humiliation as they provided no privacy, and showers. The Nazis were afraid to enter the barrack because of the risk of disease and unsanitary conditions, so it became the center of the inmate’s resistance movement and black market (1).
Conditions are reported to have been even worse in Birkenau then at Auschwitz, and we read about the sheer horror experienced by the inmates at the camp in Kingdom of Auschwitz by Otto Friedrich. Just one example of such conditions would be the starvation hundreds of thousands faced. Extreme starvation and malnutrition caused rare diseases to crop up and even cases of cannibalism were allegedly not rare in Birkenau. As Friedrich puts it, “they would beat each other to death for food… they were no longer human beings” (3, pg. 12-13).
The Reality of the Holocaust
I’ve studied genocide, and specifically the Holocaust, before and have toured the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau and the Killing Fields, a mass murder site from the Cambodian genocide, so in visiting Auschwitz I had an idea of what to expect and how I might feel. Yet this time around I’ve definitely been challenged in new ways and different aspects of the Holocaust have stood out to me.
One thing that really hit me this time was the reality of it all. When I was younger everything was starkly black and white; history seemed to be boxed off and far removed from the present. Even though the Holocaust only took place some seventy years ago, it was hard to imagine that it happened to real people, people just like you and I - people who had lives, careers, families, fears, dreams, and aspirations.
In one exhibit at Auschwitz, the walls were lined with photos of prisoners, listing their date of birth and death (or execution) and former occupations. To see young men and women my age, to look them in their vacant eyes and realize their lives were tragically cut short, imagining the futures they would have had if their lives had not been stolen from them, and to imagine myself in their shoes, was tragic. Seeing the victims occupations also really impacted me, because I could get a better sense of who they were and what their lives were like. One man stood out to me in particular. He was a cartoonist.
Another block at Auschwitz highlights the material items stolen from the victims – pots, pans, suitcases, shoes, eye glasses, combs… the things people brought with them to, as they were told, build a new life. The fact that many women brought high heels highlights the reality that they truly didn’t know what awaited them at Auschwitz. One of the most disturbing exhibits was the nearly 4,400 pounds of human hair that laid limp in a glass display. Individuals had their heads shaved, either off their dead bodies or to humiliate them while still alive, and the hair was sold and exported to Germany.
Seeing the photos of some prisoners, and just a small portion of the hair and possessions stolen from them, really drove home the reality that millions of individual lives that were lost in the Holocaust. In the face of immense numbers and tragedy, it’s easy to lose sight of this. However nothing brought home the reality of the Holocaust quite like walking through the gas chamber, as I previously mentioned. To realize that people breathed their last, desperate breath in that same space, all because of hatred, is something I will never forget.
Implications and Responsibility
In reflecting on the reality of the Holocaust and the loss of millions of individual lives, I also kept thinking about how random it is that they were the ones who suffered, or committed the atrocities, and we weren't/aren't. How easily our roles could have been reversed. How arbitrary it is that I was born into a stable, loving, affluent family in the United States and have never been hindered in the pursuit of my dreams. Over the past few years, it has been this constant awareness of my privilege that has led me to feel a deep sense of responsibility to others around the world who don’t have the same opportunities I do.
Therefore it just felt weird to have a warm, comfy bus bring us from a delicious breakfast at our hotel in Krakow to Auschwitz, where we were catered to as paying guests, then to lunch, and then back to Budapest again. I kept thinking of what the implications of this privilege are for our lives, for the lucky ones who can afford to go to Europe and study the Holocaust and tour Auschwitz. Not to mention, the responsibility that comes with seeing what we have seen and learning what we have learned now. We are now witnesses to the atrocity of the Holocaust. How does that change us? How does that change how we live, how we view humanity, how we view and respond to present day war and conflict? There is enormous responsibility that comes with the freedom and affluence many of us possess.
Friedrich ends The Kingdom of Auschwitz with a reference to a riddle by William Styron: “‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’ The answer is only another question: ‘Where was man?’” (3, pg 101). I find this riddle comforting, in the face of questions regarding God’s existence and goodness relative to the Holocaust, remembering that God acts in partnership with us to bring about His will in the world. Yet I also find it challenging, because as this riddle implies, we are responsible and implicated with how history turns out. Daily after a brief scroll through my Twitter feed, I feel like the world is falling apart. Climate change, war, power struggles, exploitation, inequality, disease, famine, sectarian, religious, and ethnic conflict; Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Hong Kong, West Africa, Ferguson, Mexico… I could go on.
So with the Holocaust we ask where was God, and where was man? Legitimate questions worth pondering and wrestling with, yet ultimately we can’t reverse time. In response to visiting Auschwitz then, I believe we should instead focus on the question of where are we? And where will we be? How will future generations look back on us? How can we partner with God to bring about shalom in this deeply fractured world, so one less person will look to Him with anger, asking where He was in their time of darkness? This is what being Christ in the world looks like and this is one way I believe visiting Auschwitz should change us.
Another way encountering evil like the Holocaust should change us is by confronting us with the complex reality of human nature. It is easy to simply demonize the Nazis and view the victims as wholly good, but on deeper reflection the Holocaust reveals that we are all a mix of good and evil. We all have the capacity for incredible love and kindness, but also for wickedness. This evil shows its face every day when we act in small and subtle ways out of selfishness and hatred towards others. In responding to Auschwitz, it is critical to realize that we are not black and white creatures. We need, with humility, to see ourselves in the shoes of the Nazis and realize that we are not above, or far removed from, what they did.
How the Holocaust Changes our Philosophy on Development
Studying the Holocaust this time around, and especially reading The Kingdom of Auschwitz, posed some serious questions regarding how we approach development work. Germany was a Western, civilized, well-educated and generally affluent (although struggling with economic instability following World War I) society. They had achieved what many see as the ideal for development, and yet they were the perpetrators of mass torture and extermination. In reading The Kingdom of Auschwitz, it is truly unbelievable how strategically, meticulously, and elaborately these very well-educated people designed a system to exterminate their enemies. It was not a mistake or done in a moment of anger, like some murders are, rather the Holocaust was a well thought out, systemic, intentional, and lethal attack against Jews.
I know this seems obvious, but it continues to blow my mind. Consider even the role of doctors at concentration camps. DOCTORS! Western, educated doctors. They were often the ones who decided who went straight to the chambers and who lived. Not to mention they are notorious for performing inhumane experiments on prisoners.
In the field of development, so much hope is placed in education. Yet during the Holocaust, the people who would appear to be some of the most developed and educated on the earth committed unspeakable horrors. So education alone is not the answer. Same goes for economic development. So what then are we aiming for? When it comes to development, what solutions should we advocate for? What is conducive to holistic, societal flourishing, and not just an increase in the standard of living? As a Christian, how do I pass on my values and beliefs, such as the worth of every human, and incorporate them into my work, without pushing my religion or isolating non-Christians?
Again, I’m left with more questions than answers. The older I get (granted I’m only 21) and the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know… how many more uncertainties and grey areas there are in this world then I thought. Yet somehow, mysteriously, I've found that it is in process of facing these questions that seem unanswerable that I become a better, more authentic, and broken yet complete human. I believe that the wonder, doubt, confusion, and frustration I carry puts me in a more humble place to love others and find solutions to development issues than I would have been if I thought I had all the answers.
Tonight in class we watched Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, the empowering story of German student activist Sophie Scholl, her brother, and the anti-Nazi resistance group they were apart of who ultimately got executed by the Gestapo. While in custody, Sophie prays "God, all I can do is stutter to you." This semester, after studying the Holocaust, social change, the war in the Balkans, Hungary's tragic history, and being confronted with injustice nearly every day, i'm weary. Enlightened and aware, but weary. To stand resolute in the face of injustice is a tiresome task, but what alternative do we have? I echo Sophie's prayer. I have no answers, I have nothing profound or helpful to say. I can simply stutter, offering my hopes and prayers to a God I refuse to give up on and my fellow people I believe will fight with me. May we not lose hope.