On 27 January, 74 years ago, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, was liberated. On this day each year, the world remembers the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust and all subsequent genocides. In 2017, I visited the death camps at Auschwitz with a group of Christian leaders.
We were guided through the entrance gate with the words Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free) written in the iron arch. Jewish captives would pass under this gate each morning to the sound of an orchestra, as they began their day of hard labour. We saw where the Nazis used to house and work the Jews. We saw the firing wall where they shot women, and the offices of the Nazi generals with Hitler’s picture still hung on the wall. We saw the ‘courts’, the gas chambers and furnaces (to burn the bodies) and Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss’s house, where he lived with his wife and children in perfect luxury next door to the torture.
We were taken through various displays that evidenced the atrocities. This is where I broke down. Amidst a room of hair taken from the prisoners (estimates of 50,000 scalps) I saw the blond plaits of a young girl, she could have been no older than my daughter, and it suddenly became personal. Tears running down my face we went on to see piles of glasses once used to read poetry, pots and pans once used to share family meals, and stacks of tins containing Zyklon B (the killer gas). There were photographs of deformed and starving people experimented on in the name of ‘progress’ and various other logistical and bureaucratic records, showing how far these poor people were shipped in from.
We went back to our coach, our heads face down and in silence. I did not think it could get any worse… I was wrong.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
We took the short drive to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. In the middle of nowhere, we were greeted by the imposing tower of the camp entrance where cattle trains drove human beings in like cargo. All that is left from the buildings where the Jews were housed are the superfluous brick chimneys which stood at either end of what was a wooden structure. These lifeless towers of despair stretch out on either side of the track in their hundreds, all the way to the trees on the horizon.
The original Jewish arrivals were re-homed in these buildings. The conditions were awful, but at first there was some provision for them. These first families were welcomed and told it was a short-term arrangement during the war effort. This period was not a gracious one, but one callously conjured up for the Nazi’s propaganda efforts. These unsuspecting souls were told that they could write postcards home welcoming their friends and relatives to come and join them with nothing to fear but hard work. They did write, and they did come, by the hundreds of thousands. Many people died on the journey. They were crammed into carriages like cattle from all over Europe enduring extreme temperatures and suffocation.
On arrival, men were placed on one side of the platform and women and children on the other. Nazi doctors chose (at most) eighty from every five hundred men fit enough to work, with the rest stripped, sent to the ‘showers’ and gassed to death along with the women and children. The deceased would then be taken from the chamber by the Jewish prisoners, who were often those men and boys ‘saved’ moments earlier. Their first work task was to pull out their family members’ teeth and drag their lifeless bodies into the incinerator. At peak times, it would take just thirty minutes for people to be turned into dust, from landing on the platform to the incinerator.
None is righteous, no not one
This was not a normal historical tour; it was grim with an air of evil. I could hear many comments on the ‘business-like’ process of the camp, and it certainly was a production line of death. But it was far more than the coldness of business; it was beyond the evil of war.
Yet later investigations proved that there was nothing unique, genetically or psychologically, about the Nazis behind the atrocities. They loved their families just like us, they enjoyed relationships just like us, they ate and drank just like us and just like us they had a vein of evil at their very core.
The Bible gives the best explanation for this phenomenon in the account of the fall of man and the total depravity of humanity (Romans 3:10). Our capacity to love is matched with a capacity to sin, and we are all driven by pride, greed and lust – the fuel of hate! We are all in some way guilty of such evil, and this means that we all need a Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts this innate sickness of man perfectly in his book about the Soviet forced labour camp system, The Gulag Archipelago.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
This sickness is in us all; the cure is Jesus Christ.
Set free by the blood of the Lamb
It is poignant to note that on the gates that enter into the place of most extreme evil, Auschwitz-Birkenau, are the words Arbeit macht frei which mean Work sets you free. This is the very opposite of the heart of the gospel message.
It is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
If there were to be a sign to be placed above the gates of heaven’s gates, surely it would read ‘saved by the blood of the Lamb’.
The evil that I passively experienced on my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the emotions it conjured reaffirms to me the reality of the biblical narrative. We are in a cursed world, and man’s propensity for evil is great. Never have I been more inspired to preach the love of God to the world, for only in the gospel do we have salvation from such realities Only in the gospel do we have meaning in such trial and hope amidst the reality of such evil. Only through the gospel can humanity cease to be capable of such horrific crimes.
In the gift shop I bought a postcard, a picture of Christ on the cross scraped into the wall of cell 21. On the back, I wrote the words of John 1:5: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’