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“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper.” (Proverbs 28:13)
January 27th marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi run Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in Poland. A few days before, on January 21st, while on a pilgrimage-retreat to Poland, I had the opportunity to join with a few of my brother priests in my first visit to the remains of the camps, which have now become an emotionally striking museum and a memorial to so many who lost their lives there. Sadly, my awareness of the increase in violent expressions of antisemitism, even in the “land of the free and home of the brave,” made my visit even more poignant.
A visitor can walk through a number of “blocks” which have been preserved as they were found seventy-five years ago and observe how these unfortunate prisoners were forced to live. I would describe the spaces as highly utilitarian, devoid of individuality. This was obviously meant to depict the residents as dehumanized, as did the uniforms they were forced to wear and the removal of all of their personal possessions, anything which might set them apart. The museum contains display cases that include the personal possessions that were, to be clear and avoid euphemism, stolen from all who were unfortunate enough to walk under the gate bearing the lying words, “Work Makes You Free.” There is a display with hundreds of trunks obviously held by people who thought their stay would be brief. One display contains hundreds of shoes and another hundreds of pairs of glasses. The morbidity of the display containing hundreds of pounds of human hair taken from their victims is only surpassed by the display of hundreds of cans which contained the Zyklon B gas that would be used to murder so many there. Walking in the footsteps of these innocent victims of hatred touches the human heart deeply.
One cannot leave Auschwitz-Birkenau without asking oneself, how? How could human beings be so cruel to each other?
One cannot leave Auschwitz-Birkenau without asking oneself, how? How could human beings be so cruel to each other? Perhaps answering that question requires a lifetime of contemplation but undoubtedly Auschwitz is humanity at its worst. Some were exterminated immediately, but others were used for the financial gain of that malevolent regime. They would be used up, all of their possessions and every ounce of strength they had, for a cause that was founded upon hatred of them. Then they would be thrown away. The barbarism of these acts is compounded by the silence of so many in the face of what can only be described as pure evil.
One cannot leave such a place without being changed. Perhaps part of that change for many is an increased sensitivity to the attitudes that, when left unchecked, lead to the brutality that Auschwitz embodies. Whenever people cannot be bothered to discover the complexity of their neighbors or their dignity as human persons, but instead dismiss them with superficial, prejudicial labels, we have the potential for another chapter of the inhumanity of Auschwitz. I left Auschwitz-Birkenau with a renewed sense of purpose for our mission in interreligious dialogue. Through an unwavering commitment to truly knowing and appreciating the “other,” along with an embrace of their dignity as human persons, may we, with the greatest of integrity, join the chorus of voices that has been saying for the past seventy-five years, “Never again.”
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