Meditation and Reflection

The Prayer Shawls of Auschwitz

This is a guest post by Brother Ivo.

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Those who have visited Auschwitz are likely to find their thoughts straying back there on this day of Holocaust remembrance. A visit both underwhelms with the very ordinariness of the buildings, yet at the same time the significance overwhelms, as Auschwitz reaffirms its special place in the pit of human history.

A visit needs to be approached like a pilgrimage, with preparation, otherwise there will be a numbing of the experience, a confusion of conflicting emotions which may encompass anger, indignation, bewilderment and the deepest sadness. The reactions of others around you may mirror your own, yet they may not, and that too can be a challenge. Some seem visibly shocked, some deeply affected, some struggle, whilst others present as merely curious and that response can be a challenge as it may offends one’s own interpretation.

The Holocaust was possible because the humanity of the rejected was stripped away from them as it was, is, and always will be from the unwanted, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, wherever we are in the world.

Holocaust Memorial Day needs its universal dimension.

There, all humanity was killed in a systematic, planned way; not in anger, but simply because that is what the state said needed to be done, and someone had to do it.

It has to be universal, but it also has to be rooted in places like Auschwitz, which shows how genocide moves beyond the personal killing of Abel by Cain. Here it is shown in all its bureaucratic, banal evil. Hair is cropped and piled here, children’s shoes collected and dumped over there.

When I visited, I realised that I would need to take a Bible and that I should find a suitable quiet place to read it. I decided on Psalm 88 and Psalm 10. I invite you to read them. You will find there the anguish of those who wore the prayer shawls captured in verse after verse.

Psalm 88
O LORD God of my salvation,
have cried day and night before thee:
let my prayer come before thee:
incline thine ear unto my cry;
for my soul is full of troubles:
and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.
I am counted with them that go down into the pit:
I am as a man that hath no strength:
free among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
whom thou rememberest no more:
and they are cut off from thy hand.
Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit,
in darkness, in the deeps.
Thy wrath lieth hard upon me,
and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves.

Psalm 10
Why standest thou afar off, O LORD?
Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?
The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor:
let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined.
For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire,
and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth.
The wicked, through the pride of his countenance,
will not seek after God:
God is not in all his thoughts.
His ways are always grievous;
thy judgments are far above out of his sight:
as for all his enemies, he puffeth at them.
He hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved:
for I shall never be in adversity.

These Psalms surely must have been prayed under those shawls.

Psalm 88 is particularly striking because of its steadfast refusal to find any cause for optimism. “Life is grim,” says the Psalmist. “I know it is grim, God – you know it is grim.”

‘Let’s not kid each other’ is the subtext.

It concludes with no verse of praise, no expectation of redemption, no hope. This is why I think Psalm 88 must have been the Psalm for Auschwitz. The evil was so evil that it takes mortal man beyond hope.

Yet surprisingly Psalm 10 begins to recover from the blow. It ends:

O LORD thou wilt hear the desire of the meek
thou wilt strengthen their heart thou wilt incline thine ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

I chose to read these psalms before I went, and I found the place to contemplate their meaning as I stood before those prayer shawls displayed as if on a gibbet in a cabinet. Surely these psalms expressed the prayers of those who suffered and prayed under them.

Many who are separated from the scriptures by the modern world may be shocked by their candour, directness, and anger. God is no stranger to the outrage of those who suffer. Two things are striking: Psalm 88 is in the same spirit as those who urged Job to ‘Curse God and die’. Psalm 10, which retains hope, pre-figures the ‘Song of Mary’ – The Magnificat.

Contrast:

Let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined
For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire

with:

He has scattered the Proud
in the imagination of their hearts.

And so God did.

So He did.

The underlying sin of Auschwitz and the genocidal killer is that of Adam himself – Pride. The proud have supplanted the judgment of God with the judgment of themselves. They take to themselves the right to judge and the power of life and death itself, and when Man does that, it leads to places like Auschwitz.

It does not last. If the world hates His people, it hated Him first and God is not mocked for long.

Auschwitz also teaches that early in its story the Atheist Nazi State consigned to the camp the leaders of Polish Church lest it speak its truths, hold its peoples to hope, and challenge the inhumanity of what was to come, and the pride that underpinned it.

As God sent His son, so it sent His Church.

Amongst those was Maximillian Kolbe, ‘The Saint of Auschwitz’, who lit a feint light in the darkness by laying down his life in place of another man. His story is worth reading today. It is one of sacrifice and the triumph of faith and hope.

Yet there is another lesson and paradox to be found at Auschwitz today. It is full of living Jews: young Jews, confident Jews, handsome young men and beautiful young girls, tanned and healthy carrying their national flag. They, too, are on a pilgrimage and have prepared themselves for it.

They represent the refusal to allow the triumph of those who hated them then and who hate them today. Their presence demonstrates the power of hope in all places of despair: the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

God will not have it any other way. As the Jewish singer-poet Leonard Cohen has written: “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

It is true about our fractured humanity, our brittle pride, and our broken hearts.

Before the Prayer Shawls of Auschwitz, it is possible to doubt and to cry out: “How can this happen? How can this be redeemed?”

With His living Church and His Chosen People, the answer comes back on this and every other day: because with God, all things are possible.