This year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps by American and Soviet forces. It is a fitting time to reflect on this horrific chapter in our human history. Why dwell on something so gruesome? One reason is this: So that the phrase “never again” may become part of our very identity as human beings.
Let’s begin with a few facts. The Nazis built the first concentration camps in 1933 primarily to hold, torture, and execute Germans who opposed Hitler’s regime. Soon other “undesirables” were sent to these camps: Roma (gypsies), Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, and eventually Jews. Some camps were designed for “the industrial-scale mass executions” of human beings—predominantly Jews. These camps were part of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” a euphemism for his plan to eradicate all Jews from the face of the earth. An estimated 6 million people (mostly Jews) were killed in these camps.
Six million. It is such an abstract number. How many is 6 million people? An analogy might help. If we recited one victim’s name every 3 seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it would take us approximately 7 1/2 months to recite the 6 million names.
I am not including pictures of the horrors of the concentration camps here. But here is a description by Col. William Quinn, US Army 7th division, who participated in the liberation of Dachau. He wrote, “There our troops found sights, sounds, and stenches horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind.”
When I reflect on these concentration/extermination camps, these four thoughts come to mind. First, these camps arose in an essentially Christian country. Germany was mostly Lutheran and Catholic. This fact greatly disturbs me. Where were the churches when Hitler was rising to power? Where were the Christians when people were being rounded up, herded into railroad cars, and hauled away? There’s no simple answer to these questions, of course. A significant number of clergy were imprisoned or killed for speaking out against Hitler. And many Christians risked their lives hiding Jews and working in the resistance movement. But the frightening reality is that many Christians (and much of the rest of the world) were fooled by Hitler until it was too late.
Second thought: The people who rounded up the Jews and who ran the camps were not monsters; they were human beings. A few years ago, 116 photos were made public by the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
The photos, taken in 1944, show SS officers (some of them guards at Auschwitz) relaxing and at play. There they are lying on canvas chairs in the sun, participating in sing-a-longs, and laughing and enjoying themselves at Solahutte, a resort near Auschwitz where guards were sent as a reward for their hard work. One picture shows twelve female SS Auxiliaries perched on a fence and smiling. One commentary noted that “the blithesome daily lives” of the Nazi guards were a “macabre contrast” to what was happening in the death camps a few miles away. The photos also show the “disconnect” between people and their actions. They could be participating in atrocious acts and appear perfectly normal. One observer concluded: “Anybody is capable of committing genocide under the right circumstances.”
Thirdly, Hitler did not invent animosity toward the Jews; he kindled the anti-Semitism that was already present in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. This raises the question: What animosity toward certain individuals or groups is present in me or in my country right now? Can I honestly acknowledge my own racism, for example, or other prejudices I may be harboring?
My fourth thought is this: The Nazi concentration camps demonstrate that we human beings can get used to great evils and grave injustices. Recently a former Auschwitz guard, now 93, was on trial. He said the killing of 300,000 Hungarian Jews was “routine.” The gas chambers were “clean” and “orderly.” He said, “In 24 hours you could take care of 5,000 people.” (Notice the phrase “take care of”…) Then he added, “After all, that’s how things went in a concentration camp.” His calm remarks make me ask myself: What grave injustices or evils in my world today have I gotten used to?
I am concluding this reflection not with a song, but with a short video of Auschwitz today. The pictures, taken by a drone, are shown with a simple musical accompaniment. The camp, located in Poland, is maintained as a World Heritage Site. Each year thousands of tourists and survivors visit Auschwitz where over one million people died between 1940 and 1945. As we watch this video, let us pray for all the victims of such heinous crimes, both the victims in the past and the victims in our own times. And let us beg God to give us faith and courage to replace such atrocities with love, understanding, and compassion.
What in this reflection moved you or touched you?