Life at the very centre of pain.

On 26 January of this year, director Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List) gave a speech in Krakow, Poland, one day before the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  He spoke to a group of around 100 survivors of the holocaust, warning them of the continued dangers of what he referred to as the ‘perennial demons of intolerance’ (for a full transcript of the speech, click here).  Something he said at the time has stayed with me since.

If you’re a Holocaust survivor your identity as a Jew was threatened by the Third Reich… Antisemites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crime – these people…want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity…

I had heard much about and studied the events of the holocaust.  I had seen films such as Schindler’s ListLa Vita e Bella, and The Pianist.  On my first visit to Israel, I had spent hours at Yad Vashem (the national Holocaust museum) overwhelmed by the magnitude of the suffering and pain which had been endured by the victims of the Nazis, and emotionally exhausted by the seemingly endless stream of personal testimonies that became ever-increasingly and tragically predictable in the destructive horror of their content.  But I had never considered the actions of Hitler’s demonic regime as an attack on Jewish identity.

But of course it was.  When the imports of this officially designated ‘sub-human’ race arrived at Auschwitz I (before systematic mass-murder was initiated at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where four gas chambers and crematoria were constructed) they were stripped of everything which would have made them unique.  When the camp was liberated in January 1945, a room was discovered which housed pairs of shoes, floor to ceiling, which were taken from the prisoners.  Another housed sacks, piled floor to ceiling, of human hair shorn from the heads of man, woman and child alike.  Another housed suitcases.  When they arrived, all their possessions, clothes and even hair was taken and replaced by a number tattooed on the arm and a pair of striped cotton pyjamas which would be no match for the frequently sub-freezing working conditions at the camp.  Even dolls and other children’s toys were demanded from every child.  The hair was taken and used to make textiles, and many of their possessions were sold.  What was found was only a modicum of what was stolen; a token of a people reduced to saleable commodities.

Recently, I had the undesirable opportunity to visit the ‘death-factory’, Auschwitz, itself.  The prospect was hardly coveted.  I find the concept of ‘holocaust tourism’ disturbing on many levels, although I recognise the need to accurately record and remember the events of the holocaust that the lessons of history might at least be available to (and stand as a witness against) posterity.  But academic relationships took me to Krakow early this month and, having a day of free time, I felt that I needed to visit this place which bore witness to surely the most wicked acts of living memory.

As an archaeologist, I attempt to understand the nature of societies from the material remains that are left behind by their populations.  I spend a great deal of time, attempting to understand and identify people from their possessions.  So as I walked around the buildings at Auschwitz, and saw many of the accumulated possessions of those who were murdered there, it became startlingly vivid to me that this was an identity theft on an unprecedented scale – not for the purpose of possession but destruction.  The Nazi enterprise at Auschwitz was an attempt to permanently brand the Jewish people with death as their identity.  The Nazi ideology defined the very existence of the Jews as a ‘problem’ that had to be ‘solved’ by eradication.

Conversely, the identity and destiny of the Jewish people as defined by Biblical history and the words of God is full of beauty and vitality.

For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself; a special treasure…  (Deuteronomy 7:6 NKJV)

You shall also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God, (Isaiah 62:3 NKJV)

Israel in the Bible is eternally and irrevocably identified with God Himself.  They are given divine and royal associations.  It was through this people that the God of the Bible chose to reveal Himself to the world; an uncomfortable truth for many Christians that also carries through into the New Testament.  All of the New Testament writers (with the possible exception of Luke) were Jewish and Jesus Himself is Jewish.  This centrality of Israel will continue into eternity.  All of the names on the gates of the New Jerusalem (the 12 tribes), and all of the names on its 12 foundations stones (the 12 apostles) will be Jewish names (Revelation 21:12-14).  God’s future home in the book of Revelation is apparently a very Jewish city!  All of this is wrapped up in the mystery and permanency of God’s election.

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29 NKJV)

It is one of the great mysteries of scripture that God has permanently given the Jewish people a divine and royal identity, regardless of their faithfulness to Him.

As I took the bus from the site of Auschwitz I to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau complex, I felt only a sense of deep desolation.  The tragedy, injustice and filthiness of the actions that had taken place seemed to be like a heavy cloud over my soul.  But when I arrived at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, I found something that shook my heart into one of the most profound experiences of hope that I have ever known.

Birkenau is the more famous of the the three compounds at Auschwitz dedicated to the fulfilment of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’.  This second camp was constructed with optimum efficiency of extermination in mind.  The iconic train tracks stretched into the camp up to just a few yards from the gas chambers and crematoria.  The vast majority of those who came to Auschwitz II were dead within minutes of arrival.  As I arrived and saw the entry of these train tracks into the camp, I was deeply moved by just how sudden it would have been, and how unprepared the thousands of arrivals would have been for the closure of their lives.

I walked along the tracks until I reached where the gas chambers had been.  They are mostly ruined now, but what remained has been preserved.  The Nazis attempted to hide their activities with a hurried demolition of the structures after the war was lost.  As I approached the first of these structures, I heard a sound that I have come to know very well; it was the sound of Israeli Hebrew.  It was fluently and natively spoken by a young woman of about 17 or 18.  I noticed it as her voice began to falter and break into a quiver.  She was obviously trying to contain a great deal of emotion.  She was relating a story (I think!) of a family member who had died at Birkenau to a group of around 20 or 30 young Israelis, all wearing white and blue hoodies.  As she began to sob, many of the other girls from the group gathered around her in an embrace.

As I looked back across the site, and continued walking, I noticed that there were several of these groups.  There must have been around 200 Israeli young people visiting the site at the same time as me, learning together and comforting one another.  What was amazing to me was that in the midst of this place of such deep horror and grief, these young people were there and were filled with exuberant joy.  Some of them were running and laughing along the train tracks as they were heading towards the exit!  I couldn’t help imagining what rage Hitler would have felt if he could have seen this – how much he failed to destroy the identity of the Jewish people.  Instead, the presence of this new generation of native-born Israelis seemed to prove their resilience.

Those young people were a potent illustration to me of the unquenchable spirit and life that is the identity of Israel.  I was reminded of these verses from Isaiah, promises God gave relating to the time when Israel would become a nation in its own land again (that’s right now!).

So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness;
Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:11 NKJV)

For you will forget the shame of your youth,
And will not remember the reproach of your widowhood anymore. (Isaiah 54:4b NKJV)

The words spoken by the prophets of the Old Testament about Israel’s future in the land of Israel seem to be coming to pass.  The bold, vibrant and vital identity of the Jewish people is being reawakened.  As I write, I am filled with a fresh desire to pray, that Israel might come into the full inheritance that she has in God; that she might receive her own Messiah, Jesus, and that her glorious identity might be realized.  As the apostle Paul wrote,

For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11:15 NKJV)

I am amazed at the faithfulness of God, that in the places of the greatest pain He is still able to come and show His life.  Like, Ezekiel prophesied, He has caused His people to come up out of their graves (Ez. 37).  He has given them breath and sinew and flesh.  He has revived them as He repeatedly promised, and brought them back to their own land.  As I walked around Birkenau, I kept hearing the famous Hebrew phrase, ‘Am Yisrael Chai!‘  ‘The people of Israel live!’  The identity of Israel is too powerful to be destroyed or permanently tainted.  It has its roots planted in the identity of God Himself, who makes everything beautiful in its time.

My thanks go to L-J B, who unknowingly helped condense some of these thoughts into something I could express on paper.

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