‘Who will say Kaddish for me?’ – remember, lest we ever forget.

Last October on a bracing sunny day I had the privilege, as distinct from the pleasure, of visiting Auschwitz concentration camp on the outskirts of Krakow in Poland, where more than a million Jewish men, women and children were murdered as part of Nazi Germany’s ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question.
A guide brought us through the remains of the camp. His dead-pan, understated commentary set in relief the horror of what happened there. He explained in detail the process by which Jews were rounded up, in Hungary for example, promised a new and better life, loaded into railway carriages used to transport cattle, given no food and no water and brought hundreds of miles across Europe to the ‘terminal’ at Auschwitz where German doctors including the infamous Dr. Mengele, separated them on the platform into two groups: those strong enough to carry out the necessary work of the camp; and the rest, those who were brought to the gas chambers.
Those destined for a quick death had their hair shorn (to become part of a carpet-making enterprise), any gold in their teeth pulled forcibly out, their clothes taken from them as naked they were ushered into a chamber, presuming what they faced was a communal shower when, to their horror, they heard the gas entering the enclosed area where they died within minutes. Their bodies were then removed and piled into incinerators as the putrid smell of burning flesh enveloped the area.
The guide brought us to rooms filled with thousands of shoes, thousands of glasses and a mound of human hair, stark reminders of what remained of the lives of over a million Jews. He explained in graphic detail the exploitation, torture, abuse that ravaged the lives of those deemed fit and strong enough to be forced to help operate the camp. The walls of one room were covered with pictures of individual with the abbreviated details of their lives, giving a sense of the personal stories behind the mountain of statistics.
The guide’s words were received in complete silence, even by a group of teenagers on a school trip who might be expected to be their usual boisterous selves. Because silence was the only response as the ‘story’ of Auschwitz was translated for us before our eyes from the cold details of the pages history book or classroom to the elemental horror of what it actually meant for those who lived and died in Auschwitz.
Last week the world remembered that horror on Holocaust Memorial Day, as the world marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Survivors of the camp gathered in a snow-covered landscape for a ceremony of remembrance and around the world television programmes sought to give the occasion its due, notably BBC television, as ever striking the right notes.
At the end the Chief Rabbi prayed the Kaddish, the Jewish Prayer for the dead. It brought back memories of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, speaking so movingly of those going to the death-chambers in Auschwitz asking: ‘Who will say Kaddish for me?’
Usually there is someone to stand at a grave to observe the formal religious rituals but for the dying of Auschwitz there was only the death-sound of the gas in the shower room of the crematorium to accompany the gruesome endings.
Even secular Jews, those with no religious faith (like secular Irish ‘Catholics’ not fully immune to the value of Catholic death-rituals) would want their passing to be marked in some formal way.
Standing outside the camp, after having my mind dipped in the reality behind the grim Auschwitz statistics, my first thought was to get as far and as fast as I could from the heretofore unimaginable horror of the gas chambers and the cold and calculated factory of death devised by the Nazi in humankind’s greatest ever atrocity.
It was so difficult to comprehend this infamous example of man’s inhumanity to man that the temptation was to file it away undisturbed in the recesses of the mind.
Yet the reality is that versions of Auschwitz recur again and again in human history, from the sixth century B.C. when, during the Babylonian Exile, the Jews ‘sat and wept remembering Zion’ to the more recent ‘solution’ deployed by Milosevic and Karadzic and the Serbs against Muslims and Croatians in Yugoslavia.
Forgetting or allowing time to diminish the significance of Auschwitz is not an option. Remembering is a human and historical imperative.
Part of our group included a number of Germans who had resisted for years making a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. It was for everyone an uncomfortable experience but for Germans especially so. It has haunted, and still haunts, a nation that recovered dramatically from two world wars but still can’t get its collective mind around its extermination of six million Jews.
The temptation for the Germans is to try and spread the responsibility, to dissipate their ownership of the horror by arguing that humankind in general should shoulder the blame.
The temptation for the rest of us is to imagine that no possible combination of circumstances could conspire to bring you or me down that road, to find us participating in or ever justifying in what was so clearly immoral or unacceptable.
Trying to come to terms with the reality of places like Auschwitz is about recognizing the limitations of a world and a humanity where, in William Butler Yeats’ words, the best ‘lack all conviction’ while the worst are ‘full of passionate intensity’.
Recognising too that wherever enormous atrocities take place ­- in a world war or in a concentration camp – the ground is hallowed by suffering and death. It’s why Gettysburg is forever special to Americans and Calvary to Christians. Places become sacred as remembering becomes an imperative and not an option.
It was wonderful to see groups of young people visiting Auschwitz, future citizens of a world with so many competing ideologies. Wouldn’t it be wonderful too if, as well as going on pilgrimage to Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje and Taize, the young particularly were to visit that shrine we call Auschwitz, that place made sacred by the blood of over one million innocent men, women and children?
We may not like going to places like Auschwitz but we need to go. To remember lest we might ever forget.

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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Thank you, Brendan. As always, you’ve got to the heart of it.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Thanks, Brendan.
    I watched the BBC programme, “as ever striking the right notes”, as you say. Programmes such as this have an extra poignancy for me, in that my mother’s family came from Germany, albeit about 1868, escaping from strife, and we have letters from cousins who lived through those times in Germany.
    I wish in no way to take away from full attention to the horrors of the holocaust.
    And yet … I am reminded that it’s the notes which are not struck which are also needed. I am reminded of the empire-building of other nations and states, and of the holocaust, not so concentrated but equally lethal, inflicted on so many millions. I am reminded of the way that European powers carved up Africa between themselves at the Berlin Conference of 1884/85, as if by divine right, and the destruction which ensued, perhaps in the name of “civilisation”. I am reminded of the viciously humiliating terms imposed on Germany after the first World War. And I am reminded of some of the savage acts perpetrated here in Ireland, including during our own very uncivil Civil War.
    And I am reminded of Guantanamo, and Abu Graib, and Gaza, and Uganda, and so many more.
    Scripture takes evil and suffering seriously. Well does Job lament in our first reading next Sunday, despite the fairy tale ending. At every Mass, we have what we say amazingly is a “celebration”, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes.
    Well may we strike the right notes, without forgetting the notes not sounded. The God of mercy and compassion is to be found and revealed in the most awful darkness. Stephen Fry wrestled with that, speaking with Gay Byrne. The God he does not believe in is also the God in whom I do not believe.
    Kyrie, eleison.

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan, thank you for that very moving piece. As chance would have it, the Holocaust had been very much on my mind since I read, last night, a piece by Olivia O’Leary in Sunday’s Sunday Independent in which she writes that “We may find it impossible to forgive but we should never forget, not what the Nazis did, not what our government did in refusing entry to so many Jews fleeing Hitler, nor indeed the pogrom against the Jews in Limerick in 1904”
    I never knew any of that until last night.

  4. René Girard argues convincingly that the Bible is a series of revelations of the injustice of a scapegoating process that recurs again and again in human history and that Jesus was ‘outing’ that very phenomenon in his indictment of those seeking his own life.
    How did it come about, then, that Christendom shamefully repeated the process again and again towards Jews – and that anti-Semitism caught hold even in Ireland. Oliver J Flanagan’s repetition of the deicide charge in Dail Eireann in 1943 was especially disgraceful:
    “How is it that we do not see any of these [Emergency Powers] Acts directed against the Jews, who crucified Our Saviour nineteen hundred years ago, and who are crucifying us every day in the week? …. Until we rout the Jews out of this country it does not matter a hair’s breadth what orders you make. Where the bees are there is the honey, and where the Jews are there is the money.”
    Could this have been uttered in our parliament if Irish Catholic clergy had always opposed, explicitly, this wickedly mistaken interpretation of the Gospel story, and if they had always honoured, explicitly, the complete Jewishness of the ‘Holy Family’? (Both Joseph and Jesus were circumcised.) Still today it is a rarity to hear an Irish cleric ‘going there’ or even emphasising the obvious solidarity shown by God in scripture towards all victims, or the splendour of the Jewish scriptures in revealing this.
    I was seriously startled to hear a religious sister I respected saying something like the following at the height of the Monica Lewinsky / Bill Clinton scandal: “They say it’s because she’s Jewish, you know!” She said this within fifty feet of a statue of Our Lady, whose complete Jewishness had somehow totally escaped her Catholic understanding.
    Does anyone know if Flanagan’s statement in 1943 was publicly contradicted at the time by any Irish Catholic spokesperson?

  5. I too am amazed by the cruelty displayed by those responsible for the network of death established by Hitler and his Reich. I think about the millions more who were killed and remain nameless because they were Gypsies and “defective” because of birth or because of other causes. They too need prayers. We forget or ignore that even today there are those who are cut off from society by their own choice or by the will of society.
    It would be interesting to see a study dedicated to the six million “others” who died, or were sent from the camps to prison to finish out their sentences, in particular those who wore the “pink tingle.”

  6. Seán@4, I suppose we have to accept that Oliver J’s outrageous statement was never contradicted by a spokesperson for the Irish Catholic Church.

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