Preached on 27 January 2008
by Michael Sadgrove
We did not yet know which was the better side, right or left: which road led to prison and which to the crematorium. Our procession continued to move slowly forward. Not far from us flames were leaping up from a ditch. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load - little children, babies. A little further on was another and larger ditch for adults. Was I awake? How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent?. I told my father I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it. "Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us. Today anything is allowed. Anything is possible." His voice was choking. Someone began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I do not know if in the long history of the Jews people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves. In the depths of my heart I bade farewell to my father, to the whole universe, and in spite of myself, the words formed themselves and issued in a whisper from my lips: "May his name be blessed and magnified". The moment had come. I was face to face with the Angel of Death.
Today, 27th January, is Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. Today we remember the millions who perished at the hand of the Nazis and in the other genocides and acts of ethnic cleansing of modern times. After Evensong in this Cathedral there will be a simple vigil of prayer in which to remember victims, most of whom died without memory. We shall ask for the resolve to build a more Christ-like world in which every member of the human family is equally valued and where prejudice has no place. We shall pray that what happened in the 20th century in Armenia, in Germany and in Europe, in Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda and Bosnia will not happen again, anywhere, ever.
In the Nazi holocaust, two thirds of all the Jews in Europe perished. The rest carry the physical and emotional scars with them in memories that can never fully be healed. It is part of my own psyche too, as a second generation survivor. Almost too late, my grandparents got my uncle and my mother out of Germany before the borders were closed. But for that, they would have been transported to Treblinka, Dachau or Auschwitz with other members of the family. This country took them in and they lived in the arms of strangers. But they had their own survivor-guilt to deal with. The holocaust was and is a defining experience in the life of Jewish people today, and will be for generations to come.
Genocide is never an accident. It is deliberate, calculated, systematic and precisely executed. It has to be to succeed. Evil triumphed, as evil always does, because good men and women stood by and did nothing. The German pastor Martin Niemöller was himself imprisoned in a concentration camp because of his resistance to the Nazis. He said, in words that haunt us: ‘First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no-one left to speak out for me.'
The Sho'ah or holocaust stands as a symbol for all time of what human beings are capable of doing to one another. What we say today we must imagine being able to say in the presence of the victims of the death camps. That is, we must not, cannot, offer easy answers, imagine we know or can guess how God could permit this, try to say that we understand what ordeals the victims had to endure. Elie Wiesel asks whether even God understands how cruelty and pain can be written into a world that is at the same time so beautiful and good. Our first response must be to keep silence, like the friends who came and sat with Job on the ash-heap and said nothing for a week, ‘for they saw that his suffering was very great'. It's not only that words fail us, it's also that this is how we best honour the suffering and the dead. Yet silence is not passivity. When we go to the site of a terrible atrocity, or to the Holocaust Memorial of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, we sense that there is ‘work' to be done here: mental, spiritual work that can lead to our personal and collective transformation. We are invited to reflect on our own attitude to suffering and injustice, and to explore how transformation could happen, whether on a global, community or personal level.
Today, at the death camps or in places like Yad Vashem, they speak of ‘bearing witness' to genocide. This is to do with two things: how we see what we see, and what we then do with it. The ‘how' means paying attention to suffering, making it our own, feeling what we can with its victims. It means noticing and being present to them in a way that makes a difference to us by engaging our compassion. As we bear witness to suffering, we hold its victims in our minds and hearts and prayers (for what is intercessory prayer if it isn't the act of holding people before God, the most loving thing we can do for other people?).
The ‘what' means testifying to what we have seen and heard. There is a story to be told, and it matters to the suffering, to the dead and to God that it should be heard. Christianity involves ‘bearing witness' to the love of God in a way that is life-changing not only for others but for ourselves, for our own faith is strengthened by the very act of sharing it. Similarly, our ‘witness' to suffering begins to change our attitudes by becoming a matter of public story and testimony. This may happen by activating practical care and compassion for those who suffer, whether through natural causes or the inhumanity of others. It may happen as we commit ourselves to working seriously for a just world in which conflict and cruelty no longer have a place.
To bear witness to suffering is part of bearing witness to Christ in his suffering. As an act of kenosis of which only the God of Israel is capable, the cross is the eternal sign that, as Bonhoeffer put it, ‘only the suffering God can help'. We carry that sign through baptism, speak of it before the world, rest God's entire case on it. The pain of the world leads directly into the passion narrative, for its pain is Christ's himself. Yet the story of passion is also the story of life. In our reading today, St Peter tells how ‘by his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you'. He was writing to people who knew what it was to be cruelly abused, to face suffering and death because of their faith. There were holocausts in the Roman world, and Jews and Christians were the victims. Peter's letter kept faith alive. It told them that because of Easter, there was a new hope. It urged them to live by it. It set before them the true goal of their longings, the risen One who gave courage to those who followed where he himself had gone.
It's amazing how the human spirit was not extinguished even in the death camps. Among the wreckage of the concentration camp at Ravensbrück, a prayer was found scribbled on a scrap of paper. Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. Do not remember all the sufferings they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we bear, thanks to this suffering - our comradeship, our loyalty, our humanity, courage, generosity, the greatness of heart that as grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. Extraordinary that those words could have been uttered in a place of desperation. It echoes another extraordinary prayer that Christians have always cherished: the word from the cross ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do'. And, we add today, forgive us our complicity with all that is evil in the world. Give us the courage to bear witness to what we have seen, and the resolve to preserve and defend the freedoms of the whole human family.
Michael Sadgrove, Durham Cathedral, 27 January 2008 (1 Peter 1.3-12)