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Issue Date:  December 23, 1994

Angels and Auschwitz

The Jewish experience throws reflected light on Christmas


OXFORD, England -- Capt. Evelyn Waugh spent Christmas 1944, the last Christmas of the war, in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, liasing with the partisans. He found this beautiful city entirely unravaged by war, but with a depressing air: “The shops empty, the market full of little groups bartering household ornaments against potatoes and homemade soap, the people pale and scared. They are hungry and sulky.”

On Christmas day the Catholic novelist went to Mass at the Franciscan church. He lunched and dined alone. He filled in his diary. In 1994 he would still find harassed groups bartering their goods in nearby Bihac.

In Berlin, pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been moved to the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse prison after the July assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He tried to persuade his 23-year-old fiancée, Maria von Wedenmeyer, that the food was better there than at Tegel, his previous prison. She was not duped. It was his last Christmas alive, and she would never see him again. He was hanged April 9, 1945. Maria did not learn about this until the summer.

Bonhoeffer wrote his last Christmas letter from solitary confinement: “I have often found that the quieter my surroundings, the more vividly I sense my connection with you all. It’s as if, in solitude, the soul develops organs of which we are hardly aware in everyday life.”

The great theologian of the secular, the prophet of the “church come of age,” evokes his guardian angels. “The old children’s song about the angels,” he writes, “says ‘two to cover me, two to make me,’ and today we grownups are no less in need of preservation, night and morning, by kindly unseen powers.”

It is unlikely that anyone at Auschwitz, 400 miles east of Berlin, had much time for guardian angels. Indeed, by Christmastime the place was almost deserted. The Red Army arrived and took it in late January.

This move had long been anticipated. On Aug. 25, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the dispatch of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz to cease. Nov. 2, 1944, Himmler put an end to the gassing of Jews on arrival at Auschwitz.

In behaving in this way, Himmler was disobeying Hitler. But he was under the illusion that he would be an alternative more acceptable to the Allies. He wished to use the Jews as bargaining counters.

But his policy was sabotaged on the ground by subordinates. The dismantling of the death camps, even where it happened, did not mean that the Jews were any better off. Too ill to be moved, 6,000 prisoners were left behind. The remaining 58,000 headed westward before the advancing Red Army. This westward trek in the bitter cold of a Polish winter of the ill-clad, lice-infested prisoners became a death march.

So no one heard, this Christmas 1944 at Auschwitz, the vast cosmic opening chord of the epistle to the Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world.”

The author goes on: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:1-3).

The epistle to Titus is also used in the Christmas liturgy: “The goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared” (Ti 3:4).

Uttered at Auschwitz, such words would stick in the craw or burn the lips. To have read them at Christmas 1944 would have been akin to blasphemy. Everything resembles a sinister parody: “In these last days” becomes the “last (or final) solution.” Ordinary discourse was subverted.

Every human person is “the reflection of God’s glory,” but Auschwitz was specifically designed to deny and deride this fundamental truth. According to Primo Levi, the Italian writer who survived Auschwitz, the kapos taunted the inmates with the thought that “no one will ever know what you are suffering.”

Auschwitz became a symbol of the concentration-camp world because enough of it physically survived. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, for example, perished at Treblinka. But the place was destroyed, the evidence removed forever.

Sometimes Christians grow impatient with Jewish nagging about the Sho’ah. There have been other massacres in this century that might rank as “genocide.” Countless Armenians perished because they were Armenians. Pol Pot must have come close to murdering 6 million inhabitants of Cambodia. Rwanda was ghastly.

What is so special about Jews? This: Their bureaucratically organized extermination -- a Nazi word -- happened in the heart of a Europe that proclaimed the Christmas message of the “goodness and loving kindness of our Savior.”

The Christian “teaching of contempt,” while never official doctrine, was sufficiently deep-rooted to provide passive accomplices for Hitler’s Final Solution.

Polish cities like Warsaw, Kraków, L’viv and above all Vilno, the Jerusalem of the north, had a Jewish population of 30 to 40 percent. Now a centuries-old civilization disappeared in a few years.

The immense Jewish contribution to the music, painting and general culture of Central Europe was turned to ashes. Central Europe is bleaker because of their absence, and without them Poland is a duller place. (Yet you can have anti-Semitism without Jews.)

There were half a million Jews in prewar Germany and three and a half million in Poland. Many of them were assimilated to the point of invisibility. But they were a very disparate lot, their diversity being increased by waves of immigration from the East.

There were traditional Orthodox Jews who could see in Hitler’s persecution yet another “test” or “trial” for God’s chosen people. The secular or Zionist groups could read Nazi oppression as instrumental in stimulating Jewish nationalism and spurring emigration to Palestine. Others belonged to bodies with an international outlook, socialist or communist.

All were treated in the same way. All were subjected to Hitler’s Gleichgestaltung, or leveling down. And when it was all over, all the survivors have this one outstanding event on which to focus: Auschwitz.

Jewish theology is not abstract. It is a reflection on human history. It ponders what actually happened. The first great transformation of Judaism occurred after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 , followed by the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 134. Jerusalem was closed to Jews for nearly 600 years. Other people would have given it up for lost. The rabbis reflected on this and saw that to cope with the diaspora experience Judaism would have to become a more interior faith, a religion of spirit and truth in which the “temple” was not a physical building but the human body itself.

This development within Judaism was in fact parallel to developments within Christianity, but because of the polemical situation this doctrinal overlap was ignored and unnoticed. So Christmas 1944 was not celebrated at Auschwitz. The place was out of the ordinary categories of time. It had set its own secular rhythms and repetitions, governed by the railway timetable and the capacity of the furnaces.

Auschwitz, knowing neither Sabbath nor Sunday, could not know the time of God nor the fullness of time. Nor, consequently, Christmas. And there were to be to be no survivors, no memories, no witnesses. But what is a historical event without witnesses? Can it be said to exist at all?

To remedy that lack, Auschwitz needs help from angels, not the protective guardian angels evoked by Bonhoeffer at Christmas 1944 but the recording angel who ensures that no injustice is ever forgotten.

Auschwitz is the 20th century equivalent of the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. It has unified Jews, religious and secular, shaped their mistrust of the world. Just remembering it is itself a religious act.

So central and so deeply symbolic is the remembrance of the Sho’ah that a manufactured “Auschwitz experience” can be had in Washington. Go there this Christmas to experience the absence of Christmas.

It is not that God is dead here. But he is not yet born, not yet risen.

So Auschwitz permits Christians to re-experience Christmas as if for the first time. There was before and after. There was a moment in time. In illo tempore. It also reminds Jews and Christians that Auschwitz was possible only because the doctrine they have in common -- that there is a covenant between God and humanity to which God is faithful -- had been forgotten or set aside.

Peter Hebblethwaite is NCR’s Vatican affairs writer.

National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 1994

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