Remembering Maximilian Kolbe (whose feast day is 14th August), and his sacrifice, took my thoughts towards Auschwitz where he died.
Few could fail to be moved by much that happened there and it is important for us to keep remembering the people who died or whose survival was perilous. Auschwitz, has come to symbolise the totality of evil and, for the human race, its lowest ebb. I remember Tony Blair once reminding us that it was not just human life that was destroyed but ‘human essence’. It showed us the depths to which humanity can sink.
In our blame culture it is easy to lay all the blame on those who perpetrated the evil—not only the Nazi hierarchy but the ordinary Germans who carried out the orders. They may well be blameworthy but recrimination has a habit of rebounding.
The Jews we mourn, as a race suffered for centuries the guilt and blame laid on them by the Christian Church for the death of Christ. ‘Collective guilt’ has been visited on many nations in the world’s history. The trouble is that it is always safe to blame others. It places the spotlight on a more comfortable place. But sometimes we need to look nearer to home. Prejudice and hatred, fear of the different, the loss of respect and tolerance: these are the seeds of Auschwitz. These are what destroy the human essence and they are, sadly, present in many people, if not all.
Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi, suggested that those who suffered in the death camps bore no hate or desire for revenge. We are challenged to take heed of the lessons Auschwitz and the suffering there includes forgiveness – maybe even for ourselves. This is powerfully brought home in a prayer found on a piece of wrapping paper when Ravensbrück Concentration Camp was liberated:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will
but also those of ill-will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us:
remember the fruits we bought, thanks to this suffering;
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility,
the courage, the generosity,
the greatness of heart which has grown out of this,
and when they come to judgement,
let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
As Jonathan Sacks says: ‘May these words light a flame in our hearts so that never again shall the cry of the afflicted go unheard’.