Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Faith Works 4-23-05
Jeff Gill

An Anniversary Season With Much to Remember

In a series of 60th anniversaries around these April weeks marking the end of World War II, last week included the commemoration of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation, and this next week marks when American troop reached Dachau. Both were concentration camps.
Something still striking to me is the difference between those weeks. German SS troops were lined up as if in review, waiting for the GI’s at Belsen, where Anne Frank had died just days before. The cosmos of evil they had created for not only the Jewish and other groups to be “concentrated” there for a “final solution” was a world they had made for themselves, as well. It had become so normal for them that they didn’t see how the liberators would view them, and so they waited and stood proudly to hand over their responsibilities.
What they were responsible for was starvation, disease, and executions on a whim. No one took that responsibility from them, but they were held to account, immediately arrested and held, at least to start, in the bunkhouses where they had jammed the thousands they herded day by day to death.
At Dachau, days later, the reality of what they had created penetrated even Nazi rationalizations. The camp guards fled long before the Army rolled in the gates.
But I think about those men standing at attention, waiting on parade at Bergen-Belsen. If it was out of a sense of true acceptance of responsibility, it might be a sign of hopefulness about human nature. The truth is that we are not so much the rational animals we like to think ourselves as, but we are at root rationalizing creatures, skilled at trying to defend the indefensible.
People of faith still look back on the events around and within the Axis powers, countries where many of our own American ancestors came from, and struggle with how to come to terms with what was seen as justifiable from pulpits let alone people’s living rooms. Some European priests and nuns, and a few bishops did the work of truth and courage, saving Jews from deportation and death. Not a few turned a blind eye.
The German church embraced National Socialism, Hitler’s party and platform, without hardly blinking an eye. Two weeks ago saw 60 years since Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed just as Allied troops neared his prison, part of Nazism’s last convulsion of vengeance and cruelty. Bonhoeffer was one of tragically too few pastors of the state church who said “No” to “Hitler is Lord,” and paid the price willingly with his life.
Elie Wiesel, caught up as a youth in the death camps, asked the question in his book “Night,” in the starkest of terms when watching a young friend dangle from a prolonged execution: “Where is God?” He felt as if the first whisper of an answer came to him as “He is right there, in front of us.” Wiesel and humanity still struggle with a fuller answer to this question of existence, more of the meaning of our own than of God’s.
Any of us who attend many funerals, let alone we who conduct them, knows that the generation which witnessed these events, and have some of the closest insights into what it means to carry the burden of faith through the valley of shadow, are passing through that vale in large numbers. Not so very long from now, there will be no living witnesses to those soul shaking and heart stirring events. The responsibility must be handed on, to children and grandchildren and churches and communities – not just museums! – to remember what they did. To remember Bonhoeffer and Roncalli, Wiesel and the GI’s who freed the camps, is the responsibility of us all.

Jeff Gill is a writer and supply preacher who writes this in memory of the many liberators of Europe and Asia that he has helped honor in death at their funerals, and hopes to commemorate in life. If you have stories from 60 years ago or about events in six weeks, send them to disciple@voyager.net.

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