Holocaust Memorial Day: Keeping the Memory Alive

I once listened to a panel of religious ‘experts’ addressing questions at a youth event. They’d all prepared well and were ready for ‘it’ when it came, the question about how can there be a God of love when there is so much suffering and pain in the world. The answers were all crafted well and clear, but to be honest they left me cold. The offence of so many theodicies (which seek to justify God in the face of such accusations) is that they claim to be able to explain the inexplicable and tame that which is wild.

A few years ago I travelled to the Auschwitz camps with a group of Roman Catholic teachers and social workers. Although I’d studied Nazism at school nothing could ever have prepared me. The displays of human hair – literally small mountains of it – and all the tiny children’s clothing and shoes precipitated an eruption of emotions. Words still don’t come easily or adequately….

Whilst there I had the privilege of meeting a survivor of that largest grave-yard on earth. He had seen, touched, smelt and felt things that are truly unimaginable. He stood before us, frail, struggling, yet determined to give us his story. With tear-filled eyes he asked each of us to do all we could to keep the memory alive so that it might never happen again. He told us he had never been able to forgive those who did such wickedness or to believe in God again. Who was I to trample over his experience?

Towards the end of the trip, a few of us visited a bar in Krakow. The conversation turned almost inexorably to theodicy and the question of God’s culpability or otherwise in evil and human suffering. As a priest the spot-light rested on me for an answer. I explained how I most certainly didn’t have a definitive answer to that mystery, but that as a Christian I believed God entered with deep empathy into our human experience. That must mean that God suffers too: as a Fatherly-Mother, God suffers with us; as Jesus, God suffers as us and as Spirit, God suffers in us. God’s love absorbs all the evil and suffering without being overwhelmed or degraded. That was my partial and inadequate answer, and still is…

On this 70th Anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camps by the Soviet Union, I write this in memory of the Holocaust survivor who asked me to do all I could to keep the memory alive. I do so also to honour all who died there in Auschwitz (and all other such camps), especially the children and teenagers. I also honour all those who have suffered similarly in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur; may they all rest in peace. The following poem is written as a tribute to them all:


A meticulously
planned hell
with nothing left to chance
or accident;
industrial, symmetrical,
a final sadistic solution, organised so well.

Cramped cattle-cars crammed
suffocatingly-full of
precious human cargo.
Standing room only:
no food, no water, no toilets,
just the stench of death
for which they’d all paid good money.

Shaved, shivering, separated
from the caressing smiles
of loved ones,
walking ‘The way to heaven
in a camp constructed
for the purpose of
eliminationism on an industrial scale.

Here was death, just death,
rising like incense
beneath azure blue
European skies
from the chimneys of
the biggest graveyard on earth.

No formula for surviving
the killing machine,
liberation the most
beautiful and
tragic of moments;
broken people,
almost dead, leaving camps which never left them.

Many have been strong enough,
brave enough, to give expression
to the:
the nightmare from which so many would never wake.

Tim Sumpter

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