The Mark of Cain Upon Earth
It is common knowledge that the cast-iron sign which hangs above the gate to Auschwitz reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Sets You Free.” This despicable promise is only the beginning of the perversity contained in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, where hundreds of thousands of Jews, along with Roma, Sinti, Poles, and Russians, were gassed, harvested, and burned. Speaking to us on the way to Auschwitz, Elly Gotz described the camp as “the mark of Cain upon Earth,” a condemnation that will stay with humanity until the end of time.
Cruelty is not the true atrocity of Auschwitz. Humanity has been cruel almost since the beginning, and our history is full of moments when the powerless have been abused by the powerful. What made Auschwitz unique, what made the Holocaust unique, is that it was the creation of a western European industrial state. The peculiar horror of the concentration camp is that it refutes the previous two-hundred-year progression towards enlightened humanism, and proves definitively that modern science, philosophy, and industry have not reduced humanity’s inherent capacity for cruelty. Auschwitz was the culmination of human progress bent to a single primitive instinct: murder. Cain may have taught us how to kill, but the act was perfected in the totalitarian crucible of the Third Reich.
Therefore, it is not the cruelty itself which I found most disturbing at Auschwitz, but the extremity to which the process was industrialized. Walking between the barracks it is hard to believe that the beautiful Polish countryside could be bent to such abomination, and yet inside the red-brick buildings are rooms filled with collected combs, shoes, spectacles, prosthetics, and even human hair.
Can you imagine a space containing two tons of human hair, shorn from the heads of weeping prisoners upon their entrance into Auschwitz? I can, for I have seen it. I am told there were seven tons when the Russians first liberated the camp, some of it even packaged for use in the manufacturing of felt products in German factories. Such a possibility is beyond my imagination.
We filed silently past the assembled detritus of this human factory, following our guides and the silver-haired figure of Elly, our survivor. It occurred to me that he had returned to this place not for himself, not for any need of his to relive the past, but for us! Like Virgil leading Dante through the nine levels of hell, Elly had chosen to guide us through the darkness, in the hope of teaching us to defend the light.
“I remember the day my father and I were liberated at Dachau,” Elly told us later in a wooden barrack at Birkenau. “I thought he was going to die the night before the Americans arrived, but in the morning he was still breathing. When I told him that the Germans were gone and the Americans had liberated us, he barely cared. ‘That’s nice,’ he said, ‘but do you have any bread?’”
Elly’s father and mother survived the war, unlike many of their friends and extended family. Elly had made himself useful to the Germans through his electrical and mechanical knowledge, and scraped through by depending on these skills. He spoke repeatedly of his struggle after the war to relinquish his hatred for the Germans, and described how he once stole a bike from a German farmer, only to return it after experiencing a sort of epiphany. “To hate is like taking poison and hoping the other man will die,” he explained, using a quote attributed to Buddha. “I realized that if I kept hating them [the Germans], I wouldn’t have room for love.”
It is hard to speak of love in Auschwitz-Birkenau, especially when faced with the physical structure of the gas chambers and crematoria. As a Christian, I found that my grieving in such places quickly turned to prayer, but I also discovered that, for some other students, the atrocity of the concentration camp was a nail hammered into God’s coffin.
How can you believe in God, they asked, amidst such evil? How could a God allow this to occur?
Those are good questions, but they are questions that display both a simplistic theology and a confused ontology. For example, how can one believe in evil and not in God, if evil is a term which requires a supernatural foundation? Additionally, how could God both grant humanity agency and intervene to limit that agency in preventing the atrocities of the Third Reich? Are we intelligent creations made in the image of God, or puppet slaves to the divine will?
Job’s wife famously told him to “Curse God and die,” but hers was not the voice of wisdom.
There Is No Inoculation Against Evil
Our guide David was haunted by the actions of the German doctors stationed at the concentration camps. He repeated their story over and over, describing how the doctors were in charge of evaluating the prisoners emerging from the train cars, and dividing them into one of two lines. The left line meant work, food, to live a little longer; the right line led directly to the gas chambers.
Each time he told the story David would quote the first three words of the Hippocratic Oath, “Do no harm.” He would ask how someone’s ideology could become so corrupted that they would use a lifetime of medical training to select helpless prisoners for murder. Our group had no answer for him, indeed, I don’t believe there is one within his ideological foundation as a secular Jew.
The reason David was so troubled by the actions of the Nazi doctors is because of an uncomfortable truth he did not wish to face: that ‘harm’ is a subjective idea. After all, humanity has yet to agree on what ‘harm’ is, or which actions are definitively harmful. Surgery cause immediate harm, but leads (hopefully) to future good (which is why it is allowed by the Oath). Euthanasia causes mortal harm, and yet many countries interpret it as being within the confines of the Oath. Abortion is the non-consensual killing of another person, and yet it too is sometimes considered to align with the Oath.
Harm, then, is not absolute, and is subject to interpretation. In an ideological system in which Jews were characterized as viruses, infections, and parasites attacking the German people (Hitler’s Mein Kampf is full of these biological analogies), the camp doctors could interpret their work as saving true German Volk (society) by cutting out the infection threatening it. That the ‘infection’ was a specific group of other humans was distressing, but did not change their underlying responsibility to the Reich.
If nothing else, my experience amongst the shadows of atrocity in Berlin and Poland convinced me that a theological framework is necessary to preventing genocide, and that it is surprisingly difficult to articulate the moral crime committed by the Nazis without resort to theological terms and ideas. Our group talked of human rights, but what are said rights without the foundational theological elements that attribute inalienable value to each person? The fact that Nazi eugenics theory was based in poor science makes it easy to reject, but could we refute it so easily had the principles been sound?
I suspect not, and my case is buttressed by the greater than 60 percent rate at which Down Syndrome fetuses are aborted in the US every year. We are creating our own system of eugenics in the 21st century, but it is white-collar, genteel, and avoids the ugliness of concentration camps.
On the second night of the trip, I expressed the importance of theology to the larger group during one of our scheduled debriefings. It’s always difficult to talk about faith in public, academic context, but I wanted to know what answers my fellow students had constructed to brace themselves against the void of moral subjectivity. Surprisingly, it was Elly who spoke up to answer me.
“There is no inoculation against evil,” he said, explaining that neither secular nor religious frameworks are completely resistant to corruption. Instead he proposed that we learn to cultivate human empathy in all its forms, just as he was doing with us on the trip. Empathy, after all, is the opposite of cruelty.
I do not like to disagree with Elly. He was our guide and our mentor, and his life has led him to deeper valleys and greater heights than I can yet understand, but I do not think that empathy alone is enough. I agree that there is no true inoculation against evil, but I propose that we have more powerful tools at our disposal than simple empathy. Emotions such as empathy can be ignored, turned off, redirected, or simply not felt. They rely on no underlying framework besides the possibility that the actions done to another could someday be done to oneself. Our whole system of ethical thought requires a basis less fickle than emotion; it requires an understanding of humanity as sacred, intrinsically valuable, made in the image of God.
On the last day of our trip, we spent the evening engaging in a communal sharing of our experiences and learning over the course of 10 days together. It was a beautiful time, made more remarkable by the context of our journey through the shadow of Nazi atrocity. After many stories and many more tears, one of our leaders announced he would lead us in a final song before releasing us to prepare for our morning flight back to Canada.
It was only when he began handing out lyrics sheets that I realized the song he had chosen was John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and something within me went cold and ugly and hard.
“Imagine” is one of Lennon’s greatest triumphs, a song which presents a vision of a humanist paradise achieved through the extinction of nations, possessions, conflict, and, most importantly, religion. The fact that this song had been chosen, from all the possibilities, was a harsh, discordant note after a wonderful evening. My faith had been my support, my answer, all week while travelling through memorials, cemeteries, and concentration camps; how could I sing about a world made perfect by its absence?
Were we to understand that the evils we had witnessed in the camps were caused by religion? I think not. Was Hitler motivated by a belief in God? I think not. Is religion the root cause of violence in our world? No.
I refused to end our journey by singing a song that celebrates the absence of the very thing that proved the Nazi’s evil. I told our leader I would not participate, and sat quietly despite his urging.
I am deeply grateful to have been part of MRH, and I appreciate all of those people who journeyed with me, but when I imagine a better future, I know that God is the soul of paradise.
The names of my fellow students have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Cover photo by Laina Brown.