Vicar's Viewpoint: March 2017
In January I visited Auschwitz, the Nazi deathcamp in Poland. Never before have I been to a place which has seen so much horror. There is something particularly disturbing about how the killing was so clinical, efficient and industrial: a death factory that exterminated 1.1m people in the space of a few years. Most people went directly from the trains to the gas chambers, but those who were kept as prisoners suffered a much slower death, by
starvation and hard labour.
In Auschwitz, human beings became numbers with no individuality. They became a workforce to be exploited, material for the pleasure of the SS, sources of raw materials even after death: hair, gold teeth, even their ashes were utilitised further. Yet what they did retain was the individuality of their face, with all that a face expresses of a person’s history, personality and emotion. It seems to me that the Nazis constructed a system whereby they rarely had need to look into a prisoner’s face.
Their dirty work was mainly done by kapos, prisoners given junior positions of authority due to their willingness to be brutal to fellow prisoners. This removed the chances of the guards being confronted by the essential humanity of the person they were persecuting. Is this a reason why ordinary people were able to maintain such evil: avoid face-to-face encounter and it’s much easier to deny the dignity and full humanity of the victim?
It’s easy to assume that something like the Holocaust can never happen again. But there have been other terrible genocides since. We live in worrying times when there is rhetoric about erecting walls, deporting foreigners, banning refugees and denouncing those of other faiths. In such a climate, it seems
imperative that we seek face-to-face encounters with those who are different from us, and that we learn to see in their faces the wonder and mystery of other human beings, all of whom are beloved children of God.