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Reflections on Auschwitz - Birkenau

Archbishop and Chief Rabbi at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Thursday 13th November 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks reflected on their visit to Auschwitz - Birkenau with the following speeches:



Archbishop's reflections:

Many times today we've been reminded that what happened here at Auschwitz - Birkenau didn't happen just because of a small number of monstrously evil people.  It happened also because people cooked meals, drove trains, designed and built the buildings we've been in; people doing ordinary jobs - people who failed to see the big picture. 

Somehow ordinary people took it for granted that what was happening around them was alright.  And the question that I'm left with at the end of a day like this is: "What does it take to make people take that for granted? What would make me take it for granted; to think that this was normal - to think that this was human.  As soon as that question takes root in us, we can't avoid the question to ourselves: "How do I decide to be human? Because I need to".

In a world where it's possible for people to take monstrosity for granted as normal, as ordinary; you and I have to decide to be human - to decide that we're not going to take inhumanity for granted.  To decide to look at one another in a radically different way, to look at one another with gratitude, with a sense of mystery, with a sense of humility.

We here, who have come as representatives of the faith traditions in Britain, are here to learn from this place and to learn from one another.  But we're also here to bear witness as best we can.  That it is as we look at God that we find something of the courage to decide to be human.  How and where each one of you finds that courage and that resource - you will decide and you will discover.  But that's what you and I have to do – today and tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives. 

If we find we have the courage and the resource to decide to be human, and not to take certain things for granted we may perhaps sometimes remember that for a great part of the human race - that's not a journey we take alone; we are accompanied.  That's why I will end what I have to say by reading the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He guideth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou hast annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever.


Chief Rabbi's reflections:

Friends, in a place like this, on a day like this, it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the presence of death, the evidence of hate, and the temptation to despair. That would be precisely the wrong message to take.  I will share with you three memories of how people responded to this place. 

I think of a very great psychiatrist no longer alive, Viktor Frankl, who lived here – who survived here.  And who spent all his time in Auschwitz tending people where he could, giving them a reason to live, and thus the strength to live.  He wrote a great book about Auschwitz called "Man's Search for Meaning" and he kindled a light of hope in people's hearts, whose hearts might simply have died otherwise. 

And then secondly I think of a member of our community, a friend of ours or a father of a friend of ours who also was here, who survived here, a religious Jew before, during and after.  And one night he prayed a prayer to God here in Auschwitz: "Dear God, I have always believed in you and even now I will not disbelieve in you.  I thank you for giving me life, but tonight I must tell you dear God I can live no more. I hand you back my life".  The next morning he was taken out of work duty and ordered to work in the camp kitchen.  And there when the guard wasn't looking, once in a while he was able to steal and hide on his person a potato peeler.  Those potato peelings kept him alive.  Subsequently he came to Britain, to London, became a successful businessman.  Almost all the money he made he gave away to charity and somebody once said to him "You're rich". He said "You know, what is rich – if you have potato peelings you are rich".

The third man whose name was Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam, one of the greatest Rabbis of the twentieth century, the Rabbi of Klausenberg.  Lived through Auschwitz and survived Auschwitz. But he lost his wife and all eleven of his children.  He was a Job of our time; everything he had was taken away from him.  And while he was here he made a vow that should he ever survive this camp of death he would devote himself to life.  He survived, he spent the next few years gathering together the few surviving followers he had and he rebuilt their community and helped them rebuild their lives and then he honoured his pledge made here in Auschwitz.  And he built a hospital that is called the Laniado Hospital in Netanya in Israel, where in the heart of Israel religious Jews and Christians and Muslims work together to heal Jews, Christians and Muslims in the holy land without distinction - faith, creed, colour or anything.  He devoted himself to life, and he had been eyeball to eyeball with the angel of death.

Please friends I hope you will take away from today what I take away – an extraordinary signal of hope.  This is the first time in Britain certainly that we have come together not one faith, but the leaders of all nine faiths in Britain; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Bahá'í.  Because the tragedy of Auschwitz transcends this people or that.  It simply touches on what is human in all of us. Therefore may the fact that we have come together in this moment of grief remembered lead us to come together in the future for the sake of hope, friendship, tolerance and life.  And may each of us ask just one question from today: "How, having seen what I have seen can I become in my life, an agent of hope".  And now if I may I will just read a prayer which I wrote especially for this occasion:

In this place of death, God we ask you to bring us together to commit ourselves to the sanctity of life.  Here human beings young and old, among them a quarter of a million children guilty of no crime, were stripped of their possessions, their clothes, their hair, and their very names.  Treated as if they were subhuman vermin, lice, and gassed, burnt and turned to ash.  Here Dr Josef Mengele laughed as he said "It is I, not God who decides who will live and who will die".  Here they murdered the image of God that lives in every man, woman and child, and here they tried to silence God himself.  The voice that ceaselessly says "Do not murder, do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour, do not oppress the stranger".  Help us God to remember what we have seen today for the rest of our lives.  For though we cannot change the past, by remembering the past we can help change the future.  And though we cannot bring the dead back to life, still we can bring their memory back to life and show by what we do, their deaths were not in vain.  Dear God open our minds, our hearts and our eyes never to forget that we are all your children.  And though we worship you in many faiths, still you have given us only one world in which to live together.  Therefore, when others are persecuted, let us not be silent.  When hate is preached, let us not be still.   When people are attacked for their colour or creed let us not be passive bystanders.  Help us to fight evil with good, oppression with justice and hate with forgiveness and love – help us to see your face in the face of a stranger.  Help us never to forget that the people 'not like us' are still people - like us.  May this be your will, let us say. Amen.

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