Tag Archives: Auschwitz

Shoah…An Obliteration of Potential

Shoah - an obliteration of potential

Shoah – an obliteration of potential

A sermon preached on Candlemas, honouring Holocaust Memorial Day 2018, based on Luke 2:22-40

May I speak and may you hear, through the Grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

A Jewish family… mother, father and precious new born baby son… entering the temple in Jerusalem, some 33 to 40 days after his birth, to fulfil a rite of passage required under the law of Moses; the purification of his mother with a simple offering, for those without wealth or status, of a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons.

Three people learning what it means to be a family, with little or no inkling of what life lies ahead of them, but filled with dreams and aspirations of what their son may grow up to be. Maybe for Joseph, a son to follow in the family tradition, to become a skilled carpenter working alongside him, and for Mary, a child who will grow up strong and healthy, perhaps achieving far greater things than his parents had by becoming a rabbi or priest.

We have to remember that this was taking place quite some time before three strangers from the East would turn up on their doorstep, with their unusual gifts, and a warning in a dream that would cause the family to flee across the border into Egypt. And yet the season of Epiphany draws to a close today with this story of Simeon revealing the poignant potential Jesus is destined to fulfil.

A potential that was to bring salvation for those who believe in him, both to Jews and Gentiles at the expense of those who would oppose him, , ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. A potential that is offered to each and every one of us, to every child that is born. A potential that is to be nurtured and encouraged whatever shape or form it may take. A potential that can be torn away, stamped on and destroyed.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly
John 10:10

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, a day set aside from our November Remembrance Day; when we remember those who fought and gave their lives not only in the 1st World War but also in the 2nd World War, where they stood up aside the evil tyranny of the Nazi regime. Holocaust Memorial Day is a special day to remember the six million Jews as well as other victims, who were murdered simply because of their religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation, bringing the total nearer to eleven million lives.

As a dry statistic, eleven million people is probably unimaginable, but imagine that you drove to the outskirts of London and suddenly the roads, houses and buildings were empty, deserted, every single place, right into the centre of the city. Everyone had disappeared, leaving behind most of their possessions, gone without a trace. Not a single living person remaining.

For the Jews living in Nazi occupied countries, these disappearances were happening in every city, town and village. The streets were falling silent, no one rushing about their daily business, no children playing in streets or shouting and laughing in parks and playgrounds. For among those six million almost a quarter of them were children, 1.5 million lives. Children who never got the chance to grow up and fulfil their potential or their dreams for the future.

Those six million people who were not born as victims, but who had their hopes and dreams brutally stripped away because of an ideology that condemned them to death just because they were Jewish.

Some of you will know that late last year I undertook a ten day seminar at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where they not only educate people about the events and the peoples of the Holocaust or Shoah, as they prefer to call it, but also strive to preserve the memories and stories of the victims. Their photographic archive contains hundreds of photographs of Jewish people; people who smiled, danced, took part in sports and musical events, got married and enjoyed holidays and family occasions; with no awareness of the fate that awaited them; each now frozen in time for posterity, as the camera captured their everyday lives.

Pre-War Jewish Life

There are also photos of beloved children, dressed up and posed in their Sabbath best, no different I doubt to the snapshots we have, brought out years later to embarrass our offspring, except these children would face no future embarrassment.

This recognition of unfulfilled hope is echoed in another part of the site, where the Children’s Memorial has been created by hollowing out an under underground cavern, which has its own symbolism. It is entered by a descent that funnels you into a darkened room. In the gloom the images of several unnamed children stare out from photographs, as the sound of a mournful lament softly plays.

Then further down, feeling your way into the darkness, you enter what appears to be a room filled with stars. The effect is created by just five candles, which are replaced each day, reflected by mirrors to produce an infinity of tiny lights. In this twilight we listened to just a few of the names of some 1800 of the children, their ages and where they were from; a representation of stolen lives. It is very moving and I immediately thought of my own children

But it is the photographs that haunt me because it makes these children more tangible, and despite not knowing their names, they are no longer anonymous. In your service sheet is a slip of paper with some photographs on it, take a look at it now [see below].

Shoah Children Victims

Florika Liebmann, Unknown and Raphael Altmann

On the left is Florika Liebmann. She was born in 1934 in Szeged, Hungary to Bela and Szenka Liebmann. Bela was a Jewish photographer and businessman who ran an optical and photographic supply store, as well as doing photography in local theatres. During World War Two, he was conscripted into the Hungarian labour service. Szenka and Florika were deported, and in April 1945 were killed along with 38 other victims, in the village of Weissenbach by retreating SS soldiers.

On the right is Raphael Altmann. He was born in 1937 in Wilmersdorf, Germany to Kurt and Grietje Altmann. He was the oldest of four children, including his brothers Martijn and Fred. During the German occupation, the family was expelled to Zeist, in the Netherlands, from where they went into hiding in late 1942. When they could no longer stay together, the parents gave their two older children to a children’s house in Zeist. The house had an escape procedure, but in real time things went wrong. The headmistress was arrested with the children and sent to the Westerbork camp. The children were sent from this camp on to Auschwitz, where they perished on 26 March 1944. Kurt and Grietje, however, hid in four different places with their youngest son Fred and managed to survive. Raphael and Martijn never got to meet their sister Sophia, who was born in 1949

And the picture in the middle, what do you see there? A disabled child? A child with Downs Syndrome? Or a child who was lovingly dressed in his smart sailor’s suit, with polished, laced up boots and no doubt one of his daddy’s ties. I couldn’t find a name or a history for this young man, but he is known to have been victim of the Holocaust and he is representative of one of at least 5,000 disabled children who were murdered under the Nazi regime.

The Nazis falsely believed that some human beings were superior to others and they aimed to develop and preserve a pure Aryan master race. To do this they strove to select those they believed to be the most ‘perfect’ human beings and to deliberately remove from society those considered ‘undesirable’, including the disabled.

German midwives and doctors were ordered to report any child known to them who was born deaf or blind, with paralysis or with a neurological disorder such as Down’s Syndrome, and these children were systematically removed from institutions and families, although not without some reluctance on the parents’ part, from whom the final euthanasia was hidden.

Hitler and his regime justified this by endorsing opinions as expressed by Madison Grant, the author of The Passing of the Great Race, who said, “Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life, tend to prevent […] the elimination of defective infants … The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit, and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.”

Nazi Propaganda Against the Disabled

Translation: 60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering with a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen that is your money too.

The Nazis took Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, in particular the idea of survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom, and applied them to the human world and society, however, the valuable of human life doesn’t just rely on its usefulness to others, but more importantly its capacity to love and be loved, and God places in each and every one of us an overriding potential for love.

Not just then, but nowadays, there is also a danger that we stifle this potential even before a child is born. A recent warning by the Church of England was that the future existence of people with Down’s Syndrome is ‘under question’ with the introduction of a new Non-Invasive Prenatal blood test to test for the condition, that the Church is concerned will lead to more terminations because of people’s fears and concerns about their ability to raise a disabled child and misconceptions about the condition itself.

I believe there are compelling and justifiable reasons why a pregnancy might be terminated, particularly if it is for the health and mental wellbeing of the woman or of the unborn child, but not for a sense of seeking ‘perfection’. Some woman reportedly, when they were told that the child they were carrying had Down’s Syndrome were presented with this information as ‘bad news’.

Actress and screenwriter, Sally Phillips, whose son Olly has Down’s, recently addressed this in the BBC documentary ‘A World without Down’s Syndrome’ revealed that when he was born, the doctor said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry’, the nurse on duty wept, and nothing positive was expressed. She discovered however, that far from being a tragedy their lives have been transformed by Olly, who is now twelve and attending a mainstream secondary school.

As she says, ‘Having Olly in my life has changed me and my family for the better. He has slightly worse impulse control which means he often says exactly what everyone is thinking but is too shy to say and he is also incredibly caring and gifted emotionally, really focussing on how others are feeling by noticing when people are upset when I don’t.’

And we do well to remember that discriminating against the disabled, disables us and diminishes us. There is no perfect human being, not me or you, nor anyone else apart from the person of Jesus, and no-one should be robbed of their potential for a full and meaningful life.

Simeon, when he looked at the baby that was in his arms, rejoiced that he was being given this opportunity to see for himself the person sent to bring about God’s plan of salvation for all, ‘the light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’; and we know that Jesus was able to fulfil his potential by making the ultimate sacrifice of dying on the cross. It was part of God’s all-encompassing plan of his will being done on earth, but it was also Jesus’ choice and decision to go through with it, no one else’s.

Definitely ‘good news’, however, this still didn’t negate the sorrow that would be felt by Mary his mother. The sword that would pierce her soul, should also prick our own conscience so that we don’t forget those millions of innocent lives that ended so abruptly and so brutally. Children who never got the chance to grow up and fulfil their potential.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a time to remember the millions of people who were murdered, not just as an anonymous mass, but having looked into the eyes of the people in these photographs realising that they were people, just as we are. We don’t know everyone’s name but we can pause to reflect on their suffering and remember their ‘untold stories’. We can also make a clear promise to speak out against discrimination which judges some lives to be of less value than others today

In that way all may grow strong, be filled with wisdom and know that the favour of God rests on them.

Amen

HMD 2018

 

 

 

The Holy Innocents In The Shadow Of The Cross

The Holy Innocents by William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Holy Innocents by William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Festival of the Holy Innocents is never an easy day on which to preach; its subject matter can be unsettling and difficult to broach. However, the connections between the nativity and the cross are worth exploring. Readings: Matthew 2:13-18 , Jeremiah 31:15-17

This morning’s readings are not the easiest for us to hear for many reasons. The subjects are in stark contrast to the glad tidings and joy of Jesus’ birth. Although the things written about are actually separated by several months from this event, this year it is only three days, since we left the miraculous birth of Christ, represented so often in bucolic Christmas Card nativity scenes with the glowing lantern-lit stable, tranquil Holy Family, rosy-cheeked cherubs  and fluffy sheep – only to be suddenly faced with the horrors of death.

For many people it’s easy to accept at face value the story of the Nativity, there’s nothing that feels threatening about the story, despite the subtle intimation of the Magi’s gift of myrrh, but even that’s saved for next week. It is a happy event, yet Matthew’s gospel reveals a baby who is apparently considered so much of a threat to the region’s most powerful man that he kills a whole village of babies in order to try to get rid of him. This Jesus he had heard about was interfering with Herod’s ambitions.

However, we should not be surprised by Herod’s murderous intentions. He was a past master of assassination. No sooner had he come to the throne than he began annihilating the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews, slaughtering 300 court officers out of hand.  He also murdered his wife Marianne, his mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater and two other sons Alexander and Aristobulus.

Even at the hour of his death he wanted to arrange the killing of the leading citizens of Jericho. Consequently, initiating the slaughter of 20-30 babies would not have been out of character, and would not have really caused much of a stir in a land rife with murders – except to their heart-broken mothers.

Throughout the whole of history, malevolent tyrants have used their power to remove any perceived threat to their authority.  We only have to recall over the last few months, the persecution and brutal execution of Christians, including children, in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State, with its strong resonances to the story of the Holy Innocents; and even more recently, the massacre of 132 children in Peshawar, Pakistan by Taliban militants. All of them innocent, all of them offering no obvious threat to their evil killers, simply murdered because of a misconceived sense of a potential future threat.

Being innocent is not the same as being in the wrong place at the wrong time – they were all in their rightful places, at home with their families, in places of trust such as schools – what then do we imagine it was like when the soldiers burst in and tore the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers or when terrified children look up only to be met by a hail of bullets as they frantically tried to escape.

The death of innocent victims always taps into our basic emotions – but the death of a child touches us deep within. For example, although I have never personally been to any of the Nazi concentration camps, I have seen the evidence in films and books. However, my daughter Ruth, after a trip to Auschwitz, told me that it wasn’t the sophistication of the gas chamber showers, or the ovens and chimneys that caused her to have a lump in her throat; it was the neatly stacked pile of children’s shoes that finally broke her heart at the poignancy of it all.

The poignancy of children's shoes in Auschwitz

The poignancy of children’s shoes in Auschwitz

All these deaths go against our perceived proper order of things – that children grow up, become the next generation of adults and have children of their own. What does become clear then is that if people can be ungodly then they can also be inhumane and that whenever the truth and goodness of God are seen, then a backlash of evil is provoked and innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

So despite the cosiness of the nativity story it is more accurate to recall that Jesus was also recognised as Immanuel, meaning ‘God with Us’. That he was born not to home comforts, but to endure pain, suffering and injustice just like the people to whom he came. He came to show this world the way of love; the way of peace; the way of justice.

He showed us how we should live and act during our time on earth, by cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, like kindness, faithfulness and self-control; but he was not equipping us for this life but for the next. His birth already had signs of the more significant part of his life – his death.

Because of this, his story can bring comfort to all who go through the unbearable agony of the death of a child or those who suffer because of human cruelty, since they are redeemable and redeemed, because Jesus is the ultimate innocent victim, his death on the cross conquering over the uttermost depths of sin and evil

The Shadow of the Cross Across The Manger

The star may continue to shine in the sky but the shadow of the cross falls across the whole story

Jeremiah’s prophecy is referring to God’s covenant to bring the Babylonian exiles back –  and that although Israel must weep and mourn, rescue is on its way. In the same way Jesus brings deliverance even when everything seems bleak and hopeless. Jesus has been born as the bearer of God’s salvation.  Thus a new exodus is begun and continued through the death of the Holy Innocents – it is looking forward to the last day when Christ will establish his kingdom and God will make everything new. We weep with the parents and families but God will turn this mourning into joy  and gladness and we have to hold on to this hope.

We also have to remember that God is not responsible for the massacre this was not a prophecy to fulfil a purpose, but a prophecy that had been fulfilled. It is Herod, who is fully aware of the threat Jesus poses that perpetrates these atrocities, or who more accurately despatches his soldiers to carry them out.

What of the soldiers who simply ‘obeyed orders?’ Could we sometimes be like them, when we collude with evil by not intentionally standing against it , when we look on as child sex traffickers, exploiters of street children or dictators who use hunger as a political weapon and thereby allow the innocent to suffer – surely these are situations to which the church, both with a big and a small ‘C’ must loudly proclaim ‘No’ to the world.

In rapid and dramatic contrast to ‘the glory all around’ of Christmas, Jesus takes his place where so many of his children live and there should the church, his body, always be. Though death attends his birth, his own death will declare that death is never the answer in spite of every Herod’s belief. His presence amidst life’s direst need and his triumph over life’s adversary are the birth of hope for his followers in all times, places and circumstances.

This is where the story of love incarnate leads. For the Holy innocents their deaths are part of the sacrifice of Christ for the whole human race. Therefore, all can be hopeful who die innocently – innocent victims of war, terror, natural disaster, cruelty, accident, abuse, oppression – these are not wasted lives!

Christ’s story mirrors their stories – he suffered innocently, died prematurely, but took on and defeated death itself and so holds the keys to life. The face of Jesus, shines out from the crib and shows us not only the glory of God, but is a vision of hope and love for us today.

The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt

The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt