A few years ago, on my 40th birthday, I spent the day walking silently with my family through the gates of the Nazi work camp at Flossenburg, Germany, wandering among the monuments to the dead.
The camp is almost empty of structures, though a few chapels dot the grounds; its gravel quarry has been transformed into a lush garden spiraling into the earth. The oven building, where corpses were reduced to ash, stands in the lowest level of the pit, with a wooden ramp slanting from the oven to the huge mound of human cinders.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote “The Cost of Discipleship,” was the camp’s most famous casualty. I wondered if any of the molecules of his body still resided in the mound. Standing there, I swatted away large black flies that bit at my arms and legs.
As we walked past the oven, my wife Lisa whispered, “What a contrast from Neuschwanstein, eh?”
Two days previously, we had toured the fairy palace that inspired Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle. It was packed with tourists who paid dearly for the price of admission. Words cannot convey the beauty of the structure, so packed with artwork, nor its setting, so high in the Alps on a ridge of rock overlooking a gorgeous lake.
Visitors from around the world gasped with every turn of a corner on our tour, each of us having the same thought in our native languages: “What if I ruled this castle?”
Flossenburg, by contrast, sits on a dead-end road. It has no gift shop. It was not crowded. There were no thoughts of, “What if I were a prisoner in this camp?”
This, then, is the basic impulse of the human experience: we self-identify with kings and queens rather than the downtrodden and the oppressed. We amble through a concentration camp and imagine that those “poor people” were not quite as human as we are, even as we walk through a palace and imagine ourselves to be royalty. We forget that the prisoners were husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers like me, or wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers like Lisa.
History’s pages are written in red letters of a kind, with the death tolls of an expansive roster of peoples providing an endless source of ink. The 20th century’s marriage of prejudice and technology merely stepped up the efficiency of the millennia-old waves of genocide that have washed over the face of our planet, interlacing the stories of our ancestors with those of everyone else’s. At one time, all have been oppressors; all have been victims. As a species, we are blood-bound together.
In Mark 12:31, Jesus reminded his followers of the great commandment found in Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor, as yourself.” This ethical imperative means, “Conduct yourselves as though you and those around you are one and the same.” More often than not, though, we turn blind eyes to the suffering of fellow persons and ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Such words, however, reprise those of Cain, history’s first perpetrator of a murderous atrocity.
Indeed, however, we should remember another saying of Christ, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37), for resentfulness is a cancer that leads too often to foolish reprisals and devastating revenge.
At Flossenburg, the only other visitors on the grounds were an elderly couple. As we passed them, the woman pointed to our children and said to me in broken English, “You teach them. This never happen again.”
This is Holocaust Remembrance Week, so I am taking her words to heart; for all of our vows that these events will never occur again, history proves us stubbornly forgetful. We should commemorate not only the loss of our Jewish brothers and sisters but also the joy of our shared humanity. The moment that we forget that we share our nature with the foreign woman on the news or the homeless man we pass at intersection is the moment we begin to enable those would deny our fellow persons their rights or even their lives.
Such tragedies should never happen again; they are inexcusable.
(published at The Jackson Sun )