I come to Krakow every summer to teach in a seminar for university students, and each year I visit Auschwitz.
It's on the program for the students, but optional for the teachers. Some choose not to come every year. That's understandable, as there is a risk that visiting Auschwitz might become routine.
I come every year because I find it conducive to prayer. Others do not, I know. But to be confronted with an unspeakable evil invites, to my mind, only two alternatives. Despair, or prayer. I choose to pray. There are others who manage to visit and find that remembrance and resolution are the limit of what they will permit Auschwitz. Yet in more than 10 visits, I find any attempt to be resolute overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the evil. And the only memories I have are second-hand, borrowed from my Jewish and my Polish friends. So I come to pray in what St. John Paul called the "Golgotha of the modern world" — the place of the crucifixion of man. It's fitting, for when I go to Jerusalem I pray at the original Golgotha too.
Prayer at Auschwitz is different for Christians and for Jews. That original Golgotha — the crucifixion of God at our hands to redeem us from our sins — makes all evil somehow manageable theologically, even if spiritually, emotionally, psychologically or even philosophically it remains beyond us. For my Jewish friends, Auschwitz poses a stark theological challenge. Has God remained faithful to His covenant?
Visiting in the days after the death of Elie Wiesel, I thought of his writings. It was at the bookshop here some years ago that I bought a copy of Night, the Holocaust memoir that did so much to bring the darkness of this place to the light. Yet is was another work of Wiesel's that resonated with me more, The Trial of God. It's not set in the Holocaust, though it is impossible to read it without that in mind.
Wiesel sets his play in 1649, after a series of eastern European pogroms. The local Jewish rabbis put God on trial for allowing massacres to be visited upon His people. It is a bold act, skirting blasphemy, but the rabbis no doubt took courage from the Bible's most beautiful literary pages, the Book of Job, where the pious Job demands an accounting from God for the evil in his life. At the end of the trial, the rabbis pronounce that God is guilty. After "an infinity of silence," one of the rabbinic scholars announces simply, "It's time for evening prayers."
I think of that when visiting Auschwitz. Most often it's sunny, rather than bleak and dark and rainy, but it's always night at Auschwitz, and therefore time for evening prayers. Prayers for the dead; prayers for the living. Prayers for man who uses his freedom for such horror. Prayers wondering why God would make man free, if this is the consequence. Prayers that, as the Song of Songs puts it, love is indeed stronger than death.
Is it possible to pray after Auschwitz? Is God still the God of the covenant, the God of Abraham and his descendants? Evil destroys, and one thing it often destroys is faith — killing the soul after killing the body.
Yet evil does not have the final word. That conviction too bears respect. I was very moved to hear about the visit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau here. He was guided by Nate Leipciger, who survived Auschwitz as a boy. His family was murdered here.
"I shared with Mr. Trudeau how much it meant to me to be here with him praying at the site of mass murder in the presence of my wife, my daughter, and my granddaughter and I was moved to tears when I recited prayers for the dead," Leipciger wrote in the Canadian Jewish News. "I saw that he too was visibly touched and he shared his tears with mine ... With his permission, I placed my hands on his head and blessed him with the Priestly Blessing, the most ancient blessing in Judaism."
Prayers and tears. Next week Pope Francis will be in Poland for a global gathering of youth in Krakow, and he will visit Auschwitz. His predecessors came — a Polish pope followed by a German one. They had to speak, to testify before history as sons of their fatherlands, and as Christian disciples who call Abraham their father in faith. The Argentinian pope has no such historical burden, and thus he has asked that there be no speeches. He wishes to remember, to pray and to ask God for the "gift of tears."
Prayers and tears are desired at Auschwitz, especially when the sun shines.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "It's always night at Auschwitz." National Post, (Canada) July 20, 2016.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2016 National Post
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