Friday, November 22, 2013

can the human heart refrain

My eyes were not always bloodshot and red-rimmed.
--Candide

On a bright, crisp October Friday--my favorite sort of day--I found myself at Auschwitz.
On a bright, crisp October Friday, the year before, I had sat on a tree that fell down in a windstorm, and fed my breakfast to a squirrel.
On a bright, crisp October Friday, twenty-two years before, my father was almost late for his induction to the state bar, because I was born at just after 6:00 in the morning.

Twenty-two years later, a little after 8:30, the new morning sun sparkled with freshness and its rays were crisp and clean as it shone through the dingy metal gate of the concentration camp.
I walked under the letters Abrecht Meich Frei like an unimaginable number of other humans had once done. 
Although, unlike them, I had the privilege of walking back out through that gate whenever I wanted.
Quietly, turning our heads from side-to-side to take in the dismal yet gently lit scene around us, we walked through the gate, as millions of people had done before us.
Fall leaves, muffling the sound of our footsteps were sprinkled across the damp ground. It was an eerie moment: a radiant autumn day—the perfect weather for a birthday—at one of the deadliest places in history.
And I thought of all those humans who would have been celebrating their birthdays, except they found themselves in Auschwitz.
I knew that when I got back home, I would have cards and flowers and love and hugs waiting for me; but there was nothing left of them here, but sorrow and the smell of great sadness, and nineteen iron plaques, which have written on them:

Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.

These words are repeated in nineteen different languages on nineteen different plaques as part of the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism, located between the ruins of the two large gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Those words were steeped in an emotion deeper than sorrow.
The despair in those words would be shocking, but after a walk through the graveyard that is Auschwitz-Birkenau, despair seems to be the only reasonable response.
For who, after witnessing the horrors that humans can inflict on other humans, would not despair?

    I could barely stomach reading those words.
According to those words, as long as Auschwitz-Birkenau stands it will serve as a warning of the hate of which human beings are capable.
And that is all: a cry of despair and a dreadful warning.
There are so many monuments throughout the world that testify to human beings’ astounding creativity and aptitude for beauty.
We walk into churches that celebrate what gorgeous architectural marvels a human being on fire with love can achieve.
It is impossible to look at St. Peter’s, Sagrada Familia, Brompton Oratory, or Notre Dame de Paris in the same way after witnessing Auschwitz.
A human being’s ability to create beauty, to reflect beauty, their desire to add to the beauty of the world becomes a little ray of light in that darkness of despair.
I thought of all the people who may have also had celebrated their birthdays at Auschwitz.
And I felt very keenly what a gift it was that I was alive.
It seemed so radically arbitrary that I was alive and they were dead.
As we walked through the stark bunkers, each doorway we walked through was the entrance to a crypt.
The weight of all the suffering at Auschwitz was palpable.
 Auschwitz was one of the closer encounters I've ever had with death.
Death pervades that place, it hangs in the air, it's embedded in the ground, it seeps into the scent of the bricks.
There lingers a faint antiseptic smell, the attempts of succeeding generations to purge the hateful legacy from those ugly barracks.
It was as though we had stepped into some ghoulish graveyard.

 Yet, we walked out of Auschwitz I, we walked along a path that was littered with yellow-gold leaves, shining in the mud. I thought of the passage from the book of Wisdom: “In the time of their judgment they shall shine and dart about as sparks through stubble.”

As we walked towards the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism, at the end of the railroad tracks, I felt how easily, how reasonably, without the “hope full of immortality,” Auschwitz would be a cause for despair.
Auschwitz seems to be a victory of evil. It seems to be a victory of death. Just there, in that complex, over 1.5 million people lost their lives.

"I am a worm and no man,"
We prayed the words of the psalmist in front of the ruins of the gas chamber.
 And as we walked back along the railroad tracks, my heart leapt for joy; a load was suddenly lifted and I almost laughed aloud.
I was appalled at myself for feeling so.
As an immense joy and gratitude at being alive overwhelmed me, a breeze swept along the tracks, blowing away a bit of the heavy sorrow in the air.
I felt my hands fly open, lifted of their heavy despair.
My life was not my own; my life was a gift I had received--a gift to give away.

The tears that blind my eyes bear witness that I say the truth when I declare that I had never known before what love God has infused into my heart for all He has entrusted to my care.
--Edward Sorin

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