Wednesday, November 22, 2006


My failure to post anything so far this week probably tells its own story as to the demands we have had in chaplaincy. Lots of pastoral stuff interwoven with personalities and politics of the student body. I'm not going to name names (or issues) but it's all been pretty exhausting, especially as it's CU Mission week (lots of questions from CU and lots of requests from them for rooms, gear and help). I'm also speaking on "what about dinosaurs?" tomorrow at a lunch club. Fortunately neither the CU president nor the UCCF rep are creationists, so that's a relief. Also had a trip down to London to the Church Commissioners for a Church Colleges/Universities meeting, which was an interesting day out, but sadly involved a 6-38am train.

Perhaps the most demanding thing that has happened over the last week or so was on Monday night. We were privileged to meet Arek Hersh, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps and ghettos. He was 11 when taken away, and he lost all of his family. He also had a series of moments when particular choices meant that he was one of the few survivors from a group. In 2004 he made a documentary of his life, supported by UNISON and a project in Liverpool that takes young people to visit the camps.

We showed the film and I chaired questions afterwards. Watching Arek tell his story is gruelling enough, let alone the archive film which illustrated the kinds of conditions he endured. Meeting him in person was something else - a presence which commanded respect.

There's no easy way to answer the systematic slaughter of so many people - predominantly Jews, but also Roma, non-Jewish Poles, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people, communists and Freemasons. Millions more died as a result of Nazi policies but not in such a systematic and targeted way. The Nazi's allies in Croatia also killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs.

Arek says he can't forgive, and I can understand that, given all he has been through. It all begs lots of questions, though. Is anyone beyond redemption? Are some sins beyond forgiveness? If they are, where is the line? It also begs some more awkward questions - where were the Christians when the Jews were being taken away? Most of all, where was God in Auschwitz?

Perhaps most chilling is the upsurge in neo-nazism, which Arek wants to spend the rest of his life fighting. The prejudice, politics and graffiti are out there.

This all seems really heavy, but it's not a subject you can talk about lightly. Despite that, Arek is someone with a great amount of humour, modesty and courtesy. The really bizarre moment was taking him over for a drink in the bar afterwards. Somehow it felt wrong - going for a drink with someone from Auschwitz - but he made it OK. A special moment as he left - the guys on the pool table stopped playing, and nodded an acknowledgment. One of them had been at the film.


Matthew McMurray said...

I hear you about the stress of the last couple of weeks as we share the same office. I think we should have a month off or something! :)

The film was amazing and having the man himself there on Monday really brought the whole thing home. I couldn't resist the urge to just go up to him and thank him at the end although I wish I could have come to the bar afterwards. I would have loved to have seen the pool players stopping. He was a truly amazing man and I will never forget that evening.

I was struck by his comments about not being able to forgive. I don't think that they are beyond redemption as I don't think that anybody is beyond redemption but there has to be repentance of course.

I don't think that I expected him to say that the was able to forgive. I remember reading Corrie Ten Boom's book about her time in a concentration camp where she lost her sister and later met one of the guards at a talk she gave about forgiveness and she talks about how she had to make the decision to practise what she had preached. She was at a women's camp though and having also read Primo Levi's "If This is a Man", it would appear that things were a lot worse in the men's camps. I don't how I would feel about it if I had been there.

Let us face it: there are people whose acts are as bad as the Nazi's today. I think of Rwanda, Al Qaeda, dare I say it: George W Bush?

Mike Peatman said...

Be careful - the CIA might be watching, and I don't mean Cumbria Institute of the Arts! The distinctive thing about Nazism, of course, is that it was (is) driven by a very specific ideology, which was ultimately that power is all, and the powerful are right. They had no reference to any other moral code. Whenever the pursuit of power starts to transcend any other moral consideration or principle, then people risk walking down the same path. The way it is expressed and the victims may be different, of course.

At least we still have the option to vote 'em out if we think that tendency is starting cut in.

Matthew McMurray said...

You are right. With Bush, there seems to be an aspect of his foreign policies that says, "If I don't like your politics [even if that might to some extent be justified] I will get rid of you and bomb a significant proportion of your country and kills thousands of innocents or at least injure them in the process. It is not quite the same thing. It is dodgy ground where he claims Christian inspiration for it!

Unfortunately, the rest of the thinking world (!) doesn't have the opportunity to vote for or against Bush but it is encouraging to see a significant loss of his power in the States.

Emma said...

The holocaust is certainly one of the most challenging things to teach in history at primary school. Strictly speaking you don't have to teach it but I find it a rather crucial element to be left out merely because it is uncomfortable to teach. I was teaching about Anne Frank last week. You cannot escape her fate even if you major on her family's hiding. There are no words to describe to a ten year old the depths of human depravity which led to the holocaust, but I suspect they have a greater understanding than we give them credit for.

Mike Peatman said...

Good for you, Emma. I don't think any useful purpose is served by omitting such a crucial event from the curriculum. It's precisely what the modern day extremists would like us to do. Obviously there's a limit to what you can show or describe to younger children.