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.