Auschwitz. The word conjures images no words can capture. Living skeletons in striped rags, hollow-eyed children, brick-oven gas chambers. Of Nazi Germany’s 20,000 concentration camps, Auschwitz was the largest, spanning more than 15 square miles of German-occupied Poland.
More than 1.1 million people died there, mostly Jews. On January 27, 1945, the Soviet Army entered the prison. Auschwitz stands today as a museum and memorial to the Holocaust.
News outlets are marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this week. Two stories have especially impressed me. One is that of 90-year-old Gena Turgel. At the age of 16, she was shipped to Plaszow concentration camp, then marched to Auschwitz where she survived testing by the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
One day she was herded into the gas chambers with hundreds of other prisoners. Somehow she walked out alive, and assumes that the chamber did not work. “When I think back, I have to pinch myself sometimes to see if I’m really alive,” she says. But Auschwitz is always with her. “I wear a lot of perfume,” she told a reporter. “The stench of the camps will always stay with me and I try to block it out.”
Another victim of Auschwitz was not imprisoned there, but his mother was. Tomas Lefkovitz has audio tapes on which she recorded her experiences, but he cannot bring himself to listen to them. He has chaired Holocaust Remembrance Day events and been involved in a discussion group for children of survivors. He goes to synagogue every week, wears phylacteries (boxes holding tiny scrolls of Scripture) during prayers, and embraces the beauty and philosophy of the Jewish faith.
But Tomas cannot believe in God. He scoffs at the notion that the Jews are “chosen” people: “Chosen for what? Because so far, I haven’t seen any benefits. Anybody who wants to convert to Judaism, they’re crazy. They’re fools.”
Why did Gena Turgel survive Hitler’s atrocities when more than six million Jews did not? What would you say to convince Tomas Lefkovitz that the God who allowed his mother’s suffering is a loving Father worthy of his trust?
I have my own theories on innocent suffering (for more, read Why does a good God allow an evil world?), but this week is not a time for abstract theology. Rather, it is a time to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), to show suffering souls the reality of God’s compassion in ours, to answer unanswerable questions not with logic but with love.
When my father died, the person who helped me most was a friend who drove across Houston to sit with me. He didn’t pretend to know how I felt. He didn’t try to answer my questions. He just stayed beside me, all afternoon, and hugged me when he left. In his presence I sensed the presence of God.
Do you need such a friend today? Will you be such a friend today?