New Historical Mists Shower Auschwitz with Hope

New Historical Mists Shower Auschwitz with Hope September 2, 2015

By now you might be past your knee-jerk reactions to the “showers” (misters, to be precise) placed outside the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum during the latest heat wave in Poland. If you actually did your due diligence then you know the analogy between what the Germans did and the mist “showers” is mostly bunk. Perhaps you’ve even read the Museum’s social media statement on the controversy:

New revelations about St. Maximilian Kolbe have come out in Poland (Maximilian Kolbe in 1936 in Japan; Source: Wikimedia Commons, Seibo no Kishi, Feature in Extra Issue of Jan. 1983, considered to be in public domain in Japan).
New revelations about St. Maximilian Kolbe have come out in Poland (Maximilian Kolbe in 1936 in Japan; Source: Wikimedia Commons, Seibo no Kishi, Feature in Extra Issue of Jan. 1983, considered to be in public domain in Japan).

And one more thing. It is really hard for us to comment on some suggested historical references since the mist sprinklers do not look like showers and the fake showers installed by Germans inside some of the gas chambers were not used to deliver gas into them. Zyklon B was dropped inside the gas chambers in a completely different way – through holes in the ceiling or airtight drops in walls.

I can only imagine that elderly Jews dying of heat stroke at the Museum would be a far worse PR disaster. This too will blow over. The final truth about this non-news-item is that the sprinklers are a goodwill gesture interpreted uncharitably and unhistorically.

The issue of charity brings me to Timothy Snyder’s latest book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I’ve written about his harrowing book, The Bloodlands, several times (and met him briefly after a lecture he gave based on the book in Seattle). I think the last time I mentioned the book was about a year ago. September 1st, 1939 was both the start of Germany’s invasion of Poland, effectively the start of World War II, and the title of one of Auden’s most famous poems.

Now, I believe the new book, Black Earth, is very important, because of its focus on and interpretation of those who saved Jews [the following is from from the blurb]:

The past is not even past according to Snyder's new book Black Earth.
The past is not even past according to Snyder’s new book Black Earth.

The Holocaust began in a dark but accessible place, in Hitler’s mind, with the thought that the elimination of Jews would restore balance to the planet and allow Germans to win the resources they desperately needed. Such a worldview could be realized only if Germany destroyed other states, so Hitler’s aim was a colonial war in Europe itself. In the zones of statelessness, almost all Jews died. A few people, the righteous few, aided them, without support from institutions. Much of the new research in this book is devoted to understanding these extraordinary individuals. The almost insurmountable difficulties they faced only confirm the dangers of state destruction and ecological panic. These men and women should be emulated, but in similar circumstances few of us would do so.

The unlikeliness and decisiveness of such acts is at the center of more important, but totally under-reported news from Poland: The recent appearance of an interview with an eyewitness of St. Maxmillian Kolbe’s demand to be killed in place of another at Auschwitz.

The strangeness and power of such an act under those circumstances seemed to even take the SS aback [my own translation of the interview]:

What’s most interesting is how in his dialogue [with the SS officer] Fr. Maximilian never once used the word “please.” He broke down the judge who had usurped the right to decide life and death and forced him to change his verdict. He acted like a consummate diplomat but in place of a tuxedo, ribbons, and decorations he had his striped prison uniform, a bowl, and wooden clogs. A funereal silence prevailed at that moment, every second seemed to last an eternity.  Then something happened that still cannot be understood by neither the prisoners nor Germans. The SS-man spoke to Fr. Maximilian using a “formal you” address, “Warum wollen Sie für ihn sterben?”–“Why do you Sir [closest equivalent to “formal you” in English] want to die for him?”

All the canons the SS-man had followed earlier came crashing down. Just a few moments before that he was calling him “Polish swine,” and now he addresses him as Sir. The SS-men and lower ranking soldiers nearby were not sure whether they were hearing aright. Only once in the history of concentration camps did it come to pass that a high ranking officer, who had murdered thousands of innocent people, addressed a prisoner in such a way.

Two stories in Endo's Stained Glass Elegies capture the strangeness of Kolbe's witness through Japanese eyes.
Two stories in Endo’s Stained Glass Elegies capture the strangeness of Kolbe’s witness through Japanese eyes.

These might seem like faraway and drastic circumstances, but Snyder argues in his new book, as he did already in Bloodlands, that the Holocaust is not a totally unique event, a kind of historical Wholly Other as it is usually depicted, but rather an event with present day analogies (think: “migrant crisis”):

By overlooking the lessons of the Holocaust, Snyder concludes [in Black Earth], we have misunderstood modernity and endangered the future. The early twenty-first century is coming to resemble the early twentieth, as growing preoccupations with food and water accompany ideological challenges to global order. Our world is closer to Hitler’s than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was — and ourselves as we are. Groundbreaking, authoritative, and utterly absorbing, Black Earth reveals a Holocaust that is not only history but warning.

Oddly enough, this sense of repetition, analogy, in other words, the sense of the contemporaneity of past events, is something at the heart of a book I started reading recently, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans. Even though Barth is frequently painted as a proponent of a Wholly Other, distant, and alien God, he’s really concerned with making the questions and answers of Paul’s Epistle resound for his time, just as Calvin did for the 16th century. In a similar way, the Holocaust can only stop being an irrelevant idol of the past that can stir up momentary emotions safely cordoned off from today’s reality, if it can become an icon to gaze through at the present more perceptively (see: Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being for the best discussion of the difference between idols, icons, and what each one allows us to see).

There is at least one Jewish person, and one is more than we should expect given Snyder’s understanding of human possibilities, in the world who sees the Holocaust in this way. His name is George Weidenfield and he was rescued from the Holocaust by Christians. Now he is returning the favor during the Syrian refugee crisis . . .

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