No words can fully explain the horrors and inhumanity that took place over three long years (1941-1944) at the two Nazi Auschwitz sites in Poland. I have decided to let my photos speak for themselves as, having visited this week, I am still trying to come to terms with the horrendous atrocities committed on the soil of Europe by a ‘Christian’ nation which had experienced both the Enlightenment and the Reformation.
The stark juxtaposition of the bright clothing of the school parties and the sinister watchtowers and buildings of the Auschwitz 1 Nazi extermination site in southern Poland.
How was it possible that IN THIS PLACE – KL Auschwitz and KL Birkenau – 1.1 million people were gassed to death in truly hellish circumstances?
These two camps are on a vast scale. Both were designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly and as efficiently as possible, Auschwitz 1 is on the site of an old Polish army barracks, with its large and substantial brick built buildings.
Camp 2 at Birkenau, 2 miles away, was built on a far larger scale with hundreds of wooden buildings (resembling chicken sheds) in rows and rows stretching far towards the horizon. Now all that is left are the skeletal remains of the brick built chimneys and fireplaces, with the woodwork having long since rotted away.
The Auschwitz complex had seven gas chambers and five crematoria. The first was at Auschwitz 1, operating from 1941. The gassing process (using Zyklon B pesticide) meant that it could take from between 15 to 20 minutes for these victims to finally expire, in a bare concrete room with a low ceiling, and with up to 2,000 souls packed tightly together as they died.
What terrible things were seen from this actual window (below) in the early 1940’s? How must it have felt to look out at this fence and the guard post? Even today, the whole place has a dreadful sense of oppression, evil and malice.
Personal possessions (below) – stripped and taken from those brought here for extermination – were collected, stored in huge warehouses (named ‘Canada’ on the maps) and then sold on by the Third Reich.
Here are some of the many, many enamel bowls and pots, suitcases, wicker baskets (my mother had one such) and the shoes stolen from the victims. The worst ‘exhibit’ was that of masses and mounds of tangled human hair, now grey and faded after all these years. I could not bring myself to photograph such a dreadful sight.
Each item represents a person, a family, a community. Weep as you view these pictures. This is truly awful.
Birkenau camp is approached across the greenest of green Polish fields. The watchtowers give a sense of the horrors which lay beyond.
Birkenau was built by Adolf Hitler specifically as a place of extermination and execution. Victims came from over 20 nations (some as far away as the Channel Islands) – among them Roma people and Poles, but 90% of those murdered were Jewish. This is the horror of the Holocaust as commemorated so memorably at Yad Vashem in Israel today.
There is little left of the buildings today, but those that remain are a place of memorial. One can only imagine what life – and death – must have been like in the stench and filth of these dreadful huts.
70 years on, let this sign at the Auschwitz camp speak as to the depths of the true horror perpetrated here, and of ‘man’s incomprehensible inhumanity to man’.
For me, it was intensely moving to stand at the door of the tiny basement starvation cell (No 18) which had held the Polish Franciscan Priest, Maximilian Kolbe. I had read David Alton’s account of his sacrifice several years ago (Signs of Contradiction, Hodder 1996). Kolbe died in this prison cell after voluntarily taking another man’s place in a group of prisoners sentenced by the Nazis to starve to death.
David Alton also records, how to our shame, the British government in 1942 refused to grant asylum to 1,000 Jewish orphans, aged from 4 to 14. Denied sanctuary in the UK, all of them subsequently perished in Auschwitz. Alton goes on to say, ‘We are so familiar with the names of those who did speak out (like Kolbe and Bonhoeffer), it sometimes disguises the millions who did not. There were not many people prepared to be outlaws’.
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
These photos were taken on a Nokia Lumia 920.
V1 ‘Jesus began to teach beside the Sea of Galilee’.
Galilee was an inland lake. The crowds were so big that Jesus had to get into a boat and teach from it. The boat was his pulpit. It doesn’t matter where you speak from. Buildings are not that necessary! Look at John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who like Jesus preached to the crowds wherever he went. Don’t get hung up on buildings, they are not the Church. We are the church – the people, not the buildings.
Jesus made much use of ‘parables’: ‘Earthly stories with Heavenly meanings’ or a simple story that holds a spiritual truth. Note: Mark records fewer parables than Matthew.
Four types of soil described in this ‘Parable of the Sower’
- Hard soil on the path edge. Seed remains on the surface
- Rocky ground without much soil – little depth for growth
- Thorny ground – good soil but infested with weeds
- Good soil – fruitful and yielding a variable harvest
V10 – Jesus was now alone with his disciples. They were confused and didn’t understand his words to them. He speaks of the ‘mystery’ of the Kingdom: The powerful manifestation of the reign of God in human lives, often attended by mighty works. This is Good News – the Gospel.
V13f – Jesus explains the parable to his disciples: It’s about the sower, it’s about the seed and it’s about the soil.
Seed is the promise of a future harvest. This was an agricultural economy. Life itself depended on the seed that was sown. The sower depicted here is Jesus himself. The seed is the Word of God – the gospel, the message of the good news from God himself. The ground described here is people – you and I – our hearts and our lives. Jesus is asking how we receive the word of God into our lives.
V15 Hard path = Unresponsive person – someone guilty of being frivolous with God’s word. Treating it lightly and of little value. A spirit of indifference, and sometimes of hostility to God.
V16-17 Rocky soil = Impulsive person – acting on the spur of the moment without fully thinking through the implications. Note the word ‘immediately’. Their enthusiasm soon wanes. The presence of trouble and persecution badly affects them. Tom Wright translates this as ‘short-term enthusiasts’ or fair-weather folk, unwilling to suffer and persevere. It’s striking how trials and hardships can confirm the faith of some but then dent that of others?
NB: Plants need the sun to grow but that same sun can kill if they have very shallow roots.
V18-19 Thorny ground = Preoccupied person – Good but infested soil is a danger to plants and to the harvest. The same is true of our hearts and lives. Worries and wealth can thwart the impact of the gospel message. Note ‘the desire for other things’. Addiction – some things in our lives are entirely legitimate but the ‘desire’ for them can be at the expense of everything else. Thorns choke. We all struggle at some level with this issue. Possessions, prestige and pleasure can all choke us spiritually.
V20 Responsive person – good fertile soil, well prepared hearts. Neither shallow, hard or preoccupied, but receptive. These people hear because they want to hear. They reflect on what they hear. They put the gospel into practice and bear fruit. Gradually, the Kingdom of God comes in their lives. Spiritual fruit-bearing is the mark of a true believer in Jesus. Do note there are differences in the degree of fruitfulness here. We are not all equally patient, caring, loving, loyal, courageous and prayerful. We are all different.
Do not put pressure on yourself to produce more than you are able. You cannot be another Christian. You are you. You are accepted in God for who you are. He loves you – very much. Be fruitful and you will grow deeper into God. Spirituality is a journey we are all on. Be unwavering to the cause of Christ. Desire to grow.
The growth in fruitfulness – 30x, 60x, 100x – is all about maturity. As we develop in God, so we grow spiritually. You will not be the same tomorrow as you are today. Yes, there is the probability of going backwards as well, but if we stick close to Jesus, we will continue to grow in Him. You cannot see yourself developing Christianly, but others see it in you.
A farmer friend of mine said that he stores enough seed potatoes in his barns in NE Scotland – without planting them – to feed his whole family and his local community for a year, but if he plants them, he is then a major supplier of salad potatoes to the major supermarkets – and thus can help feed a nation! It’s like that with us. We must sow the seed of the word of God in order to feed our nation. It needs to hear the word of God and to understand more about Jesus and his Kingdom.
Not everyone we speak to will respond positively, but do not keep the message of the Kingdom to yourself.
In Isaiah 55:11 ‘God says … so is my word that goes out from of my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’.
This passage is not just about people outside of the church. This passage is about all of us. Every time we hear the word of God – or read the scriptures – we each have these same four options. What kind of soil will God’s word find in our lives? This is a daily choice for every one of us here today. We must face the fact that keeping our faith alive is a matter of clearing the weeds and tending the soil – every day.
Let’s pray for grace – and for God to help us to grow daily.
This sermon was given on Sunday 24th May 2015 at the Church Centre, Liphook in Hampshire.
I travelled to Leicester on business in August last year. With a couple of hours on my hands between trains, I headed for the Cathedral. St Martin’s church has been on this site for over 1,000 years but has only been a Cathedral since 1927. Named after the early Christian soldier and saint, St Martin of Tours, the church has been in the news recently due to the controversy following the historic exhumation of the remains of the English King, Richard III, from underneath a local car park. After a protracted legal tussle between the cities of York and Leicester, Richard III is to be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral in 2015 on Thursday 26th March.
King Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485. Aged 32, he had been King for only two years, and was the last in the line of Plantagenet royalty. St Martin’s has been the place of Richard’s memorial since 1980. This is seen locally as a great honour for the city, as only one memorial stone is permitted for each English monarch. All of this history has placed Leicester firmly in the national and indeed, international spotlight.
On the day of my visit, a large area surrounding the Cathedral was swarming with builders, machinery and workmen. Even the sacred interior of the Cathedral itself was not immune from the noise and bustle as the new tomb and its surrounding ambulatory is readied (at a cost of £1.5m) in time for this year’s high profile ceremony.
What was striking was how, right on 1pm, the builders’ hubbub and the clanging of scaffolding poles subsided, giving way to the quietness and peace of the lunchtime Eucharist. I decided to stay. Incongruously, the service took place in St George’s Chapel, with its strident memorials and brass plaques of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. It was packed. The priest delivered a thoughtful homily, having first read Bible passages from Ezekiel and Matthew.
Sitting under the flags of past empire; the draped colours of the ‘Tigers’ reflecting the power and dominance of Victorian England, the incumbent spoke of society’s ‘need to align with the values of the Kingdom’. He drew attention to the original manner of the disposal of Richard III’s mortal remains as being so undignified, but that this was the way of all human life returning as we all do, regardless of status, to the dust of the earth.
Interestingly for librarians and booksellers, Richard III whilst King, passed a law protecting the English book trade, enabling education to be pursued. In 1484, at the only Parliament of his reign, Richard devised the first piece of legislation for the ‘protection and fostering of the art of printing and the dissemination of learning by books’, which, as far as I’m concerned, puts Leicester right up there as a ‘notable book-trade site’!
Spirituality writer, Richard Rohr’s books are always eagerly awaited. In this new hardback, Rohr, himself a Franciscan friar, looks closely at ‘the alternative way’ of St Francis of Assisi, one of the Christian church’s most popular saints. All in all, this is an attractive package with a stunning cover.
Hodder Faith recently sent a reading copy of Richard Rohr’s latest book, Eager to Love. In fact, I selected it as one of my ’10 to Watch’ titles in the September/October issue of Together magazine.
Eager to Love is not a difficult book, but it’s far from an easy read. Words tend to pop up and shout, and phrases seem to have specific resonance for a given situation.
I read this during the massacres and genocide of Christian and other religious minorities across the Middle East and was stopped in my tracks by one very short 4-page chapter, ‘Entering the world of another’, a timely cameo of St Francis of Assisi and his two-week visit to the Muslim Saladin in Egypt.
The record of this extraordinary encounter in 1219 between the apparently powerless Christian monk and the all-powerful Islamic ruler sends a clear echo down through the centuries of just how costly it is to ‘love your enemies’.
Parallels between the nine Crusades and now in our own day, ISIS, are plain.
Reading Rohr’s words, it seems a case of ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’. He writes of how Saint Francis spoke at great personal cost against the Crusades, telling the Christian soldiers that ‘this was not of God’. Rohr comments on how the Sultan honoured Francis for his courage, sending him away with his protection and a gift of a prayer horn, which to this day is kept in Assisi.
St Francis’s view of how the Christian Church, in supporting the Crusades, actually caused the greater sin of damage to the wider principles of the Kingdom of God is one for us to ponder again for ourselves.
Today, in returning violence with violence, do we once again negate the values of the Kingdom? Good writing has the ability to challenge our assumptions and make us more thoughtful people.
Hodder and Stoughton – 9781473604018 – Published 14-Aug-2014