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Travel – Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi extermination sites in Poland

May 30, 2015 4 comments

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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WP_20150527_067What 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.

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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.

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Birkenau camp is approached across the greenest of green Polish fields. The watchtowers give a sense of the horrors which lay beyond.

WP_20150527_107 (2)The entrance gateway to Auschwitz, known as ”Hell’s Gate’, and the electrified ceramic of the barbed wire fences.

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WP_20150527_096Birkenau 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.

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WP_20150527_094From the top of the entrance tower, some idea of the vast scale of this Auschwitz 2 camp can be viewed.

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WP_20150527_100The poignancy of this solitary silent railway track which, in 1944, led to the terror of the camp’s ‘unloading platform’.

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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’.

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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.

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Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Spring 2015

January 11, 2015 2 comments

Whoever said that Christian books are boring? Not so . … here is a personal selection of my ‘Ten to Note’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current period:

40 Days, 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World

Simply superb! If you missed this, you’ve missed a treat. This is Operation World Lite for all the family. Colourful and informative, a really outstanding package which deserves to do well. The maps, charts and prayer points enable adults and children to learn together whilst praying for the world.

Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land

Despite the perceived and sometimes real dangers, people still travel to Israel. I went there last year and I’m sure I would have benefited from this new BRF guide. The truth is that, alongside a Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet, you need to take a spiritual guidebook as well. This should be the one.

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In God’s Hands – Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2015

At the heart of Archbishop’s Tutu’s faith is an unshakeable belief in the infinite value of every individual. This, coupled with his unwavering declaration of the love of God for everyone regardless of colour or faith, makes this paperback a profound reflection for the forthcoming season of Lent.

Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns

I love hymns. I collect books of hymn stories. Hymns are in danger of being lost to our culture. BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’ has probably done more than most churches in keeping hymns alive in the national consciousness. Presenter Pam Rhodes selects her personal choices in this small hardback.

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Miracles

Sub-titled, ‘What they are, why they happen and how they can change your life’. Is this rather hefty hardback the definitive work on the subject of Miracles? You must judge for yourself, but it comes with some weighty endorsements, and attempts to navigate the middle ground between the extremes of enthusiasm and scepticism.

The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating

I heard Andy Stanley preach at his mega-church in Atlanta last year. He is the son of the better-known Charles Stanley. Above all, Andy Stanley came across as sensible, realistic and down-to-earth, with none of the usual trappings of American superstar preachers. This book deserves to do well.

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On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future

The Archbishop of York always seems such a joyful, solid character, and a far better role model for this country than so many of our politicians. In this book, John Sentamu edits various contributions looking at the essential values required to build a just, sustainable and compassionate society for the Britain of the future.

Presence and Encounter

I met David Benner at a counselling conference in Singapore. He had the most extraordinary impact on my life, introducing me to the constancy and beauty of God’s presence. I view that moment as a clear spiritual turning point. Anything written by Dr Benner is well worth reading – very slowly!

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When God Breaks In

Yes, it’s the same Michael Green – back again with a fascinating book of how Christianity is thriving and growing around the world. For me, the interest lay in his chapter of how spiritual renewal came to Singapore. Sub-titled ‘Revival can happen again’, this is truly a faith-building and timely book.

The Wisdom House

Hodder Faith do produce attractive books. This title is elegantly packaged and makes a lovely gift. I enjoyed this book of ‘life-lessons’. As a grandparent, so much of what Rob Parsons writes resonated with me. This is vintage Parsons: thought provoking, faith-full and wise. This really is a significant book.

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This article was written in November 2014 for publication in Together Magazine (January to February 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com.

Bibliographic Metadata        
Title Author Publisher ISBN
40 Days 40 Bites: A Family Guide to Pray for the World Trudi Parkes Christian Focus 9781781914014
Footsteps of Jesus: Pilgrim Traveller’s Guide to the Holy Land Perry Buck BRF 9780857463456
In God’s Hands (ABC Lent Book 2015) Desmond Tutu Bloomsbury 9781472908377
Love so Amazing: 40 Reflections on my Favourite Hymns Pam Rhodes Lion Hudson 9780857215703
Miracles Eric Metaxas Hodder Faith 9781473604766
The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating Andy Stanley Thomas Nelson 9780310342199
On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future Editor: John Sentamu SPCK 9780281071746
Presence and Encounter David Benner Brazos Press 9781587433610
When God Breaks In Michael Green Hodder Faith 9781444787962
The Wisdom House Rob Parsons Hodder Faith 9781444745665

Reflection – Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

May 23, 2014 1 comment

I am not long back from a tour of Israel. I last went in 1988. The country has developed massively in that time but the politics remain complex. With a population of 8 million, contradictions and conundrums appear at every turn. Instinctively, as a Christian, I want to love Israel but they themselves make this far from easy. The national character is likened to the ‘sabre’, or prickly pear. The visit left me saddened, and with a deep disquiet of whether the present situation can ever truly be resolved. How can such divided peoples live side-by-side, even if a two state solution were to prove possible?

Jerusalem from Mount Scopus

Whilst there I read through Psalms 120-134, ‘The Songs of Ascent’; songs sung by the Jews travelling up to Jerusalem. Psalm 122:6 exhorts us to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. Peace is never more needed than it is today. Hostilities and injustice abound across Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Even the Christian denominations add to the sense of tension. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a travesty of all that the gospels teach. Discord and disharmony lie at the centre of one of the most important Christian sites on earth!

A visit to the Holy Land is far from straightforward. It throws up thorny issues of land ownership, disputed borders and national security; concepts which in the UK we are rarely forced to consider. We Brits have our own issues to face as our history from the Mandate period has left bitter memories in Israel. I fully support Israel’s right to exist, but how does its antagonistic policies toward the Palestinians sit with the scriptural injunction to take care of the stranger and neighbour?

There are no simple answers. The situation would appear intractable. What we can and must do, however, is to continue to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’; an anguished city over which Jesus himself wept.

This reflection was published in Together Magazine (May to June 2014).

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