23 June 2016

"I didn't have the heart..."

Joshua Kaufman, with his daughter, Rachel Kaufman.
Photo by Andy Eckardt; source.
"Why I didn't talk: I didn't have the heart to raise children, to tell them what I became -- an animal, to survive."

The speaker was Joshua Kaufman, Auschwitz and Dachau survivor, explaining why it has only been in recent years that he has talked about his death camp experiences.

Kaufman was interviewed by Owen Bennett-Jones on BBC Newshour last Friday. (Podcast available here, episode title "Russia Olympics ban remains," but it may cycle off the site after today. I kept my copy.)

Among several other riveting exchanges, Bennett-Jones wanted to know what Kaufman felt about the five-year sentence given to Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning for his complicity in the murder of 170,000 people. Kaufman thought the sentence was nothing -- a "picnic" -- but he had no hate, no desire for revenge. All he wanted was, for the sake of future generations, for Hanning to go with him to Auschwitz and bear witness to what had happened.

Kaufman's words about becoming an animal to survive really hit me. What does that mean, exactly? I suppose it means being backed into a corner where being human was no longer an option. Kaufman worked at the gas chambers; if I had been in his place and they ordered me to empty the bodies from the gas chambers, as ghastly as the task was, as tangled up as the corpses' limbs might be, I'd surely shut down my brain to do it.

And not just my brain, my soul, too. I remembered Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, whose GULag characters descend to a state of bare existence that's so numb that even killing oneself seems like too much trouble, never mind troubling about the fate of others.

So Kaufman didn't want all this to  affect his children's upbringing. But now his adult daughter is in the know. Rachel understands and admires her father's ideals and helps him express them to the news media. Judging by press accounts of the witnesses at Hanning's trial, those ex-prisoners who still remain alive want the world to know about an evil so massive, so thoroughly organized, so intent on genocide, so heartless that those who fell into its grasp sometimes had to become animals to survive. It's pretty clear that, whatever state of subhuman existence was required for survival, the Nazi system's uniforms, power, perverted technology, and a cult of racial superiority had already formed a master tribe of beasts.

I understand the survivors' sense of urgency. The beasts of ruthless objectification still roam our planet. As Ilya Grits says, "even now significant numbers of people regret that the 'great' European cannibals were not able to bring their 'cause' to a successful conclusion." What do we tell our children -- and when -- to ensure that they don't fall under that deadly spell?

Christians, whose faith is sometimes labeled as a religion for the oppressed, have an additional responsibility ... never to let the beastly infection of elitism and objectification compromise our witness. How well are we doing?

Great Britain votes today in the EU referendum. One of the most balanced defenses I've seen for Britain's remaining in the European Union comes from an Anglican bishop, Nick Baines. A sample:
...The language of pure, selfish, tribal self-interest – economic, cultural, social and political – is not one that translates into my understanding of Christian identity or justice. When Paul the Apostle wrote to the Christians in Philippi that they should “have the mind of Christ” and “look not to their own interests, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”, I don't think he was indulging in other-worldly piety. A confident people is strong enough to face this, not to close it down.
David Williams is not preaching about Trump.

Micael Grenholm quotes Christy Wimber on taking the Vineyard back to its roots. Micael's post includes a video of Jack Hayford speaking to a Vineyard congregation -- it wasn't hard to imagine him saying more or less the same thing to us Quakers.

From Poland: a tribute to Little Walter.

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