The stain of the Holocaust is almost like a physical wound, as if one is perpetually having to place one’s hand in the Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem. Books and films about it are abundant. Stellar examples are, of course, ‘Schindler’s Ark’ now ‘List’ and ‘The Pianist’ both having a place in the hall of fame, as has the movie I finally got around to watching yesterday, from John Boyne’s prizewinning children’s novel from 2006 ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, filmed in 2008. It has a deceptively simple plotline centring around Bruno, an eight-year-old boy whose father is the commandant of an extermination camp who illicitly befriends a ragged Jewish child of the same age on the other side of the electrified fence.
The film begins with a quote from Betjeman: ‘Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights before the dark hour of reason grows’. The wide-eyed innocence of the little German boy is maintained right to the end, as he is sheltered from the horrors on the other side of the fence. We are left in no doubt about the brutality of events, the fictional proximity of the commandant’s house to the camp itself serves as a magnifying lens, but we’re meant to suspend disbelief and see the world through eight year old eyes, catching glimpses of the horror only through adult reactions to them.
Apparently, at the opening screening, after a devastating climax, quiet pervaded the auditorium right until the fade of the final credits.
One hundred and forty four people are known to have escaped from Auschwitz. One was a Pole who volunteered to go into Auschwitz and report to the world what he had seen, and, a Slovakian Jew who escaped when he was nineteen by hiding for three days in a pile of wood outside the electrified fences. The story of their escape and subsequent early warnings to Hungarian Jewry saved countless lives.
Joel Rosenberg’s well-researched but fictional ‘The Auschwitz Escape’ tells the story of a German Jew and a French pastor determined to find freedom together. Luc, the unconventional pastor from the little village of Le Chambon in France, has been imprisoned for helping Jews. Many of the guards, who beat, kill, and torture six days a week faithfully attend church every Sunday, but Luc is determined that to show that work is love made visible. Jacob, the leading Jewish protagonist, does not become a Christian, but he is deeply moved by Luc’s passion. Luc admits Martin Luther was the source of Hitler’s propaganda, and apologizes to Jacob for every wrong thing Christians have done to Jews throughout the years. I know a little of how that feels, as if the skin is peeled back, exposing an open wound. The pastor never tries to convert anyone but refuses to remain willfully ignorant, as the majority of Christians in Europe did.
Today, there are dangerous new threats from ISIS, Iran, North Korea, and a rising czar in Russia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have each warned that as we confront current challenges we must be careful to learn the lessons of history regarding how the world failed to understand the threat posed by Hitler and the Nazis and deal with it decisively, before events spin out of control. Deep and abiding evil is still to be found in abundance. Recently, the president of Kenya declared “we will not flinch” as al-Shabab terrorists perpetrated a massacre near the Somali border. They methodically separated the non-Muslims to be killed, sparing the Muslims. 36 people were marched to a gravel pit, where most were shot in the head, lying facedown on a stony hillside, with some beheaded. Rape and torture are endemic in this pre-medieval world. I never thought of myself as agreeing with the rightwing loonies, but even Geert Willders’s statement to the police during his recent interrogation for racism had something trenchant to say:
“I do not discriminate. I do not spread hatred, nor do I incite to it. I do not intend to hurt or offend people either. However, I do not mince my words when I defend our established freedoms and name the dangers to our society. Our freedom is being threatened. Threatened by a violent totalitarian ideology – Islam – that brings with it death and devastation. Threatened by a politically correct elite that does not tolerate criticism of Islam and mass immigration, and that nurtures cultural relativism.”
But, what of the Church? Those at the sharp end of the Muslim lances? Militant Islam quite simply wishes to exterminate the kuffar, wherever it finds them, since a Muslim is superior to an unbeliever. As yet, Europe has been spared, for the most part, from this New Nazism, its blackshirt thugs replaced by equally wooden, intellectually bereft foot-soldiers, capable of learning the simplest of mantras and with the collective will to enact them at the behest of their black-clad puppet masters. But, should it ever care to reflect, even momentarily, on its heroes, those who died in the cause of freedom against the last mighty ideology that sought to overthrow it, the words of one of its martyrs speaks as loudly now as it did in 1945. In the face of Nazi atrocities, he himself hanged at Flossenburg in the dying days of the war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”
Earlier this year, ISIS cut a swathe of destruction and murder through vast tracts of Upper Iraq and Syria, capitalizing on the chaos of a civil war and lack of strong leadership. It announced its chilling agenda and future manifesto and dared the world to stop it. And yet, the West is amiably, inclusively tolerant. The retired Bishop of London, Lord Harries, suggested that a verse from the Qu’ran might be incorporated into the next Coronation service. By contrast, this from Archbishop Amel Shimoun, exiled Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Iraq.
“You think all men are equal… Islam does not say that all men are equal. Your values are not their values. If you do not understand this soon enough, you will become victims of the enemy you have welcomed into your home.”
We have been warned. Again and again. Must we wait for another Gates of Vienna? No. We will not go quietly into the night. We will not abandon the faith and legacy of our fathers to whom God in his mercy showed favour. But first – let us be in no doubt – the elephant in the drawing room is a strong man who must be bound. If we do not, and politely continue to pass the cucumber sandwiches around his vast and increasingly threatening bulk, we only have ourselves to blame if he turns on us, plunders our goods and sets up his command centres in our cities.