In the Nazi holocaust, two thirds of all the Jews in Europe perished. Survivors carry the physical and emotional scars with them in memories that can never fully be healed. It is part of my own psyche too, as a ‘second generation survivor’ as we are called. Almost too late, my grandparents got my uncle and my mother out of Germany before the borders were closed. But for that, they would have been transported to Treblinka, Dachau or Auschwitz with other members of the family. This country took them in. Thank God for British kindness to the stranger, the refugee, the asylum-seeker.
The holocaust was and is a defining experience in the life of Jewish people today, and probably always will be. It has become part of the long story that defines that community and its capacity to survive extreme persecution. The Passover haggadah tells of how the Hebrews were resident in Egypt. Pharaoh made slaves of them, piled on the oppression until they managed to flee for safety across the Red Sea at the hand of Moses and Aaron. Escaping to a land of safety across the water was precisely my mother’s experience. The Festival of Purim recalls how Queen Esther, the Jewish consort of a pagan king, acts with supreme courage to save her people from extinction. Yet another feast, Hannukah, commemorates a fierce persecution of the 2nd century BC when a Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple in Jerusalem and exacted a terrible price on Jews who would not bow to his will and abandon their covenant. This time it is Judas Maccabaeus, the ‘hammer’, who saved them. These are not the only holocausts written into the history of Judaism.
This background helps us to see why ‘holocaust’, Sho’ah, literally a whole burnt offering of flesh, stands as a symbol of genocide. Our question must be: what do we say and do in the face of it? I don’t mean the Jewish holocaust only, but every genocide where the same story gets acted out in new places and new ways. The inventiveness and dark imagination of evil seems to know no limit.
In the Hebrew Bible, the ‘Old’ Testament as we call it, many texts try to grapple with the question of why human beings suffer. The greatest of them is the Book of Job. It tells of a devout, religious man who finds himself progressively afflicted with terrible diseases, has his house and home destroyed, loses all his children. Mrs Job asks why how this could possibly have come about. ‘Curse God and die!’ But this is precisely what he will not do. He is baffled, like she is, but he chooses to stay with the unanswerable questions while all along knowing that he has done nothing to deserve this personal holocaust of his. And then, says the story, his friends come along to keep him company as he sits among the ashes. Although they will utter plenty of thoughtless nonsense later on, they are at least wise enough to stay silent to begin with, not just for a few minutes but for an entire week, ‘for they saw that his suffering was very great’.
There is something we can learn in that picture of friends standing by silently. When we are in the presence of suffering, it’s not that the words fail us, or not only that. It’s how best we stand in solidarity with suffering human beings, honour them in their ordeals. Silence is not passivity. When we go to the site of a terrible atrocity, we know that we are not simply onlookers, sightseers of history. There is ‘work’ to be done here: mental, heart-work, spiritual work that should change us, transform our attitudes to suffering and injustice, empower us to act for the victim, the voiceless and the weak.
A few years ago my wife and I went to the Bay of Naples to visit Pompeii, the Roman town destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. It was a human disaster on a vast scale. To see the moulds taken of men, women and children found in the rubble, showing them bracing themselves helplessly against a relentless, unpitying, power is deeply moving. But with millions of people visiting the site each year, you now have to run the gauntlet of a ‘shadow’ money-spinning city of fast food outlets, hawkers of tacky souvenirs, lurid entertainments of every kind that has grown up outside the gates. It does not prepare you to visit the site of a tragedy. Our guide took us round in an irritating jokey way that was far more interested in erotic paintings inside the prostitutes’ house than in human suffering and grief. We wanted somewhere to be silent, like Job’s friends, try to take in what a momentous place it was, this arena of suffering and grief. The least we could do was to remember silently.
As we commemorate the victims of holocaust today and tomorrow, I hope we can find some way of being reflective and thoughtful, perhaps, if we are people of faith, saying a simply prayer like kyrie eleison, ‘Lord have mercy’, or the Lord’s Prayer, ‘save us from the time of trial and deliver us from the evil one’. If our nation could be quiet, like it is on Armistice Day, if we could collectively stand alongside the victims of every place, it would help us to act with more compassion and justice in the future, to speak out for the voiceless, to take in those who flee from terror like my mother, do all we can to make this world a better place for our children and grandchildren.
The gospel reading spoke about how Jesus began his public ministry by calling people to repent, to turn away from what was dark and destructive and turn towards the light of grace and truth dawning on the world. He spoke of it as the kingdom of heaven drawing near. He called people to follow him, say yes to this world made new. Perhaps those who felt the heavy hand of imperial Rome crushing the life out of them found a new hope rising up before them. And we say: if only those who still harbour cruelty in their hearts could hear this, could feel the stirrings within of another, better, kinder way to live!
At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus prays from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ That is the agonised cry of so many who sufferer, not least those who like him are victims of other peoples’ cruelty. But St Luke tells the story differently. He has Jesus utter one of the most extraordinary prayers ever breathed. While he hangs there, mocked and ridiculed by his persecutors, by the bystanders, even by the man dying on the cross next to his, he prays: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. Face to face with death, another voice, kind and merciful, invites us to turn back towards the light. There is light and hope for those who sat in darkness, a redemption so universal in its scope that includes even the perpetrators of evil who sit in the darkness of their own making. And we who stand in silent solidarity with victims bearing witness to all that is wrong need to be fortified by the announcement that the kingdom of heaven is near. Faith says that the long-awaited dawn the prophet foretold is breaking. The Saviour, Christus Victor, has overcome the world.
St Chad’s College Durham, 26 January 2014
Isaiah 9.1-4; Matthew 4.12-22
Isaiah 9.1-4; Matthew 4.12-22