January 27 marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and is now observed as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some of you might think that Polegreen, an 18th century Presbyterian church, is far removed from the calculated slaughter that we remember as the Holocaust, but its legacies of dissent, freedom of religion, and the simple freedom of conscience are ideas that we who live in an interfaith community should hold dear.
Faced for centuries with false accusations of blood libel and brutal pogroms, the Jewish communities of Europe were persecuted for simply believing something different than what was mandated by the states they lived in. They were forced into isolation in many cases, ostracized and considered “other” by their neighbors, even though they considered themselves to be proud citizens of their respective nations. It is so easy for us now, in a world where we feel far removed from the horrors that engulfed the world early in the last century, to believe that the atrocities perpetrated against the victims of the Holocaust were committed by forces of pure evil. We should never forget that the deaths of the Holocaust came at the hands of average men and women, nor should we forget the many average men and women who committed extraordinary acts of bravery and sacrifice, risking their own lives to aid in the protection and escape of Europe’s Jews.
A few years ago, I was a graduate student living and studying in Poland. One weekend, a professor of mine (a Pole who, under the Communist regime, spent several years in prison for the horrendous crime of smuggling into the country books from France) took a group of us to Krakow, the city of his youth. We spent a day touring the old city, marveling at the sites and history. But more importantly, we rented a van and drove to nearby Oświęcim, the Polish town better known to the world by its German name, Auschwitz. It was a truly international group, consisting of several English ladies, a German, an Italian, two Estonians of Russian descent (fond of calling themselves “Rustonians”), a young woman from Uzbekistan, and me (an American). All told, there were Protestants, Catholics, Atheists, and one student who was half-Muslim, half-Jewish. We had all grown up with different understandings of the war, and different narratives of the Holocaust. Reflecting on the experience, I can’t imagine a better way to experience that piece of world history, which has an undeniable air of sacredness to it unlike anything I have witnessed before or since.
If you have ever been to Auschwitz, or know anything about what happened there, then you will know that the scale of the place is bigger than one could possibly comprehend. You see, there isn’t just one camp that can be referred to as Auschwitz. There were, in fact, three main camps at Auschwitz. Auschwitz I was originally a Polish military barracks, converted by the Germans into a prison camp. This camp predominantly held political prisoners, which largely meant non-Jewish Poles. Auschwitz III, called Monowitz, was a slave-labor camp, where mostly Jews and some political prisoners were forced to work in the factory of the German chemical company I.G. Farben. If you have ever read Elie Wiesel’s famous book Night, this is the camp he was sent to. Auschwitz II was called Birkenau. If it is possible to qualify one machine of death as worse than another, then Birkenau was the ultimate horror faced by an Auschwitz inmate. It was Birkenau that held most of Auschwitz’s notorious crematoria, and from Birkenau there was no hope of escape or rescue. Prisoners were simply sent there to die, packed into boxcars with no room to move or breathe, and oftentimes with floors covered in burning lye. They were told to pack their bags before they went, hoping beyond hope that one day they might retrieve their belongings when it was time to leave. The collections housed in Auschwitz I, as well as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, present these grotesque mementos in stark fashion, in open, jumbled piles of suitcases, glasses, shoes, and human hair, that convey to the visitor the scope of the crime committed at Auschwitz and other death camps. The prisoners who were fit enough to work were shipped off to the temporary barracks. There were no permanent barracks in Birkenau, which was previously a marshy field; it wasn’t designed to be permanent. Once the grisly task of extermination was complete, it was to be dismantled, and life would resume as normal. The prisoners in the barracks were awaiting their time to die; those deemed unfit for work exited the train and met the gas chambers immediately. To see these sites of unconscionable tragedy in person is a horror impossible to relate, and I can simply say that everyone ought to experience it at least once in their life, and reflect on that experience often.
As I said, the bulk of the collections are housed in Auschwitz I, which is now a combination enclosed museum and open air facility. Every group is given a guide, without exception, and everyone in the group is equipped with a set of headphones, while the guide carries a microphone. You wander each barrack, marveling at each fresh horror, with a gentle voice explaining the tableau into your ear. If you take the headphones off for a moment, you will find yourself surrounded by people, in utter silence. Everyone has their breaking point. For me, it was the mounds of human hair, grayed with age, the last living reminder of the dead millions. For my German friend, a six-and-half-foot tall man with an incessant grin, it was the suitcases, large ones for the parents and grand-parents, smaller ones for the children, monogrammed and marked with tags so the owners could find them when this mess was sorted out. I could not begin to fathom his experience. All I could do was offer a hand on his shoulder.
So, after all this, you might ask, what does this have to do with Historic Polegreen Church? Samuel Davies, and later our founding fathers, could not have predicted that such an event could ever occur in this world, but what they fought and risked their lives for, the freedom to dissent, and the freedom to believe according to the dictates of their conscience, was not a freedom afforded to the millions of Jewish people and the many thousands of Holocaust victims from other ethnic and social backgrounds. As we go about our daily lives, we should remember the people who suffered and died because their voice was not heard, and because no one else would speak for them. We should remember the people in our own country who believed that the legal right to dissent was a natural right, inviolable and guaranteed by the Constitution. And, though it is painful, we should remember those in our country who were not granted that right, such as the slaves who lived in bondage even when our founders, like Patrick Henry, were aware that they engaged in, “a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong,” and the countless indigenous people of America, who were forced away from their native homes, and made to practice a religion not their own. The right to live freely, to follow one’s conscience, and to live without fear of retribution simply for dissenting, are the greatest legacies of Polegreen Church.
I encourage you, on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, to remember the millions of Holocaust victims whose natural rights were violated in the cruelest extremes. And today, of all days, reflect upon the efforts of Samuel Davies and our founders, who fought for and created a system of governance that established the right of the individual to live according to his or her own heart.