Everything Changed at Auschwitz

by Michael McRay It was December 2008. He said only one sentence to me, but that was enough. Everything changed.

Poland was cold. Snow covered the ground, and the occasional drizzle of rain sent shivers down our already shivering spines. I had heard of Auschwitz death camp for years, a hell-place where the Nazis murdered over one million Jews, a nightmare I’m sure many survivors never wanted to mention again after liberation came.

One by one, my father and I walked through the red brick buildings of the compound. In one room, behind a glass partition, rested a nauseatingly large pile of human hair, shaved from the heads of Jews, gays, gypsies, and others imprisoned at the camp. In a neighboring room, thousands of old dilapidating shoes rose from the floor; and in yet another, ownerless luggage, some with names inked or etched on the leather. Face-shots of those brought to Auschwitz covered the walls. I felt utterly inundated, desperate to escape the debilitating physical reality of the Nazi’s Holocaust. My mind could not comprehend over one million people dying in the place where I stood, murdered because they were different. And the majority of those murdered were Jews, who many believe are the chosen people of God.

That’s why when my dad spoke, I knew I wouldn’t be the same.

I grew up in the South, in America’s Bible Belt. We had more churches in my small town of Jellico than we had restaurants. Religion pervaded people’s perspectives. Whenever tragedy struck, the response seemed scripted: “Everything happens for a reason,” or perhaps, “God’s ways are mysterious.” I heard this refrain echo constantly. Whether in youth retreats, at Halloween hell houses, in church, sports events, or looking for parking spaces outside Walmart, the prevailing belief was that God controlled everything.

Anything good that happened was God’s doing; and the bad? Well, God supposedly allowed that to happen so that we might learn some greater truth or achieve some deeper faith.

I remember when I was kid hearing youth pastors pray when we all arrived at the retreat center safely, thanking God for God’s many gifts and for sending angels to guide the van safely to its destination. Such language was commonplace for me to encounter and recite. I consistently heard and believed that God was looking out for me, and would care for me no matter what. God would keep me safe.

But there, standing in the crematorium of Auschwitz, a place of ash and screams, the gallows just behind us, something changed in me. With one sentence my dad broke the silence, and he broke down my theology. We stared at the brick ovens; and they seemed to stare at us. Then, without looking at me, he said, “Whatever you believe about God has to make sense right here or it can’t make sense anywhere.”

Though my father had diligently taught my siblings and me “the sacredness of questioning everything,” to use David Dark’s book title, I had believed, or at least still wanted to believe, that God watches out for each person with steady eyes and ready hands, eager to pluck us out of our trials if we have enough faith or if it fits into God’s greater plan. But Auschwitz shattered this culturally-conditioned idea that God rescues us from our problems, and I began to wonder if God rather exists in the very midst of our suffering, perhaps even hanging on the gallows as Elie Wiesel wrote in Night.

When I returned home to Nashville, I felt dissatisfied and depressed. In many ways, the safe God of my youth had become another casualty of the Nazi’s death camp. I no longer knew how to pray or what to believe. Before Auschwitz, God was expansive and powerful, full of devotion to each person. After Auschwitz, nothing was certain or solid. My faith seemed to disintegrate into the ash that once filled those ovens.

I now needed a new way to understand the faith I inherited. I wanted to be a Christian, to remain true to my roots, but I needed to find my own reasons to follow Jesus. I began to realize that if God’s place among humanity was with the suffering, if God swings from the gallows and Jesus was crucified among criminals, if he dines with the outcasts and “sinners” and the parabolic feast table of God is open to the ones us privileged folks don’t want around, then maybe my faith should have far less to do with proving God’s omnipotence and far more to do with my presence among the “least of these.” Perhaps Matthew 25 should indeed be my creed, as my dad had often encouraged. The posters of the fictional terrorist-fighting American operative Jack Bauer disappeared from my dorm walls, and the faces and words of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. took their place. Over the next several years, this faith led me into the streets, prisons, and conflict zones to learn, love, and live peaceableness, justice, and hospitality.

Auschwitz taught me that God is not safe. I’ve slowly begun to realize that perhaps my discipleship shouldn’t be either.

Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the co-founder of No Exceptions Prison Collective, founder/organizer/co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. In Fall 2015, he will spend three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.”