IT SOUNDS like the beginning of a bad joke, but it was one of the most powerful and extraordinary experiences of my life. Two Orthodox rabbis, a progressive woman Jew, two women priests, one male priest, a Christian lay minister, three Muslims, a Hindu, and a (gluten-free) Sikh went on a bus. The bus was aptly named Bus H, which — since we were all leaders in our faith communities — we took to stand for the “holy” bus.
From 28 April to 3 May, we journeyed together through Poland as part of “March of the Living UK 2019”, culminating in the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day). To join the group on this emotionally and physically gruelling experience was a privilege, and took us all on a profound and extraordinary journey.
The days were long and challenging, filled with visiting sites of unimaginable horror; grasping inconceivable facts; exploring difficult questions; discussing our differences; and always, underlying everything, asking ourselves how we could find faith in the face of such great evil. Our inspiring educator, Richard Verber, invited us to join the journey of others as a way of entering into the experience; so we followed the path of 12-year-old Halina Birenbaum from the Warsaw ghetto and Umschlagplatz to Majdanek, and then on to Auschwitz.
Standing in the places that Halina stood, as one of us read excerpts from her written accounts of that place, took us deep into the lived experience. How could survivors such as Halina, and Arek Hersch (who travelled with us), find the strength and resilience to survive the unspeakable horrors through which they had lived?
Sitting at the feet of Arek, on the floor of one of the bunk houses at Birkenau, as he told his story with quiet dignity, will be for ever etched in my mind. He gave testimony of sleeping as one of ten men to a bunk of wooden slats, as he walked over to point one out. And, as he rolled up his sleeve to reveal his tattoo, his description of his arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau was chilling and compelling.
Arek told us that there was not a single blade of grass left amid the mud, the snow, and the greyness of this place of great absence, suffering, and death. As we walked through the camp, I picked a blade of grass and held it, reminded again of the contrasts that we were faced with on this journey; for, at the end of each long day, we returned to cosy, warm, clean, dry hotel rooms, with our stomachs full.
WALKING the Heroes’ Path in Warsaw, and visiting the memorial to the Ulma family in the village of Markowa, reminded us that some people found the strength and courage to resist the great evil that was being perpetuated.
Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, their six children, and their unborn child were all murdered when they were denounced to the German police for hiding Jews in their home. In the museum at Markowa, I was moved to see Jozef’s Bible open at the story of the Good Samaritan, which was underlined. This sign that the self-sacrifice of the Ulma family was inspired by their Christian faith brought me some strange comfort and solace. It also made me want to ask more questions about the complex part played by the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.
As we approached the Buczyna forest in Zbylitowska Góra, however, we read excerpts from Ordinary Men, by Christopher Browning. We walked into the forest asking ourselves how these “middle-aged family men of working- and lower-middle-class background from the city of Hamburg” were able to round up the Jews in the village, and take the women, children, and elderly into the forest and shoot them.
I recalled the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures. The hard question that I had to face was the deep fear that — however much I hoped that I would refuse, and do the right thing — I would not have been able to resist the pressure to do what I was told.
The forest — drenched in fresh rain, green, beautiful, and full of birdsong — opened to reveal a clearing with memorials to the 10,000 people who had been buried on top of one another in mass graves: Jews and non-Jews, women, the elderly, and hundreds of children.
One challenging discussion took place after we had stood around the mass grave of children in the forest, where Israeli flags had been placed around the edges. I felt uncomfortable about the use of a national flag in this way, but, listening to my sisters and brothers describe the huge significance of this flag in symbolising the safety of land, home, and family for those who had lost so much, helped me to understand.
We also explored the part played by forgiveness, using Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower as the introduction to our conversation. I found this extremely challenging: for me, as a Christian, forgiveness is central to my relationship with God and neighbour, and I find it difficult to accept that forgiveness (though not forgetting, or failing to punish) is an impossible goal.
Standing in the pouring rain at the Belzec memorial beneath the verse “Earth, do not cover my blood; let there be no resting place for my outcry!” (Job 16.18), one of our rabbis chanted the El Maleh Rachamim prayer of compassion as our tears fell. Sharing in one another’s prayers in places where such brutality and disregard for the sanctity of human life had been shown was incredibly powerful.
As a group, we also shared our religious texts through the technique of scriptural reasoning, as we explored how, as people of faith, we understood suffering. There were no easy answers; but I found that, in some mysterious way, my faith was strengthened by this shared experience of searching for meaning and for God in the face of the horror of the Holocaust.
IN THE past few weeks, Muslims, Christians, and Jews around the world have all been murdered in their places of worship. The recently published interim report of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review of the persecution of Christians (News, 10 May) exposes the worldwide rise in religious persecution — “It is estimated that one third of the world’s population suffers from religious persecution in some form” — and Christians are the most persecuted group. “In some regions the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide.”
In a disturbing echo of the sort of insidious anti-Semitism which preceded the Holocaust, the report records that “The governing AK party in Turkey depicts Christians as a ‘threat to the stability of the nation’.” This has left me with another question: why is there no specific word for prejudice against Christians?
This journey reminded me of the importance of shared remembrance, so that “Never again” is a shared goal that we cannot forget. It has powerfully called me to renew my commitment to not being a bystander in the face of prejudice of any kind. As people of faith, we must resist those who seek to hijack faith for their own warped aims, and stand together for our shared values of love, respect, compassion, justice, and mercy.
The Revd Margaret Cave is Team Rector in the East Greenwich Team in the diocese of Southwark.