THURSDAY 27 January 2022 is Holocaust Memorial Day. Established to ensure the lasting remembrance of the six million Jews and millions of others killed or persecuted by the Nazi regime, this annual event now also encompasses victims of genocidal events in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. This year’s theme is “One Day”, the hope being that, by focusing on a particular day in a specific place, people will learn about the past, empathise with those in such situations today, and act for a better future (www.hmd.org.uk).
One day, towards the end of the Second World War — 17 May 1945, to be precise — a Russian soldier found this prayer scrawled on wrapping-paper on or near the dead body of a child: “O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering — our comradeship, our loyalty, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgement let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness” (2000 Years of Classic Christian Prayers: A collection for public and personal use, HarperCollins, 1999).
We now know that Ravensbrück camp was opened in 1939, and — apart from a small annexe of male prisoners forced to build and manage gas chambers — was for women and children. Its inmates were deemed “undesirable” because of perceived delinquency, mental or physical disability, political beliefs, race, resistance-movement membership, or sexual orientation. During its six years of existence, more than 130,000 women were imprisoned there (at its height, it had 45,000 occupants). At first, they came from Germany; later, from German-occupied countries.
Captives were subjected to, or witnessed, gas-chamber killings, medical experimentation, sexual abuses, starvation, torture, and whippings; babies of women who gave birth were left to starve and die. (Even when the camp was “liberated” by the Russian Army on 29 and 30 April 1945, many women were raped by incoming soldiers.) All this is documented in Sarah Helm’s If This Is a Woman: Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s concentration camp for women (Little Brown, 2015).
Faced with such barbarism — what the wrapping-paper prayer refers to as “ill will” — prisoners developed an underground culture of compassion, humour, resistance, and solidarity. Helm’s book highlights how they rediscovered a collective ability to exist, survive, sustain each other, and hope. Prominent among this subculture were Christians such as the Dutch sisters Betsie and Corrie ten Boom, who used a smuggled Bible to inspire, pray, and teach other women. Bessie died in the camp, but Corrie was released by mistake and went on to preach and write about her experiences to a worldwide audience (The Hiding Place, 1971).
Other women used artistic skills to depict life in the camp. Images of sketches and portraits from private collections of former Ravensbrück prisoners (among them, miniature devotional figures, and a version of the Lord’s Prayer translated from Polish and used in the camp) can be viewed on the internet at individual.utoronto.ca/jarekg/Ravensbruck/Art.html. These creative artefacts and other aspects of Ravensbrück’s subculture are presumably what the Ravensbrück prayer means by “positive fruits” of suffering.
THE Ravensbrück prayer is difficult and painful for some — including people of faith — and especially so for remaining survivors, as well as the families and friends of victims in Ravensbrück and other concentration camps. It can seem glib and superficial, making light of what happened and ignoring cries for human justice. These concerns are understandable, and should not be ignored.
Without downplaying the force of such views, critics may become more receptive to the prayer’s theme, given that it was almost certainly composed by one or more prisoners who had seen and experienced horrendous extremes of grief and pain. We should recall, too, that, in religious ethics, forgiveness and mercy have long been inseparable from penitence and restorative justice.
Seen in context, it is a powerful prayer, the more so for being anonymous, focusing on hostile and violent others, and understating the “ill-will” shown to inmates. There is no personal anguish or superfluous material: just a simple and succinct intercession. The text reminds us about loving and praying for enemies and those who persecute us — whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they have done. It echoes the message and ministry of Jesus (Matthew 5.43-48; Luke 6.27-38).
Reflecting on the prayer in the light of what is now known about the camp is an act of remembrance — essential, if victims are not to be forgotten by society as though they had never existed. It also leads to a concern for survivors and their families and friends; for only the hardest-hearted could not empathise with those who suffered then and since because of genocidal actions.
Such empathy encourages us to respond to future atrocities. At a personal level, that means dealing with seeds of everyday hate in individual hearts; for that is where genocide, racism, terror, and their spread, begin. Politically, it requires governments to collaborate in efforts to curb, halt, or — preferably — prevent genocidal situations from arising; international action is also vital against those who, like human traffickers, look to profit from them. Practically, community campaigns are needed to combat racism and the demonisation of asylum-seekers.
Crucially, though, the Ravensbrück prayer is a reminder that the divine presence shines in the darkest of darkness: God’s grace experienced in prayer and by interactions within an incarcerated community. It is a reminder, too, that — notwithstanding human accountability — it is to God that we must look for ultimate judgement and mercy. Besides upholding the aims of Holocaust Memorial Day, Christians are called to work with others in proclaiming and practising this deeper, richer perspective, until “one day” genocide will be no more.
Dr David Bunch studied theology and ministry at University of Wales, Lampeter, and King’s College, London.
More information about Holocaust Memorial Day is available from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, hmd.org.uk; from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, ctbi.org.uk; and from the Council of Christians and Jews, ccj.org.uk.