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Rays of sunshine that penetrate the darkness

At the end of January more than 200 survivors gathered at the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation. More than 1.1 million people were murdered at the camp, most of them Jews. The emphasis of the commemoration was on the survivors who had travelled from many parts of the world. They are now aged between 75 and 101 and this may be the last major commemoration for them.

Angela Orosz, 75, from Montreal was born in the camp. Her mother gave birth to her in secret on a top bunk in December 1944. She said, “I always claimed to my kids that I had suffered no trauma from having been here, until my daughter asked me why then, unlike other families, did I never throw potato peelings away? Because my mother had probably survived because of the peelings she had eaten and the goodness in them had enabled her to give birth to me and so I had survived. So, of course, the survival instinct I inherited from her made me always do the same.”

David Lenga, who became a successful tailor in Beverly Hills, said he refused to let the Holocaust define his life despite the fact that it claimed 98 members of his family. Only David and his father survived. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish and lost members of his family in the Holocaust, said the world should learn about humanity from the survivors whose stories of endurance and forgiveness are exemplary. “You are truly amazing. You are strong and incredibly courageous. So, you are an example that we should follow. The Holocaust is called the dark period in the history of humanity and you are the rays of sunshine that penetrate that darkness.”

The Holocaust is an example of the terrifying capacity for evil in the human heart. Political and military leaders planned the wicked extermination of millions of Jewish people and ordinary citizens carried it out. There are great mysteries in life, but there is no doubt that no one escapes God’s righteous judgement. God’s promises also offer survivors comfort in their devastating pain and loss. The prophet Isaiah said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”

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The man who saved 669 children

Sir Nicholas Winton has died at the age of 106. About 6000 people in the world today owe their lives to Nicholas. He was a stockbroker who became aware of the plight of Jewish families when he was on holiday in Prague at Christmas 1938. In the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II he organised the rescue of 669 Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia through an operation known as Kindertransport. He found homes for the children and arranged safe passage for them to Britain. The last group, which left Prague on 3 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland. Many of the parents perished in Auschwitz.

Nicholas kept the wonderful things he did, in saving so many Jewish children, secret for more than 40 years until in 1988 his wife, Greta, found a detailed scrapbook in the attic. In 2002, at the age of 93, he received a Knighthood for this work.

Nicholas illustrates the amazing contrasts there are in the actions of human beings. Seeing the growing power of the Nazis in Europe, which led to the death of millions of Jewish people, he took action to save lives. He said, “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.” The death of millions of Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps was one of the greatest acts of evil in the history of the world. It is a warning to us all of the frightening capacity of the human heart for evil. The courageous act of one man in saving so many lives also shows us the amazing capacity of human beings for goodness and kindness.

The reticence of Nicholas to tell people what he did is remarkable. Jesus spoke of the great day when we will all stand before God in judgement. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When the righteous say they can’t remember doing these things for him, the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

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The March of the Living

Jewish people from Britain have taken part in the “March of the Living” event in Krakow, Poland, to mark the 70 years since, on 15 April 1945, British troops liberated the people in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Bergen-Belsen, near Hanover, was a place where tens of thousands of people died in horrific circumstances. Those who died, many of them women and children, included Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals and Roma gypsies.

There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen. The people died of disease: particularly typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition. Margot and Ann Frank died there just a few weeks before the camp was liberated. It is estimated that as many as 28,000 of the 38,500 prisoners in the camp when it was liberated, subsequently died.

At the “March of the Living” some of the survivors told their stories. Mala Tribich, then known as Mala Helfgott, arrived at Bergen-Belsen with her cousin, Ann, in February 1945. Mala was 14 years old and Ann was 7. She said, “It was like something out of hell. There was a kind of heavy smog, and a foul smell, with skeletal figures shuffling everywhere like zombies. The camp was built for 3,000 but, when we arrived, there were 69,000 there.”

After leaving Bergen-Belsen Mala spent 2 years in Sweden and then came to Britain where she was reunited with her brother, Ben Helfgott, who is thought to be the only Holocaust survivor to win an Olympic medal for Britain. He was a weightlifter. Mala married and rebuilt her family.

The history of Bergen-Belsen reminds us of the depths of wickedness to which human beings can descend. The callousness of those who ran the camps and their indifference to the suffering of their fellow human beings is chilling. Bergen-Belsen also reminds us of the strength and help that only God can give us. Many of those who suffered and died in the camp were familiar with the words of the Jewish Scriptures in Psalm 23. Out of the deep darkness of the horrors they were experiencing they held on to the hope promised to them in God’s Word. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

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In all their suffering he also suffered

The television programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp brought home afresh the terrifying capacity of human beings to commit acts of great evil and wickedness. The systematic slaughter of millions of helpless Jewish people ranks amongst the darkest chapters in human history. They were first incarcerated in ghettos and then transported like animals to camps like Auschwitz where men, women and children were mercilessly gassed and then buried or incinerated. The emaciated bodies of those living in the camps clearly portray the diabolical treatment they suffered.

In contrast the programmes remembering the funeral of Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago, reminded us that human beings are also capable of acts of great courage in confronting evil men and bringing liberty to many. Churchill was our greatest wartime Prime Minister who inspired a nation to stand against and, together with our allies, to defeat the megalomaniac ambitions of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In the dark days following the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill inspired a nation to rise from a massive defeat and to courageously confront, and ultimately defeat, a very powerful enemy.

Human beings are an enigma. Reflecting on the life of his grandfather, who was the commandant of Auschwitz, one grandson struggled to understand how his grandfather could be a kind and loving husband and father to his own family while at the same time he was supervising the merciless extermination of Jewish families. At a personal level we all struggle with the daily contradictions of our lives. The apostle Paul was conscious of this and wrote, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.”

God has decisively intervened in our world to give us hope in the face of both the continuing acts of great evil and our daily personal struggles. He cares deeply for those experiencing great suffering. The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word to his suffering people, “In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them.” These words of comfort were ultimately fulfilled In Jesus Christ who died in our place. On the cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve in order to redeem us and give us hope. As one hymn says, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

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Corrie’s Story

We have just celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was one of the most evil events in human history in which 6 million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazi regime. Yet out of those dark days amazing light sometimes shone. During the German occupation of The Netherlands, Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from arrest and deportation in their home in Haarlem. In February 1944 the Gestapo came to the house and arrested Corrie and her family, but did not discover the 6 Jewish people in the hiding place. In September 1944, Corrie and Betsie were deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. They managed to stay together until Betsie died in December. Later that month Corrie was released, but really struggled to come to terms with Betsie’s death.

After the war, Corrie spoke in many places about the need to forgive in order to overcome the psychological scars of the Nazi occupation. In 1947 she was speaking in Germany when she saw a man in the audience whom she recognised as a guard from Ravensbruck. Immediately she remembered him in his blue uniform and cap with its skull and crossbones. She saw the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes on the floor and remembered the shame of walking naked past this man. She saw Betsie’s frail form ahead of her.

The man came up to her, thrust out his hand and said, “A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck, I was a guard there, but since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein, will you forgive me?”

Corrie described the massive inner turmoil she faced at that moment. “Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes, ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried, ‘with all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”