As one of a dozen senior faith leaders, I took part in a pioneering interfaith delegation to this year’s March of the Living in Poland. The trip is an intensive 5-day tour of the sites of the Nazi Holocaust – Warsaw, Kracow and the death camps of Majdanek, Belzec and Auschwitz. It culminates in a walk on Yom HaShoah (the Jewish day of Holocaust Remembrance) by 15,000 people from Auschwitz to Birkenau, symbolically reclaiming that path of darkness, hatred and death for the forces of light, hope and life.
Our visits traced the background to the Holocaust through 1000 years of Jewish life in Poland, and in particular the detail of the 1930s and ‘40s as momentum built towards the unspeakable, mechanised, dehumanising killing of the Shoah. Any such visit is full of complexity and – if done as well as ours was – leaves one with as many questions as answers. To do it in a company including Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus as well as Jews and Christians added immensely to the richness and depth of the experience.
The sites are unforgettable in their chilling bleakness: the vast expanses of Birkenau (where no grass grew, a 90-year old survivor told us, because any blade would have been eaten, so desperate was the hunger); the concentrated horror of Belzecs where the killing machine was so efficient that there was no need for those brutal bunkhouses because Jews were simply herded straight from the trains into the gas chambers; the lush forests of Zbylitowska Gora which belie the 900 children shot there and thrown into mass graves.
We constantly considered not only what we saw, but how it was being presented to us: the nature of Poland’s history means there have been many ideologies competing to own the narrative, and we needed to be alert to who was memorialising what, and with what agenda. The variety of perspectives which we brought as a group made the discussions even more nuanced.
The friendships we forged, the discussions we were able to have about victimhood and responsibility, forgiveness and redemption, Israel, the nature of heroism and the splintering of the soul were simply extraordinary. If you ever imagined interfaith dialogue involved polite interest and shallow agreement over tea and cake, think again: indeed, think as deep as you like into the truths and experiences that religions try to express. Our diversity forced us constantly to entertain multiple narratives, while the sites we saw tugged us relentless back to the raw brute facts.
In a trip packed with intense discovery, the last day held some of the greatest poignancy and perplexity. Marchers gathered between the chilling brick barrack buildings of Auschwitz, just along from where the use of Zyklon B gas was tested and perfected, and our group walked arm in arm under the famous iron gate of Auschwitz that bears the words ‘Arbeit macht frei’.
The march ended following the railway line, through the hideously iconic archway that alone was the gateway to death for 1.1m Jewish men, women and children. Most of those marching are Jews, but along the route we met groups of South Korean Christians keen to beg forgiveness for two millennia of antiSemitism. No doubt there were good intentions underneath this somewhere, but it felt jarring, one more appropriation of a Jewish narrative by Christians which had the effect of demeaning rather than affirming.
One of the group had learned only the previous day, while touring the camp, that several members of her family had perished there. So in our hands we carried plaques with their names written on them, to leave between the railway tracks at Birkenau; on our lips and in our ears was the Jewish song Barcheinu Avinu whose words translate as ‘Bless us, our Father, all of us together, with the light of your countenance’. And in our hearts burned what those words express, a yearning for unity, for courage, for the light of God’s blessing, and for hope.
The processing of the experience – with the added interfaith dimension – will take a long time. For now, and perhaps forever, the best response to the devastation of the Shoah is silence. But the overriding impression I come away with is of heightened awareness that the intolerance which, unchecked, leads to killing and to depravity lurks in every human heart. It festers in every society and in every generation, and it takes its chance wherever good people remain silent, where the strong are allowed to oppress the weak, and where a single dominant narrative shouts down the gentle, complex and diverse voices of the human soul.
Rev Patrick Moriarty, Hon Sec and Trustee, CCJ