Where Was God at Dachau?


(This message was originally given shortly upon my return from Munich in 2008. Over time, I have found myself continuing to return to it, and just within the past few weeks, I updated it for a class. Even two years later, seeing the picture returns the pit to my stomach)

During the summer of 2008, I travelled on business to Munich, Germany. Besides the successful completion of business at hand, there were two goals that I had in mind, as I began my journey to Munich. The first goal was to attend a worship service at the Peace UMC in Munich. I was in communication with the pastor via email, and was hoping for an opportunity to worship with these fellow Methodists.

Due to a 26 hour flight delay, which turned my first trip into a 40 hour nightmare, I arrived to Germany a full day late. By the time I arrived it was late morning on Sunday. It was too late to attend the service, and I offered the pastor my apologies.

The second goal was to visit Dachau Concentration Camp. I made that trip on that first Sunday Afternoon. I can not even begin to tell you about the feeling I received as I walked those grounds. There are few moments in life that you realize, as they are happening, that everything will change from that point forward. This was certainly one of those moments.

For those of you who don’t know, On March 22, 1933, just a few weeks after Hitler came into power in Germany, Dachau opened as a concentration camp for political prisoners. It some became the model for all later camps, and was called a school of violence by the SS officers who served there. In the twelve years it was open, 200,000 were imprisoned there. More than 40,000 died within its walls.

To get there you had to take the subway out of Munich and into the city suburbs. As soon as you arrived in Dachau the first thing you realized that it looks a lot like home. We boarded a bus, and headed for about a mile’s drive into what appeared to be a very old neighborhood of middle class houses. The driver told us that little had changed since the time of the war. It was a residential neighborhood then too.

Perhaps he said it wasn’t as congested, but it still was just as packed.

It reminded me a little of the Roxbury Street area of Keene. Where houses are packed in tight and no home has that much more space their neighbors. As you are driving through these neighbor hoods you seem to almost come crashing into a watchtower. It becomes your first sign of the camp.

 

 As you made your way to the front gates of the camp, you see a sign on the iron gates. It read Arbett Macht Frei. It said, in German, “Work will Set you Free”.

 

This was the motto of all of the concentration camps. It graced the gates of each and every one. It is said, that it was put there to trivialize what was going on inside its doors.

Work Will Set you Free.

As you walk through those gates, the feeling that you receive is hard to put into words. There is no chance of it ever forgetting the feeling. You cant help but feel the thickness of the evil that had permeated this place. There seems to be a very scar on the spirit of the place. At the same time, you feel incredibly privileged and honored to be setting foot on what seems like one of the holiest places on earth.

All around you are tourists and visitors. Perhaps 200 or 300 people within your line of sight. But no one says anything. For the three hours it took me to walk the place, I don’t think I heard anyone utter a single sound. It was complete silence. As you make your way through the camp, you are struck by the artifacts of cruelty and violence.

I ran my hand along a table, that prisoners were lashed to by a pair of SS officers, and beaten with a bull whip.

 

The officers made the victims count the lashes and if they stopped…they had to begin again.

 I saw the shower room, where prisoners were shaved, showered, and disinfected. You can see the hooks they hung them from, as they were sprayed with water.

 

I saw the artifacts, pictures, and stories of some of those that were imprisoned there.

 I was taken by a section that showed the faces of German clergyman who were imprisoned there for speaking out against the Nazis. I was humbled by their definition of Christian ministry.

 

I felt an ache in my chest, when I saw the crosses and communion cups that were carved out of wood. I imagined how they we hidden out of view of their guards, at the very risk of their lives, so that they could continue to worship Jesus in their captivity.

 

I saw the barracks, where men, women, and children were herded. I remembered the story I had once read, where a small boy,locked in the prison, clenched the wooden side of his bed in terror each night. His grip only loosened when sleep eventually came. With the same respect that I handle the bread and wine during communion, I touched the wood, and prayed.

 

And I stood in the Gas Chamber. Three inches above my head were the nozzles disguised as faucets. There were just a handful of us in this room, and it felt close. The SS filled this room with over 100.

 

 I stood and stared in silence at the crematorium.

 

  I had to use every bit of self control to keep the tears in my throat, as opposed to allowing them to run down my face. The room, 60 years later, was stilled stained with Ash.

 

There are few moments in my life that have elicited such extreme reactions in me. I wanted to run. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to cry. I wanted my wife and kids. I wanted to scream. I was angry. I was heartbroken. I wanted to leave. In the end, something kept telling you not to turn away. Something told me to look at and take in everything.

As I made my way to the end of the camp, I was looking at the German signs above the doorway. The funny thing is, when you look at signs and sentences in a foreign language…you start to see words that look familiar, and if you are lucky you might get an inkling at what was being said. I approached this closed door and over its top I made out one word. Carmelite. As I opened the door, I realized that I was walking into the courtyard of a Carmelite Convent.

This is certainly the last thing I expected to see as I walked anywhere in that camp. There was a robe on the wall, behind a pane of glass that was secretly made by a prisoner in the camp, to where when he was conducting services.

 

It was said to have cost him his life. A Robe not unlike the one I wear each Sunday. A robe, that solely due to wearing it, passed a death sentence.

I pictured the clergy man and I pictured myself. I heard again the times I have complained about how hot the thing gets and I tried to picture the man who didn’t care.

As I investigated the area further, I stumbled onto a chapel and a Carmelite nun.

 

 We asked her about her and the convent being here. We asked why this place was found in such a dark place. She said,…that Dachau during the war was a city of 40,000. 40,000 people who chose to look away. She lives there, she says,…because by making that place her home,….she can insure the fact that no one looks away again.

Imagine committing your life to a ministry like that. Giving your life so that people will never forget…and always remember what happens when evil goes unchecked.

 With rain falling in heavy streams, and wet to the core,…we made our way to the exit.

  

I once told folks during a fourth of July Sermon, that patriotism was measured in sacrifice. I told of the story of my “adopted” Uncle who had nightmares after liberating Auschwitz. I told of how sacrifice didn’t end when the bullets stopped flying.

As I left the camp, I saw a bronze plaque what I believe to be  honoring my Adopted Grandfather/family friend/Uncle’s unit for Liberating Dachau as well. I had no idea he was there. I was only ten when he tried to tell me the stories about how he had been a part of the handshake with the Russians and the Rainbow Brigades which had freed so many people from places like this…but… I had the John Wayne picture in my head, not the horror I imagined that Sunday.  I remember pretending as a boy that I too was part of this Audie Murphy like brigade, but in the back yard with sticks as guns.

 

They were called hero’s and liberators. I stared at the plaque and looked out on the courtyard, and tried to imagine his reaction as an eighteen year old young man, walking through those gates.  I remember the time I sat with him and heard his stories.   He sat on a leather recliner with a scotch and soda in his hand and tried his hardest to be truthful to this ten year old boy.   Its funny, that as an adult I point to him as one of three men most profoundly impacting my life (my dad and uncle being the other) and I miss him.  I wish I could have talked to him as a man. 

On our way back to the subway, on a bus,…we encountered a 90 year old man. He said he spent his entire life in this city. During the war he lived no more than a block or two away from the camp. He had to be in his twenties during this time…

I found myself angry looking at this old man. How could you let this happen? How could you wait for someone else to solve the problem? How could you stay in this place? Does throwing up a plaque somehow erase the collective guilt of complacency that you and your neighbors share?

That question, that man, and the who experience has yet to leave me. As a matter of fact, I have dreamt about the camp several times over the last few years.

  •  How could a thing like this happen in such a beautiful portion of the world? How could anyone let this happen?
  • Where was God in this evil hell on earth?
  • Where was God for the 40,000 people whose ashes were spread upon the very ground I was walking on?

Somewhere over the last two years, I started to think that maybe it was too easy to pass judgment on that old man. The truth is there are things that I, like that old man whom I looked on with such contempt, look away from too.

There is pain, hate, rage and anger right all around us. Instead of reaching out, taking a risk, trying to change things, I look away too. Perhaps there will be a day, when someone will look back on me when I am 90 and at the tail end of my life…and ask; “Where was I? Why did I look away?”

There are people all around us, that struggle to live and exist in a world of our making. They are convinced that there is no chance, that drugs or alcohol is their relief. There are people who don’t have food, who have lost everything, and whose life’s are broken because of the bad decisions in their past.

Even though I usually don’t realize it, I think I look away from them at times.There are massacres and genocides in this world today. I think of Darfur, or the Diamond Industry, or Myanmar. I have seen the pictures, heard the stories, but yet, I haven’t figured out how to make a difference, to foster change. In my inaction am I turning away, just like that old man?

The truth is I am probably afraid of the consequences. Perhaps it’s about risking the criticism of those who don’t believe the same things I do. What if it costs me my livelihood? What if it costs me my Job? This is New Hampshire. We are a small town on the border of Mass and Vermont. What difference can I possibly make?

I don’t want to turn away. I think of that old man, and the contempt I felt for him. Maybe I am no different. It’s a thought that scares me. I have learned, over the time since my trip, that nothing is black and white.

I recently learned that more about liberators like my “uncle”. It turns out, when they broke down the doors of concentration camps, and saw the condition of thousands of Jews, the rage was pure and unadulterated. Many of them were so angry, they went to the streets, and rounded up the men like the one on the bus. The men  were beat with rifles until they were unrecognizable. Many were shot dead in the street. Men beating and beaten, all of which were probably not much different from my Uncle, who was such a hero to that ten year old boy and that 40 year old man.  Life is always lived in shades of gray.

I cannot look at the pictures from that day, without stopping to think. I pray, that when the time comes where I must make a stand, that I do not look away. I pray that I have the strength to face evil, and sacrifice everything. Maybe that’s one more reason, the church stands today.

I guess in some small way I am not much different from that Carmelite sister.  Dachau is part of the reason I stand in the pulpit. That is why I come to the sanctuary each week. This is why I give. This is why I study. This is why I spend countless hours each week.

In the sanctuary, we are reminded that we are recipients of a truly wonderful gift. We are God’s Children. I believe God expects us to figure out a way to make a difference. I believe God expects us to look evil and wrong straight on, and not to turn our eyes away. I believe this is what is expected of us as members of God’s church, and as followers of Jesus.

We are expected to figure out how to make a real, meaningful difference together as one body and one voice. We need to figure this out together. We need to find our path and our goal. It is by far, one of the most important parts of our journey, and why we come week after week. We got to do this together. We got to use our heads, and make the right choices. We got to use our full intellect and our full resources to take the right steps. We, as a church, as a family of faith, and as believers, have to use our heads to do the right things regardless of consequence.

Where was God, at Dachau?

God was right beside thousands of people who lost their lives in the cruelest crime of history. God was right beside the 200,000 who lost everything. God was right beside the citizens and the bystanders of Dachau. God was right beside them, and hewas pushing them to make the right decision. He was pleading for them to stand up. He was there begging them to make the right decision. He was there, in an agony of sadness as they turned away.

He is pushing us now too. God is that voice telling you that there is hope. God is the voice telling you to expect and work for justice. God is that still small voice, asking you time and time again; “What will set you free?” My prayer is that we listen. Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

(Translated: “Think About How We Died Here”)

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