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Holocaust’s Lessons Call Us to Protect, Cherish Humanity

I have a very good friend who every now and again passes on his used copies of The Tablet and The Times Literary Supplement (TLS).

The first is a long established Catholic weekly full of news, reflection, critique and comment on all things Catholic and many things not.

The TLS is also a weekly, and much of its content can be eclectic, esoteric and at times downright inaccessible – at least to someone whose interests are pretty wide, it often seems so.

But every issue of both these weeklies has enough to make it worth trawling through, and here and there reading thoroughly something you would be hard pushed to find elsewhere. Such is the serendipity of browsing within a weekly rather than online.

That’s how I came across a review of the book “KL” – a history of the Nazi concentration camps, and on this year, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

The author, Nikolas Wachmann, has provided a comprehensive, authoritative and humane account of the inhuman concepts and practices that gave birth to horror on an industrial scale.

Over the years, I have tried to take seriously as a Christian the theological, cultural and political realities that culminated in genocide as ideology.

The novels of Chaim Potok, the writings of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom and a number of historical studies, such as Martin Gilbert’s definitive account, have opened up an experience as wide as humanity and deep as any theology can take us.

Add to this several of the more significant films including “Schindler’s List,” “The Boy in Striped Pajamas,” “Defiance,” “The Pianist” and “The Reader.”

To such fictional and historic written accounts above, the films have added imagination, image and that visual representation of good and evil that leaves us nowhere to hide from the realities of human life in all its degraded fallenness and in all its inexplicable goodness.

If the problem of evil is a challenge to faith in a loving God, the problem of unselfish sacrifice for others is an equal challenge to atheistic nihilism.

For me, all of these perspectives were distilled into two particular days, each during a holiday.

The first was the visit to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C., about 10 years ago. The second was a visit to the House of Anne Frank in Amsterdam four years ago.

Both are places of pilgrimage and, therefore, of education, reflection and prayer – prayers of repentance, for forgiveness, of self-examination and of commitment to fundamental values of humanity, such as justice, mercy, compassion and non-negotiable defensiveness about respect for others, however “other” they are.

That brings me back to Wachsmann’s book, “KL,” a title that is merely the abbreviation of “Konzentrationslager” (the German word for concentration camp).

Even that acronym, KL, is redolent of administrative efficiency, reducing the reality of the word to an abbreviation in which, pun intended, profound evils are concentrated.

I learned in “KL” that the concentration camps started in 1933, and eventually there were 1,100 installations.

The book does not cover purpose-built extermination camps where evil well-rehearsed in other places was carried out with an orchestrated brutality that reached across Nazi Europe.

The camps it describes were instruments of lawless oppression, set up to demoralize, degrade and exploit human beings with the specific intention of stripping them of humanity and reducing them to a disposable and depersonalized commodity.

So having been given a pile of secondhand weeklies, and browsing innocently and all unaware, I found myself once again being confronted with the murderous work of those who, in stripping others of their humanity, lose that essential core that defines the truly human.

Whatever else the Holocaust demands of later generations, including me and us, it requires us to identify what is human and humane, and then to protect, cherish and embody that humanity in a committed humanism.

I choose to do so as a Christian, repentant that such horrors happened at the heart of Christian Europe.

I do so alert to all forms of repressive discrimination and answering back the careless cynicism of rhetoric that demonizes and fears and, therefore, threatens those “others” who share our humanity and our planet.

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.