24Jan Many Years On – Lest we ever forget

Many Years On

Chris McDonnell CT  24 January 2020

It was towards the end of January 1945, in the deep cold of Winter near the Polish-German border. On Saturday January 27th Soviet military forces of the Red Army came from the East and entered Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration camp to liberate those still alive. The unfolding horror from the camps began.

In subsequent years it has been a story told again and again. Yet still it is hard to believe that such an atrocity occurred in recent historical time.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of that day in January; it is a time to remember an event that maybe others would prefer to forget. Twenty five years ago, when the 50th anniversary of the Liberation became a date on our calendars, I wrote these few lines.

This chilled earth

Words do not come easily –or perhaps
they have come with too much ease
over the intervening years
and so have been devalued.

Across the plain of Europe came the herded harvest
from emptied towns, vacant city quarters,
full gathered grief to be welcomed
at open gates of wire fenced fields,
harbouring brick buildings designed
for determined purpose.          

day by day by day by day
                      They arrived
day by day by day by day 

and trains, leaving empty, collected further families
from other places, faces without future in that chilled space
snow-bound in Winter under grey grown sky, |
sun-soaked in Summer  through July long days
it made no difference. 

They simply sliced the life of David’s people
and sent clouds of darkness, wind-blown
free beyond the fence, leaving lost ones
whose turn must come –maybe in the morning.

The question arises, of how long we will find significance in the date of this and other events from past conflicts. Should we in fact keep looking over our shoulders, recalling now distant shadows from a pain-filled time? We cannot afford to forget, for the hurt was too deep, the inhumanity too immense.

How do you live from day to day in such circumstances, stripped of dignity, worked to the edge of exhaustion? We still have survivors of unspeakable events, those who can call our conscience to account for events in our lifetime. When they have gone, all that will remain will be the written account, the photographic and film record and the shells of buildings where these atrocities took place.

It is important therefore that the More 4 television channel is marking the occasion later this month with the screening of colour-enhanced still images and film from the camp. Having always been offered grainy black and white material, the pre-view scenes in colour show, in stark reality, images that sharpen the memory. ‘Thus comes the time of hollow song, the dull despairing sound of right and wrong’.

A few weeks after that January liberation, in April 1945, the BBC correspondent, Richard Dimbleby entered the camp at Bergen-Belsen. He was the first broadcaster to do so and, overcome, broke down several times while making his report. The BBC initially refused to broadcast his narration, as they could not believe the scenes he had described, and it was only transmitted after Dimbleby threatened to resign. Sometimes describing the indescribable comes at a very high price. It is to Dimbley’s credit that he stood his ground and his terrible story was told.

Fast-forward to our own time and we realise the high cost that is still being paid, that lives are being lost through selfishness and greed in many different parts of our planetary home. Recent events, culminating in the shooting down of a civilian plane that had just taken off from Tehran international, highlight the tenuous hold we have on peace between peoples. Only now, it is one firestorm after another, provocation leading to retaliation, the loss and gain between peoples in the midst of tears. All about us ‘normality’ continues. We watch television, go to the pub, check the football results with an ever-greater urgency whilst others struggle for survival in places that are distant map names, far from home.

All too easily we play with words to justify events, tell stories where truth is the casualty leading only to a greater misfortune. Maybe we should pause awhile as the month-end days arrive to ask a question and seek forgiveness.

2 Responses

  1. Sean O'Conaill

    And in Ireland there is now a definite incipient electoral offer of xenophobic nationalism – in a global climate of rising white supremacism.

    We might all ponder now on the example set by Austria’s Franz Jagerstatter in 1943 – of resistance to Nazism to the point of his own guillotining – on grounds of Catholic Christian conscience. In the Irish Times Donald Clarke declares that:

    “No caring God would, surely, want a man to die simply for telling a white lie in an affidavit. Both Scorsese and Malick seem to assume a latent religious faith in the observer. No bridge is made with the contemporary godless moviegoer.”

    It does indeed figure that atheism is not worth dying for – which means, of course, that the despicable racist lie that Hitler was prepared to kill and die for could still prevail. Even Franz’s Catholic bishop told him the same story: no one would remember his defiance of Hitler in defence of the Creed.

    Wrong: Both in Germany and Austria there eventually began a search for those who had heroically and non-violently opposed this demonic racist movement.

    In Germany, for example, Sophie and Hans Scholl; in Austria, Franz Reinisch and Franz Jagerstatter. The last was declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI and beatified – in 2007, with his wife and surviving children in attendance.

    I haven’t seen ‘A Hidden Life’ yet – but have ordered it on DVD. Its relevance on an island where Catholic bishops are still denying that the wisdom of lay people, guided by the Holy Spirit, could lead the church out of its current moribundity, its relevance is obvious.

    That IT review:

    https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/a-hidden-life-terrence-malick-s-beautiful-serious-sometimes-infuriating-film-1.4139550

    Wikipedia on Franz Jagerstatter:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Jägerstätter

  2. Joe O'Leary

    I asked the congregation just now what week we had celebrated 18-25 January. Only one person knew the answer.

    I checked the US bishops’ website, which referred me to an outdated Vatican link, which in turn referred to a page in Italian.

    The Pope did talk about ecumenical hospitality on Wednesday, stressing how much we learn from the lives and thought of our fellow Christians in the other churches. For a counter-example to this I disrecommend the claustrophobic Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology.

    The mutual indifference of churches and religions is not harmless; indifference easily curdles into mistrust, suspicion, hostility; and we have a terrible history to tell us what that can lead to…

    Peter Phan has a book on “the joys of religious pluralism”, a title that makes conservative Catholics blanch.

    But we deprive ourselves of much joy by not being able to bear differences. That Catholic-Anglican dialogue has stalled over women priests is a really pathetic situation.

    When Paul upbraided the Corinthians for their divisions he was not urging a una voce, uno duce zombie conformism, but rather a culture of dialogue and mutual teaching and learning, such as was exemplified in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.


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