Friday, October 12, 2012

Sachsenhausen III: theological musings

The hardest part of the Sachsenhausen tour was visiting the warehouse where approximately 10,000 Soviet POWs were systematically exterminated. They were brought into a room for a purported physical exam and then shot from behind by a rifle hidden behind a concrete wall, the sound muffled by music playing in the background. The executions were consistent with  Nazi ideology, always predicated on the assumption that in the (to them) ceaseless struggle for existence there were not enough resources for everyone, so some had to die. The method chosen was consistent with Nazi practice of cruelly deceiving people.

I left the camp feeling sobered.  What I felt inside at that point was not so much the horror of the camp as a blank emptiness, a coldness.  I felt the absence of humanity. This led me to think of Augustine, who defined evil not as a presence but as an absence, the absence of good, the absence of God. While a sense of evil and foreboding permeated Sachenshausen, along, paradoxically, with the sense of holy space in the suffering of those imprisoned, the evil was most pronounced in the emptiness. The camp tried to take away from people what made them human, what made and makes life good: friendship, family, freedom, individual identity, safety, food, warmth, community, the ethic at the heart of all religions of "do unto others" and the spiritual ethic that all humans, if not entirely equal, share a baseline selfhood that is sacred. Sachsenhausen was a place officially devoid of religion as we would understand it, barren. The worst, of course, was the above-mentioned "Station Z,"  where people came to die alone, yet,  ironically, en masse, as thousands could be killed in a day.

That made me think that perhaps we cling to the stories of abuse in the camps not only because they are horrible and we don't want to forget them, but because they are also "something." Twisted as the abuse might be, it reflects some semblance of human relationship amid the void. We cling even more to the evidences that some people stuck together and helped each other within the camps, that humanity was not entirely snuffed out.

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