Over the summer I was a part of a program called the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE). It’s an inter-disciplinary, inter-faith program for graduate students that approaches the ethics of five different fields (Law, Business, Journalism, Medical, and Seminary) through the lens of the Holocaust. I spent two weeks in Germany and Poland with 11 other seminary students and 12 medical students from all over the States, as well as Israel, Poland, and Turkey. We were in Berlin, then Krakow, and the trip culminated in two days at the Auschwitz camps in Oświęcim, Poland. One of the program requirements is a writing assignment following the trip. I thought I’d post mine here, as a way to share some of that experience. It’s somewhere between an essay and a reflection, and probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.
I am a theologian in training. I’m programmed to systematize, to put things in categories. It’s the way I think naturally, and the way I’ve trained myself to write. When I write papers, I don’t start until I have a satisfactorily thorough outline of my thoughts and the arguments that I want to make. I do my research, I reflect, I plan. I make sense of things.
This is not such a paper. To write a paper like that for my FASPE reflection would be very professional indeed, and I might be able to pull it off. I could probably flex my theological writing muscles and put together a coherent, carefully planned essay on evil, ethics, or Christian responsibility. But it wouldn’t be truthful. It wouldn’t be truthful because it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of my experience. It would be something detached and clinical. It would reflect a person who was unaffected by Auschwitz, who was able to think objectively and place things into categories. That’s the kind of paper that I was planning to write before our bus arrived in Oświęcim. I had what I thought were lots of very important ideas for what would be a thoroughly intellectual, rigorously researched, academic paper.
I don’t remember most of those ideas now. They seem distant, like insignificant memories from a long-forgotten dream. They were snuffed out and rendered lifelessly meaningless in the face of the nightmare reality that was Auschwitz. So instead of a systematized theological reflection, I’m trying to write a more truthful one—one that reflects my experience in both content and form.
I have these panic attacks. They started during a severe illness in high school. I think they have something to do with fear of the unknown, because traveling is a major trigger. So flying across an ocean to spend twelve days with a bunch of strangers was a significant moment for me in its own right. Although I’ve learned to deal with the panic and rarely allow it to disrupt my normal life, getting out of my comfort zone is still daunting. But the way to overcome anxiety is to refuse to be afraid of the fear. My counselor tells me that the more we try to push anxiety away, the harder it comes. So the way to deal with panic is to refuse to let the fear control us. Instead of avoiding it at all costs, walk right into the situations that trigger the panic. It’s annoying. It’s true, but that doesn’t make it less annoying.
Overall I did well with my anxiety during the trip. I had a few minor panic attacks, but I didn’t allow the fear to control me. The panic attacks are accompanied by physical symptoms—usually nausea and dizziness—which is what makes them so obnoxious, because I sometimes have to remove myself from social situations to deal with those sensations. But I decided that panic or not, FASPE would be worth the difficulty. I fully anticipated that what I would see and hear during the program would trigger some anxiety, maybe even panic attacks. I knew that going in, and resolved to live with the fear instead of running away from it. And I did that for almost all of the trip. I felt anxiety, but refused to let it control me. I remained in control of my mind. We were in a safe environment, and I was coping well, even with the emotional difficulty of what we were reading and discussing.
Then we were in Auschwitz, looking at empty canisters of Zyklon B and a room full of human hair that had been cut off its murdered biological owners for use as a cheap textile.
And then things started spinning.
Then we were walking through prison barracks, with the pictured faces of thousands upon thousands of prisoners looking down at us from the hallway walls—all victims, all dead. We were looking at heaps of eyeglasses and shoes taken from prisoners on their way to the gas chambers. We were walking through buildings where people were tortured and executed and experimented upon.
My body began physically revolting against its surroundings—nausea and dizziness and a racing heart, my subconscious adrenal reflexes telling me that this was a place I needed to get away from. Symptoms that usually take about twenty minutes to breathe my way through, now completely overwhelming rational thought for hours, eventually giving way to uncontrollable sobs. It was an absolutely visceral reaction, far removed from my conscious mind. Within a matter of minutes in the camp, a mind that prides itself on reasoned reflection and the ability to detach itself in order to think critically was completely overtaken by the horror of un-nameable evil. I couldn’t go into a number of the buildings. I had to stand outside, listening to our guide on the tour headphones, teetering on the edge of a hysterical abyss. On and on it went: the stories, the exhibits, the faces staring down at us from the walls. Realizing that we had only been there for forty-five minutes. Then only an hour, then only an hour and a half. As though time crawled more slowly here, in this hellish nightmare that was a reality unto itself.
Maybe two hours in, the acute panic symptoms slowly resided, and were gradually replaced by a sense of confused despair—a sense that came almost as a relief at the end of such physically exhausting distress. Finally, the tour ended. We got on the bus, glad to get out of that place. We went back to our hotel and experienced the restorative power of food and drink at dinner. The students had a time to debrief with each other. There was a shared catharsis, simply knowing that everyone else was as distressed as we were. We went to bed. We got up the next morning and ate breakfast. There was an unspoken, shared sense of grief, but it felt like the horridness of the previous day was something now past—something to be reckoned with deeply, but something that was over. We knew that the second day’s visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau would be difficult in its own right, but at least the camp was less preserved and would be more in the open air. The overwhelming sense of claustrophobic isolation, at least, would not be the same.
Then the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, to start our visit to the death camp at the original platform where deportation trains had dropped off tens of thousands of Jews to be murdered. And suddenly, all the panic and distress that I had felt the previous day came rushing back with a cumulative effect, as though the darkness had been biding its time in the recesses of my consciousness. Suddenly, my heart was racing again. I felt like I was going to gag and vomit, and realized that I was quickly losing control of my mind. I was being thrust right back into the intensity of all that I had experienced the day before, and we had a whole day of the same before us. As we waited to begin walking to the camp, I sensed myself coming unhinged in a way that terrified me. There would be no mercy for my mind in the camp. No relief, no hope. Only despair, only suffocating darkness—and only a taste of what the place must have been seventy years prior.
As I sat staring at the tracks, trying unsuccessfully to calm my mind and body, I found myself focusing on the wildflowers that were growing up out of the long-abandoned railway. Not feeling fully in control of my own actions, I stood and walked to look at them. There was something about the deep-blue flowers and the bees that busily hovered around them that brought a faint sense of calm to a mind that was careening out of control. Comfort would be too strong a word, but something about the simplicity of the scene gave me a feeling of normalcy—a sense that what I was seeing and experiencing at the camps was not an all-encompassing reality.
I’m not sure what it was about those flowers that gave me a sense of calm. I think they reminded me of my own garden. It might have been the recognition that there was beauty in the world that remained untouched by the evil of human cruelty. Maybe it was that life had returned to a site that was once a place of death and desolation; or maybe they simply reminded me in that moment that there was such a thing as life at all. I was in no state of mind to reflect on such things, but I longed to hold onto that sense, vague as it was. I felt like if I could take that feeling with me into the camp, whatever its source or meaning, then maybe I could hold myself together. So I picked a flower to take with me. I thought maybe it could be a centering object—something on which to focus my mind as we walked back into a disorienting nightmare.
I picked another one, a yellow one I think, on our walk to the camp entrance. And then we went into a preserved barracks building, in which prisoners slept five-across on wood slats bunked three levels high, where sleeping on the top slat was the best situation because most prisoners had dysentery and would be too weak to get up during the night. A wave of nausea and dizziness hit me as I imagined such conditions and the inhuman cruelty it would take to implement them. I nearly stepped outside, but decided to stay. I remembered another wildflower I had seen as we walked in—a white one—and focused my mind on the idea of adding it to my makeshift bouquet.
So the day went, as I tried to retain some semblance of control over my panicked mind and fearful thoughts; I walked a few paces behind the group through the sprawling death camp, doing my best to be present without getting sucked into the darkness that threatened to swallow me, listening to the horrific stories and picking each new species of flower I could find.
I don’t know exactly what the Auschwitz flowers meant. I don’t know what it was that drove me to pick and collect them. In the midst of gathering them, I attempted to assign some meaning to the act, but with no success. It was no doubt an impulsive and subconscious defense mechanism, and to ascribe meaning to it retrospectively would in some sense be false. Yet I can’t help but look for a deeper meaning in the experience, now as then. As I remember what I felt in the camps and reflect on what I took away from FASPE theologically and intellectually, I realize that without being fully aware of it, I have attributed at least a provisional meaning to the flowers, which is this: The Auschwitz flowers reminded me then, as they do now, of God’s sustaining presence with his creation in spite of human rebellion and human cruelty. They reminded me that Christian hope is grounded not in human goodness or human progress, but in the redeeming and self-giving love of Jesus Christ, who suffers with and for his creation.
The evil of Auschwitz cannot be categorized. The darkness of the Holocaust defies rational analysis, both theologically and sociologically. In that place, words simply fail to convey reality. I think that played a significant role in my response of panic. When things can be categorized, when they can be sorted through and assigned meaning, there is a sense of control for the mind. But in that place of nightmares, the reality and magnitude of evil mercilessly exposes that sense of control as illusory. And to have one’s sense of control ripped away so emphatically is to be opened up to suffering—which is why we do our very best to avoid it.
There’s an inevitable tendency when studying the Holocaust to look for bright spots, in which individuals or small groups acted for good instead of going along with the darkness. This is a perfectly natural, and not entirely inappropriate, response. But there is a problematic temptation, I think, to look at such isolated instances and dwell on them as somehow redemptive, or as inspiring examples of the true human spirit shining through. It’s problematic because doing so fails to adequately reckon with the human suffering and absolute evil that took place. It is a defense mechanism that allows us to skirt the reality and the depth of that evil—to set it aside as an aberration in an otherwise tranquil human history. It allows us to escape the startling and unpleasant fact that the human spirit also built the camps. By examining the Holocaust and studying history in that way, we fail to honestly assess the human condition and so fail to properly engage with the world as it is. And who could blame us, when the alternative is the stark horror of the human propensity to abject evil?
But much as my anxiety and panic attacks can only be overcome by walking into situations in spite of the fear, so evil is only properly dealt with by confronting it and reckoning with it in its fullness. We are very clever at devising means by which to skirt the reality of evil. Religious escapism, liberal optimism, believing that violence can end violence and power can ensure safety—all of these avoid or deny the reality of the broken world in which we live, and as such offer only a paltry illusion of hope. Far too often, Christianity has aligned itself with one or more of these illusory hopes, rejecting the example and the calling of Christ to fully engage the brokenness of the world as it is, and by so doing to transform it.
But contrary to all of our defense mechanisms and instincts of self-preservation, Jesus Christ calls us not away from the pain of this world, but to a deeper engagement with the broken reality of his good creation by participating in his redemptive suffering. In Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison cell that,
What matters [in the biblical narrative] is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, is given laws, reconciled, and renewed. What is beyond this world is meant, in the gospel, to be there for the world—not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
Where human religious instinct seeks to avoid and escape the difficult reality of worldly life in anticipation of another, the Christian story points us to the God who is so committed to the redemption of this world that he comes to us in human flesh and suffers on our behalf. Where optimistic humanism looks to the power of progress and the human spirit to overcome conflict and human limitations, the biblical narrative reveals the God who determines and defines human history by his own redemptive action—not because of human capability, but in spite of it. Over against all human inclinations, the gospel proclaims that God truly reckons with the reality of evil in this world by suffering and bearing it himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
Auschwitz pulls back the veil on all of our meager illusions of control. It makes a mockery of all our rational systematizations and theological categories, revealing their total inadequacy to account for the reality and depth of evil. But in the midst of the darkness, the Auschwitz flowers are a witness to hope—a tangible sign of God’s sustaining faithfulness to his image-bearers. For all the theologizing that we may do in light of it, Auschwitz raises questions of evil and suffering that simply cannot be answered. It goes beyond our moral language and theological categories. In so doing, it tempts us to the horror of despair. Its disorienting reality threatens to swallow us up into the darkness, to blot out the light of hope.
And yet, the flowers grow.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Reader’s Edition). Fortress Press, 2015. 363.