On Saturday January 27th 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
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.
Chris McDonnell is a regular contributor to UK and Irish Catholic media outlets. This reflection comes from his weekly commentary published on the Hong Kong based website www.v2catholic.com operated by Australian Oblate priest, John Wotherspoon OMI. John is a Catholic prison Chaplain in HK with a particular ministry to incarcerated ‘drug mules’ mainly from Africa and Latin America.