Holy Disobedience

(a talk to be given at a conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in Washington, DC, on 19 October 2013)

By Jim Forest

I live in Alkmaar, a half-hour train ride to the northwest of Amsterdam. It’s one of Holland’s smaller cities —population about 100,000. Probably it was more like 25,000 people during the Second World War. One feature of Alkmaar is its synagogue. For centuries there had been a synagogue in the town to serve the local Jewish community. Both Amsterdam and Alkmaar had officially welcomed Jews at the time of their expulsion from Spain in 1492, but that aspect of Dutch life came to end in 1941 when Holland was occupied by the German Army. On the 5th of March 1942, 213 Alkmaar Jews — all the local Jews who were not in hiding — were gathered at the synagogue and from there transported, via Amsterdam and the Dutch concentration camp, Westerbork, to Auschwitz. Only a few survived. The synagogue was closed.

Auschwitz entrance
the main entrance to Auschwitz (photo: Jim Forest)

Auschwitz: one of the most hellish of words, two syllables that contain the names of all concentration camps, all places of annihilation. Here was constructed an immense factory for the assembly-line production of dead bodies which were then converted into smoke. Auschwitz was a zone of absolute nihilism that made visible a demonic longing to murder God and to obliterate the divine image in man — a place for the death of conscience.

It had long been a hope of mine to go on pilgrimage to this Golgotha of the modern world. The chance finally came last year, thanks to an invitation to give a lecture at a conference on interfaith dialog held at the University of Wroclaw in Poland.

I was one of three Orthodox Christians from outside Poland who came to the conference. The other two were Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, from Oxford, and Archimandrite Ignatios Stavropoulos, from a monastery near Nefpaktos in Greece. With us was Father Vladimir Misijuk, a priest who has translated several of Metropolitan Kallistos’s books into Polish, and Dr. Pawel Wroblewski, one of the initiators of the conference in Wroclaw. The day after the conference ended, we traveled together to Auschwitz, now called the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

The local weather seemed to be in mourning — chilly, gray, on the edge of foggy. The area for miles and miles around Auschwitz is flat and thinly populated. The town near the camp, Oswiecim, is almost entirely of post-war construction — the population had been removed by the Germans before construction of the concentration camp was started so there would to be no local witnesses.

Standing near Auschwitz’s only surviving crematorium, our delegation was met by an historian on the museum staff who led us into the camp’s oldest zone, passing under the notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign — Labor Brings Freedom.

I had imagined Auschwitz-Birkenau as one camp, but soon learned that Auschwitz served as the nucleus for more than forty other camps, with nearby Birkenau the point of delivery for the daily trainloads of captives, mainly Jews but also Christians, gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.

In Auschwitz itself, nearly all the buildings had been constructed of brick. It could pass for a solidly-built military post. It would not have been hard to convince a naive visitor, so long as he didn’t look behind the wrong doors, that the conditions of life at Auschwitz weren’t so bad. Why there was even an orchestra! On the other hand, were a visitor to be taken inside the buildings, he would have soon discovered that there are hells in this world worse than any hell he might imagine in the next. For example, there was Block 10 — the domain of Nazi doctors carrying out the most vile medical experiments. One of the physicians, Josef Mengele, became known as the “Angel of Death.” Block 11 served as a “prison within the prison.” A small court operated here at which many were sentenced to death. The basement cells were for those deprived of all food and water. Among those who died in one such cell, now marked by a tall Paschal candle, was Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who volunteered to take the place of a condemned fellow prisoner. Kolbe has since been canonized by the Catholic Church.

We stopped for a time in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. This had been used as a place of summary execution for those convicted of breaking camp rules. Even a baseless accusation by an irritated guard could mean death before a firing squad. Here Metropolitan Kallistos led us in a prayer, long silences between each phrase, both for those who perished here and for the guards, prisoners of obedience, who did most of the actual dirty work. We also prayed with the awareness that, while the Nazis bear ultimate responsibility for what happened at Auschwitz, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism had helped create an environment of contempt and hatred without which the Shoah would have been impossible. It is no comfort that the Nazis themselves despised Christianity and its Jewish founder.

The charts, maps, photos and exhibits we saw in the various buildings we passed through effectively told the story of the creation and uses of Auschwitz and its surrounding network of camps. We passed through room after room containing the mute evidence of people who, after stripping naked for a delousing shower (so they were told), were gassed by the hundreds at a time — all children under fifteen, their mothers, the elderly, those judged unfit. Among those condemned on arrival, the lucky ones were those closest to the shower heads — they died immediately — while those further away took up to twenty minutes to breathe their last. Among the exhibits were empty canisters of Zyklon B, the substance from which the lethal cyanide gas was released.

Our final stop in the original Auschwitz was the camp’s one surviving place of gassing and body burning. It had escaped destruction because, when much larger gas chambers and crematoria were built at Birkenau, this smaller building had been converted into a bomb shelter. The adjacent crematorium, with its tall square chimney and just two ovens, was also left intact.

Birkenau, about a mile away, didn’t bother with brick structures for housing its captives. It was a vast gridiron of quickly-erected wooden barracks filling a vast area, barrack after barrack as far as the eye could see. Though a small number of barracks survive, in most cases only the foundations remain. The single brick building left standing is at the entrance to Birkenau, a one-storey structure crowned with an observation tower in the center under which prisoner-bearing freight trains arrived from every part of Europe. A few hundred yards beyond the station, truly the end of the line, was the area where an S.S. doctor presided over the selection process. Some were judged healthy enough to work — a slow death sentence for all but a few — while the rest were led away to the nearby gas chamber. About 75 percent were killed on arrival.

We visited two barracks, one of them still containing the deep wooden bunks on which inmates — up to a thousand per barrack — were stored at night like cigarettes in a carton. The shed-like structure provided almost no defense against the elements.

Walking from place to place in the two camps, I felt as if I had turned to wood. Words failed me — indeed my emotions failed me, and they still do. It’s not possible to respond in word or sentiment in an adequate way to evil of such magnitude. The awful images are unerasable. Having been there in the flesh, the events that happened in this rural corner of Poland are forever engraved in me.

Any pilgrim to Auschwitz is brought closer not only to the people who suffered and died there but also to all the people who played roles, major and minor, in the Holocaust.

One thought kept running through my mind: this human-made hell could never have existed without fear and obedience. Those who ran Auschwitz and similar camps, from the commandants to the lowest ranking guard, knew they would themselves be killed if they failed to obey orders. They decided it was better to survive than to die, better to be an executioner than a victim. While no doubt some of the staff at Auschwitz were already psychopaths when they arrived, most of those assigned here were, at least at the start, ordinary people, probably relieved that they hadn’t been sent into combat.

Adolf Eichmann, the chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, claimed that he had no ill feeling against Jews. He did what he did because it was his assigned duty. He was “just following orders.” At his trial in Jerusalem he pointed out that he personally “never killed anyone.” He was a good and loyal citizen, a patriot, doing only what German law required of him. The declaration that “I was just following orders” could be made not only by the staff of Nazi concentration camps but by all those who created and staffed the Gulag Archipelago or who dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or who firebombed Tokyo or Dresden or Coventry or London or who showered napalm and Agent Orange on Vietnam. It remains true of those today whose daily work involves killing or assisting those who kill. Only psychopaths want to kill. The rest of us who are caught up in one way or another in work that results in killing are, if not “just following orders,” then flowing with the political and economic currents of the society in which we happen to live. Better to go with the flow than dare to say no.

We would prefer those people, like Eichmann, who do monstrous things to themselves be monsters, but, as Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, wrote: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” [Primo Levi, If This is a Man.] I recall an Israeli friend, a child at the time of the trial, telling me how startled she was to notice, in a newspaper photo of Eichmann in his cell, that this enemy of the human race was wearing the same bedroom slippers that her father wore.

In his essay “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” Thomas Merton reflected on the fact that the several psychiatrists testifying at Eichmann’s trial found Eichmann normal, even perfectly sane. One of them said that Eichmann was “more normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him.” [Hanna Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin Books), p 25]

“The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless,” Merton commented. “A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly ‘adjusted.’ God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself. And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own?” [Thomas Merton, Raids on The Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1964), p 45-9]

If a man like Eichmann is sane, we need to ask ourselves if “sanity” has come to mean merely the capacity to live successfully in society, no matter how toxic it is. Clearly it’s sane to regard having a successful career as more important that having an operating conscience. Sanity is to play it safe; sanctity is dangerous. God calls us to sanctity.

One of the ways the Church helps us move toward sanctity is by occasionally identifying models of sanctity, canonizing them, and making sure they are remembered by putting their names on the church calendar. Thus each day of the year provides an opportunity for us to discover and reflect upon one or more stories associated with a saint’s life.

I suggest we take a quick look at just two recently recognized saints who, in the era when the crematorium chimneys of Auschwitz were bellowing the smoke of genocide, were models of what we might describe as holy disobedience, that is Gospel-shaped acts of disobedience to demonic secular authorities.

First let me draw your attention to Alexander Schmorell, canonized last year at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Munich, the very city in which Hitler began his march to absolute power. Alexander Schmorell, a German medical student of Russian descent, was both a devout Orthodox Christian and also a co-founder of a small but very significant anti-Nazi group that, at Schmorell’s suggestion, christened itself the White Rose. The name was inspired by the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In it we find ourselves in Seville during the height of the Inquisition. In this time of terror, Christ appears in the city’s cathedral square, its pavement still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics the day before. Responding to a mother’s desperate appeal, Christ raises from the dead a young girl, her daughter, whose open coffin is being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. “The procession halts,” Dostoevsky writes, “the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, Christ is recognized by the Grand Inquisitor, who immediately orders his arrest.

In the context of the story, the white rose is a paschal symbol, a sign of the victory of life over death. The resurrection of the girl is set against the background of a world that seems to be under the rule of Satan, a world not unlike the Third Reich. The adoption of the name White Rose was the group’s way of declaring their Christian conviction that he who has defeated death can also lift us from our graves — not only the grave to be dug at the end of our lives but the grave of fear-driven obedience that we occupy here and now.

Before their discovery and arrest, the members of the White Rose managed to publish and widely circulate a series of six open letters denouncing Nazi ideology and calling for resistance. One leaflet contained the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust: “Here we see [in the mass murder of Jews],” the text drafted by Schmorell declared, “the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history.”

As was bound to happen, eventually the White Rose members were arrested, tried and executed. Alexander Schmorell was beheaded on the 13th of July 1943. In his last letter to his family, he wrote: “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!” Thanks to a witness, we also have an account of his last words: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”

Let us look at Mother Maria Skobtsova — Saint Maria of Paris — a woman of similar courage. Would that there was time to talk in some detail about her remarkable life, which began within the Russian Empire before the Bolshevik Revolution and ended in a German concentration camp. Along the way she was married twice, becoming a mother before she became a monastic. After her second marriage disintegrated, she was consecrated a nun by her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, who greatly valued the diaconal work she was doing.

In 1933, twelve years before her death, she founded a house of hospitality and chapel on the Rue de Lourmel in Paris. One member of the core community that took root there was her son, Yuri. There was also a remarkable young priest, Father Dimitri Klépinin.

When Paris was occupied by the German army in 1940, it became a special priority of the community to assist the many Jews who came seeking shelter and help in escaping. Father Dimitri issued many false baptismal certificates. Under Gestapo interrogation, he was knocked to the floor after pointing out that Christ was himself a Jew. Remarkably, on that occasion he was released. The community and its allies smuggled many people — how many no one knows — out of Paris to the south of France or Switzerland.

In July 1942 came the mass arrest of 12,884 Jews. Almost 7,000 Jews, two-thirds of them children, were brought to a nearby sports stadium. Held there for five days, the captives were at last sent to Auschwitz. Mother Maria had often considered her monastic robe a godsend in her work. Now, with some bravado on her part, it opened the way for her to enter the stadium. For several days she was able to work there, trying to comfort the children and their parents and distributing what food she could bring in. She even managed to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of trash collectors who smuggled the children out in trash cans.

Early in 1943, the long-expected event happened: Mother Maria, Yuri, Father Dimitri and another collaborator, Ilya Fondaminsky, were arrested. All four later died in concentration camps, in Mother Maria’s case in Ravensbrück, not far from Berlin.

The last day of Mother Maria’s life was Good Friday 1945. The shellfire of the approaching Russian army could be heard in the distance. Accounts vary as to what happened during the last hours of her life. According to one report, she was simply one of those selected to die that day. According to another, she took the place of a fellow prisoner, a Jewish woman.

Although perishing in the gas chamber, Mother Maria did not perish in the Church’s memory. Soon after the end of World War II, essays and books about her began appearing in French, English and Russian. On the first day of May 2004, at Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Paris, Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Father Dimitri Klépinin, and their friend and co-worker Ilya Fondaminsky were officially recognized as saints.

Perhaps the shortest expression of Mother Maria’s credo is this brief sentence: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” With this recognition, she said, comes the obligation to venerate the image of God in each person. She saw no other path to heaven except to participate in God’s mercy. “The way to God lies through love of people,” she explained. “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked: Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoners? That is all I shall be asked.”

Alkmaar's synagogue (photo: Jim Forest)
Alkmaar’s synagogue (photo: Jim Forest)

At its core, the holy disobedience these saints displayed is not at all unusual. The church calendar is packed with names of saints who refused to follow orders, from the time of imperial Rome to our own day — men and woman who refused to comply, refused to conform, refused to obey, refused to please the ruler, refused to reverence idols, refused to kill, refused to bear false witness, refused to renounce their faith, refused to ignore their suffering neighbor. Their holy disobedience to man was founded on the bedrock of their holy obedience to God. You find them on the church calendar on every day of the year. Many more such saints are not yet formally canonized only because they have died too recently. There are martyrs dying today.

May Saint Alexander of Munich, Saint Maria of Paris and all the saints who refused to please Caesar give each of us the courage to say no when a no is needed.

By the way, I am happy to tell you that, seventy years after the Alkmaar synagogue was closed by the Nazis, it was restored and reopened. I’ll take you to see it if you ever come to visit.

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text as of 12 October 2013
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