This is certainly obvious when two days later, on 27th January, we remember the Holocaust which so contradicts Burns’ sentiments.This year it’s 40 years since the Cambodian genocide and 25 years since Rwanda. And the on-going conflict in Darfur still continues as well as the systematic killing and expulsion of people in many parts of the world. Why do we never learn? Why can’t we see that we are all brothers and sisters, sharing a common humanity? Why do we need to categorise people, stressing our differences and relegating one another to a pecking order which sees some as inferior and others as superior. And we all do it in subtle if not overt ways. Holocaust Memorial Day faces us with the horrible reality that if one human being can perpetrate such atrocities then we all can. This is a hateful and painful reality that we must face up to and feel the pain of it in our very being – not to wallow in it but to liberate ourselves from it and commit to inclusion and friendship with all.
Nothing brings you up against the horrors of genocide as a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau which I made fifteen years ago but have never forgotten. I was part of a study visit to Jewish sites in Poland, a land on whose soil three millions Jews were murdered. The group was mostly made up of Christians though we were fortunate in having with us someone from the Jewish community whose family had come from Poland. This personalised many of the issues that we studied and didn’t allow us to forget the pain inflicted on the Jewish community by anti-semitism, a pain still felt by many Jews today. It was a learning and challenging experience.
During our trip we learned about the thriving Jewish life that had existed in Poland since the 9th century; of the anti-semitism and pre-conceptions of Jews as Christ-killers and therefore cursed; of the separate lives lived by both communities who never saw one another as neighbours. But it was the visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau that exposed the reality of the evil of the holocaust. The empty barracks, the ovens, the so called shower rooms, the piles of shoes, hair, the luggage on display revealed the systematic degradation and humiliation of the Jewish community and the absolute squalor of what life was like. Some of our group spent the visit in floods of tears. I was stunned and felt quite dead inside. I had expected a sense of evil but what we saw was beyond evil. The question that kept recurring for me was how could people’s spirit rest after such a violent end? To have human beings reduced to ash that was then used for paving roads would have been unthinkable and yet here we were face to face with its reality. The murder of the Jewish community was perpetrated by the Nazis but many Poles were indifferent to it and in one place, Jedwabne, ordinary Poles were responsible for the slaughter of 1600 Jews. Of course even in darkness there is light and while some Poles betrayed their neighbours, others hid and helped them and for this are included within the ranks of Righteous Gentiles. There are stories of heroism within the camps and a generosity of spirit and courage that showed that even in the midst of evil, the human spirit can soar and triumph.
There were many challenges in that trip to Poland – challenges that are still pertinent today. For example the role of religion in nation building processes. What is the role of religions in a secular society? How do we allow people to be different, to look different and yet respect our common civic identity and work together for the common good? There was also the question of identity. Ethnicity is an invention and a consequence of education and conditioning. It’s based on an imagined common ancestor. It’s the way we perceive our origins. If we recognise it as a perception we have a good basis for cooperation. If, however, we see it as a consequence of genetic codes we have a basis for racist ideology. And what do we Christians do with the recognition of a history of anti-Semitism that the Catholic Church accepts was the context and seedbed in which Nazi anti-Semitism flourished? How do we keep alive the memory of the Holocaust while healing memories and moving on? The Council of Christians and Jews tries to do just that and this weekend, talking about Holocaust Memorial Day, Pope Francis exhorted us to "continue to work tirelessly to cultivate justice, increase harmony and sustain integration, to be instruments of peace and builders of a better world." There couldn’t be a better memorial to those who died than that.