Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Singing Nazis - Am I in That Chorus?

Take a look at this photo. Click on it to enlarge. This is a long post, but stay with me.

Sunday School Epiphany
Last Sunday,
this man, who teaches a Sunday school class I often attend, was teaching on Revelation 3, and in particular, he pointed out this verse as one of several that may have lent possible credence to the Nazis claim of superiority over the Jews, and contributed to the Holocaust.

And then, our teacher Dale showed us several photographs, including the one above. Nazi officers, in the midst of some of the worst genocide in the history of the planet, singing a song on a hillside, accompanied by an accordion. Amazing. Unbelievable.

For some reason, deep in my soul, I became immediately troubled. I was troubled in a very connected way, and it was not at all what I would have expected of myself. Years ago I visited some of the Death Camps, and I will never forget the feelings I had while there.

When seeing images like this, of Nazis singing in the midst of hell-on-earth, is, we might think to ourselves, "Oh, those bad, evil, dark people, how could they be like that."  Those people.  Over there.  And perhaps subtly, we then think, in the back of our minds, "Glad that is over with, I don't know if I could never be that evil".  Not me.

But not so this time, at least for me, in that Sunday school class. My thoughts were in an entirely different place. But first, a little background on the photos we were shown.

Karl Hoecker's Album
The following description is from The New Yorker, with a link posted below.

In June of 1945, an American Army officer discovered a photograph album in an abandoned apartment, in Frankfurt. The album had a hundred and sixteen photos, nearly all of them portraying Auschwitz officers enjoying recreational activities. In 2006, the officer offered the album to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C. There is only one other album, the Lili Jacob album, known to portray life at Auschwitz. When the officer’s album arrived at the museum, in January, 2007, Rebecca Erbelding, a museum archivist, quickly confirmed that the subject of several photos in the album was Richard Baer, the commandant of Auschwitz from May, 1944, to January, 1945. Soon, Erbelding and Ron Coleman, a reference librarian, identified another prominent officer in one of the photos—Josef Mengele, the doctor who’d conducted experiments on prisoners.

If the album consisted only of photographs of people who hadn’t been seen at Auschwitz, and of areas of Auschwitz that hadn’t been portrayed, or if it merely expanded the photographic record of Auschwitz, it would be valuable historically…but it has an enhanced value….In the fifty-four days between May 15 and July 8, 1944, a period partly covered in the Hoecker album, and called the Hungarian Deportation, four hundred and thirty-four thousand people were put aboard trains to Auschwitz—so many people that the crematoriums, which could dispose of a hundred and thirty-two thousand bodies a month, were overrun.”

What I Thought - My Epiphany
Now, back to the thought that rushed into my head, upon seeing these photos of singing Nazis. Singing, while only yards away, thousands were being gassed to death. Joyous and completely oblivious, uncaring. How was that possible? What was wrong with those people? Could they not feel anything? Where was their compassion? Were they devoid of souls?

And then, it hit me. In some way, I might be like those Nazis!

Perhaps I am not far from those men in the picture at all. My heart is often just as black. I am not superior. I am not better than they were. Not a bit.

Maybe I too, am singing while all hell is breaking loose. Darfur, Burma, inner city killing and crime, struggling teenagers in my own city.

What parts of my own life are like a singing Nazi? Where are the places where I could not give a crap about the suffering of others?

Am I just as clueless, and am I singing my life away, while others are suffering, and might I be able to make a difference?
Pastor and author John Stott, in his most recent book, discusses the kinds of issues that should concern us, in caring for the suffering:

"According to UN statistics, the number of destitute people (who survive on less than 1 US dollar a day) is about a billion, while the average number who die every day of hunger and hunger-related causes, is said to be about 24,000. How can we live with these statistics?  Many of the poor are our brothers and sisters. The Holy Spirit gives his people a tender social conscience.  So those of us who live in affluent circumstances must simplify our economic situation - not because we imagine this will solve the world's macroeconomic problems but out of solidarity with the poor.

So then a living church is a caring church. Generosity has always been a characteristic of the people of God. Our God is a generous God; his church must be generous too."

I will be thinking about those photos of the Nazis for some time. A very long time.  This will stick with me.  Maybe I am mistaken, what do you think?

You can see selections of the Hoecker Album at The New Yorker magazine, here.
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