Dr. Piotr Cywiński is a mensch. The Catholic intellectual who heads the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland spoke at the LA Holocaust Museum last week, and it’s a shame that only 20 souls showed up to hear his insightful remarks. We all enjoyed hearing about the South Korean visitor who said he had come to Auschwitz in order to understand Europe, and nodded knowingly when Piotr described his encounter with an angry Israeli man who demanded to know why there was no monument to Treblinka (another extermination camp) at Auschwitz. After all, the man said, Auschwitz has become the symbol of the entire Holocaust death machine, and there should be an acknowledgement of the victims of other camps as well. As enlightening as I found these anecdotes, I was especially moved by Piotr’s acknowledgment that on a basic level he is failing as a manager. In order to manage something, you first have to understand it. And there is no way that he can begin to understand the camps that he oversees. His candor was disarming.
I can easily recall both the sick feeling in my stomach and the numbness in my brain last fall as my Auschwitz guide’s dispassionate monotone identified the places where the unfortunate victims were gassed, shot, experimented on, beaten, and starved to death. I realized on that day that the brain needs to comprehend the images that it is processing. If you see a picture of murderers being hanged for their crimes, your mind can understand on a basic level why it is seeing people hanging from ropes. However, if you see a picture of people being hanged because of their last names, your brain experiences a serious disconnect as it struggles to explain the inexplicable. Needless to say, September 8, 2009 was a very frustrating day for me.
Thankfully, as a Mormon I did not have to deal with one of the questions that haunt thoughtful Jewish visitors to the camps as they struggle to contemplate the enormity of the crimes committed there: Since God creates everything, including evil, is He somehow ultimately responsible for the gas chambers? God’s creation of evil is certainly suggested by scriptural verses like Isaiah 45:7 (“I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things”), Deuteronomy 30:15 (“I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil”), and Amos 3:6 (“Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?”). However, LDS teaching on this point is succinctly stated in the Book of Mormon (“Whatsoever is good cometh from God, and whatsoever is evil cometh from the devil”). Three years ago a member of the LDS Church’s First Presidency (the top three leaders) published an article in the Church’s official magazine that stated: “I feel impressed to sound a warning voice against the devil and his angels—the source and mainspring of all evil.” Since Mormons don’t believe that God created evil, we don’t believe that He can be held accountable in any way for the evil that men do. We do believe in an evil Satan, however, and recognize that choosing between good and evil is necessary for spiritual growth in this life.
Indeed, God is separated from evil and error to such an extent in the LDS belief system that our modern prophets teach that Pharaoh hardened his own heart against Moses (Exodus 7:3; 9:12), thus bringing the plagues upon his people. [In the standard biblical text, it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, then punishes him]. We are also taught that “it repented Noah,” not God, that He had made man (Genesis 6:6). In our theology God doesn’t make mistakes, and He doesn’t inspire people to do evil.
Not long ago a well-known Evangelical pastor made this deeply disturbing statement about the Holocaust: “Those [European Jews] who came founded Israel; those who did not went through the hell of the Holocaust. Then God sent a hunter. Hitler was a hunter. I didn’t write it, Jeremiah wrote it [16:16]. It was the truth and it is the truth. Why did it [the Holocaust] happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.” Interestingly enough, this theory of Hitler-as-hunter has also been advanced by some Jewish thinkers in an effort to explain the destruction of a third of the world’s Jews. That does not make the theory any less obscene.
It is to hell, not heaven, that we must look for Hitler’s inspiration. From ancient times Satan has targeted the House of Israel for destruction, and I firmly believe that he wanted to prevent the prophesied establishment of Israel and the latter-day gathering of the Jewish people by exterminating the Jews of Europe. However, the devil cannot see into the future, and unwittingly helped to create that which he had hoped to destroy. The horrors of the Holocaust led to mass emigration of European Jews to Palestine, and the State of Israel arose from the ashes of Auschwitz. There is no question in my mind that contemporary Jews continue to live in Satan’s crosshairs. One way in which we can honor the victims of the Holocaust is to identify and fight against anti-Semitic people and groups who target Jews today.
The question that no one can answer, of course, is why an omniscient, omnipotent God permits such atrocities to happen. If I could condense the Hebrew Bible to one verse, it would be Isaiah 55:8 (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord”). I have no idea why our Father would allow His children to be thrown into gas chambers, and I’m sure that I will not know until I’ve left this life. I was deeply affected by my tour at Auschwitz, which brought me face to face with evil on a scale I had never imagined possible. The faces of the condemned will continue to haunt me for quite some time, and I will always remember the awful feeling of abandonment – a spiritual black hole – that I experienced while standing in the gas chamber. The only silver lining to the visit came while standing in front of the camp’s crematorium, where I received an unmistakable spiritual witness that the victims are in a much better place and are at peace. It’s also comforting to know that their graveyard is being cared for by someone as dedicated and compassionate as Dr. Cywiński. Hashem yikom damam (may God avenge their blood).
I will be speaking to Jews and Mormons at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on January 12, 2011. I will also be speaking in Kansas City, MO on January 16, 2011. More details will be forthcoming.