Before I start reading the Scripture lesson, I’m going to do something a little different this morning. Instead of reading the Jeremiah passage in its entirety, I’m going to divide the four verses and incorporate them throughout today’s sermon. So if you choose to follow along with the Scripture, the four verses begin at the very bottom of page 692 in your pew Bibles.
I begin with verse thirteen in Jeremiah’s sixth chapter. “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely…”
At the end of my junior year in college, I spent a summer studying overseas in Krakow, Poland. While I was there I learned a little bit of the Polish language, I studied Polish history and culture, and I spent a lot of time out among Polish people. All the while I was trying to understand who Poles are, how they see themselves in the world, and the kinds of hopes and dreams they hold individually and share collectively.
I think back to those months I spent in Poland from time to time. And on this Memorial Day weekend where we take time to remember men and women who have lost their lives in wars, I find myself thinking about Poland more than usual.
Specifically, I take some time to reflect on one aspect of World War II, remembering how the Polish countryside served as the geographical location for a number of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps in all of Europe. As much as tomorrow is a day to pay tribute to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of this nation, I think tomorrow is also a day to pray for peace, here and around our world. In the hope that we won’t have to repeat the horrors of war or the horrors of another Holocaust in our lifetimes.
During my time in Poland, I spent a day at arguably the most infamous concentration camp of them all. “Auschwitz,” as it’s known in German, is actually translated as “Oswiecim” in Polish. It’s a name that encompasses three separate concentration camp compounds in the northern part of Poland.
In “Birkenau,” the largest of the three Auschwitz camps, there is a plaque posted at the camp entrance. And on the plaque there are words written by Elie Wiesel, noted author and Holocaust survivor, who died in July of 2016. The plaque reads, “Let us never forget and let us always remember.”
This morning, I invite you to reflect on Auschwitz with me. It’s easy to lose sight of the sobering reality that more than six million innocent Jewish people and more than 13 million innocent people altogether suffered and died during World War II at the hands of their Nazi captors. Elie Wiesel was right…when we stop remembering the Holocaust, the danger is that we start to forget. And even worse, when our collective memory begins to lapse, history repeats itself.
Verse fourteen in Jeremiah’s sixth chapter this morning would also fit appropriately on the towering, wrought iron gates at the entrance of Birkenau. “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace, when there is no peace.’ All three of the Auschwitz camps stand as stark reminders that there is no peace among the world’s people…
There is a set of railroad tracks in the middle of a road that runs right through the center of the Birkenau camp. Today, weeds and tall grass grow high alongside the road, yet the tracks remain unmistakably visible. Twenty-four hours in a row, all through the day and night, day after day without fail, Nazi trains used to pull into Birkenau with hundreds and thousands of prisoners crowded inside.
When the trains came to a stop, the prisoners were ordered off their cars. And sadistic Nazi guards were the first to greet them. Quickly one or more of the guards would hold a stick in the air and any child who wasn’t tall enough to see over the stick was removed from their parents and sent immediately to the nearby crematorium. Older children, youth and adults were then forced into separate lines. The fittest among them were sent to nearby barracks where they would soon be subjected to grueling physical labor. In some sense, these were the luckiest among the prisoners. They, at least, would live to see another day.
Anyone with a physical disability, anyone who showed signs of frailty or weakness, anyone who complained, or anyone who fell victim to one of the cruel whims of the Nazi guards...immediately they too were sent away to the gas chambers. At their peak, the four massive crematoria at the Birkenau camp in Auschwitz gassed twenty thousand people in one twenty-four hour period. They were brutally efficient killing machines for masses of men, women and children, the majority of them Jewish…
On either side of the central road through Birkenau, there are rows and rows of stock wooden barracks in varying states of disrepair and dereliction. These barracks were once home for prisoners who slept inside on the wooden bunks…literally on top of one another. Sometimes one narrow bunk served as a bed for twelve to fifteen people. And many of the men and women who avoided instant death in the gas chambers wound up dying slowly from disease and starvation inside those cramped and subhuman living quarters.
It takes a few minutes to walk from the entrance of the Birkenau camp to the camp’s outer edge. Along the way, there is a distinct burning smell that seems to rise from the ground and permeate the environment around the camp. It bears sickening testament to the horror of the concentration camp that even the strongest winds over subsequent years have failed to whisk away the stale stench of death that lingers in the air.
Over the course of the quiet and solemn walk across the Birkenau camp ground, Jeremiah’s warning in verse fifteen might come to mind. “They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed. They did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord.”
At the far end of the Birkenau camp there is a pond fashioned by human hands. The water in the pond is gray and discolored and it is impossible to see your reflection when you look down into it. This pond was a waste site when Birkenau was in full gear. First the prisoners were gassed in the crematoria. Then their bodies were piled high on wooden pyres and burned to ash. Eventually, the human ashes were dumped into that pond, made for a singular purpose.
The central road finally ends at the rear of the camp where there is a small staircase that leads to a wide platform. And on top of the platform there are separate, living monuments to each of the groups that perished at Birkenau. Four million people were murdered at Birkenau alone and there is a flame that burns in honor of each of them…
I remember sitting on the top step of the platform that day looking out over the landscape of the desolate, God forsaken camp before me. As soon as the Nazis realized the prisoners in their camps would be liberated by Allied forces, they tried to bomb Birkenau in an effort to cover up the evil they had perpetrated. The Nazis succeeded only partially. What remains intact at the Birkenau camp is more than vivid enough to warp the imagination. It was so vivid for me that day that I wound up overwhelmed with emotion, burying my face in my hands…
All these years after the end of World War II, the task Elie Wiesel calls us to is still the same. Do not forget. And always remember. When we think about the Holocaust, always remember and never forget. So that we honor the memories of those lost in war, both soldiers and innocent people. And so that peace will prevail on God’s earth.
What’s more, we remember and we don’t forget hoping that history won’t repeat itself in these troubled days. But wondering whether it already is. We pray this Memorial Day weekend for over a million of our Rohingya brothers and sisters who have been forced out of Burma in a brutal genocide…suffering unthinkable violence and death along the way. We promise to remember. And not to forget.
We think this weekend about the disappeared people lost in civil wars in Central America, Syrian refugees caught in war and violence in the Middle East, and Native Americans who experienced their own form of holocaust on these United States lands. We remember and we don’t forget…
And through it all, we hold on tightly to hope. Hope that fuels our faith and invites us to envision a new day. So on this Memorial Day weekend, imagine the prophet Jeremiah standing off to the side. He has one more thing to say to us this morning in verse sixteen. “Thus says the Lord. Stand at the crossroads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
When we find the good way, the way of peace, and walk in it, then God will know we have not forgotten. Indeed, we will have remembered well…Amen.