Arguing with God at Auschwitz

How do you praise a God who allowed–and may again allow–so much human suffering?

Accompanied by a handful of distinguished American legislators, I traveled straight from Davos for a historic visit of the Knesset, and then to Auschwitz, impressively organized by From the Depths.

I saw my friend who also traveled from Davos, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, walking out the Crematoria. He was visibly shaken: “This place is evil. There is no other way to describe it.”

He had with him Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who had tears streaming down her cheeks.

The head of El Al brought a Torah scroll. I walked with him down the train tracks toward the Crematoria where the selection was made as to whom would go straight to be gassed and who would pass to the living hell of Birkenau. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Minister of the Economy, was there, as was my friend Uri Ariel, the Minister of Housing.

Could I offer words of praise to a God who could watch such wickedness with seeming passivity?

Gone were all the political differences that separate Israel’s parties. In their place were Jews stunned by the enormity of the incomprehensible horror that surrounded them.

A large white tent at the center of the death camp housed a moving ceremony in which Polish and Israeli parliamentarians spoke. Afterwards, as darkness arose, I found myself staring through the entrance to the camp awaiting a bus on my own. I was looking through the infamous Gate of Death through which millions arrived by train, most to their immediate death. Since the sun was setting, I had to recite the afternoon Mincha prayer.

And here I was confronted with the great test of belief that I had discussed in public on countless occasions, only this time it was not theoretical and there was no one but God to speak to.

Staring right at me was the greatest test of faith in the history of the world. A place so monstrous, so brutal, so deadly, that it has become the very synonym of evil and mass murder.

Entrance to Auschwitz

Auschwitz.

Did God watch while hundreds of thousands of children were gassed? Did He turn away when mothers with babies in their arms cried out to him? And would I pray to Him from this hellish place? Could I offer words of praise in the afternoon prayer to a God who could watch such wickedness with seeming passivity?

I had dealt with this issue at great length in my book published last year, The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. But now I wasn’t writing for an audience. I was dealing directly and personally with my Creator.

In the end, habit took over and I recited Mincha. When I came to the part of the silent prayer where we say the words, “Shema Koleinu—hear our prayer, Oh Lord,” I said it with particular concentration and meaning. Hear Our Prayer, Oh Lord. Hear it. Listen to it. We’re not powerful like You. We can’t create universes. All we can do is hold our babies in our arms and try and protect them from evil.

Do you know that, Oh God? Do you know how much we hurt when we see our children suffer?

This is the second time I’ve visited Auschwitz, only this time it was completely different than my trip here about 14 years ago in the warmth of summer. This time, the brutal cold of winter surrounded me from every side. God Almighty. How did the people here survive it? The cloudy, dark winter landscape called to mind all the dismal photos I had seen of Auschwitz. The thousand or so people who came from Israel and the United States were bundled up tight that day. The prisoners in the Auschwitz death camp had threadbare, lice-infested uniforms. How could they live like that?

But as a parent, the dynamic changes significantly. It’s one thing to suffer on your own; it’s another to watch your children suffer. There is nothing worse in this world than watching your children in pain and being powerless to stop it.

That’s what I thought of as I stared into the dark, bleak abyss of Auschwitz. There was a picture of a woman holding her baby tight at the train platform, having just arrived. She would no doubt be dead within sixty minutes. But even here, in the most awful place on earth, she held her baby tight, attempting to protect and nurture the infant.

Of all the questions I have about the Holocaust, that is the one that confuses me the most: Did God know that parents had to give up their children to SS monsters and watch them taken to be gassed? Did God watch as children shivered, with their parents unable to warm them? Did God watch as children with bloated bellies begged their mothers and fathers for something to eat but their parents had nothing to give them?

At first glance, the shift from Davos to Auschwitz would seem dramatic, and that’s how it felt. From the gorgeous Alpine glory of the one of the most beautiful winter resorts on earth, surrounded by accomplished individuals, to the hell of Auschwitz where 1.5 million Jews were gassed. That’s quite a dramatic change.

But this year, the two were directly connected. Hassan Rouhani was at Davos. The world is making deals with Iran even while Rouhani swears they will not dismantle a single centrifuge. His government and his Supreme Leader have threatened a second holocaust on countless occasions.

This time it will not be through the brutal cold, typhus, starvation or poison gas. No, this time it will be mercifully short. In just a flash and an instant, a blinding light that may usher in the greatest darkness the world has ever known.

Will God still be watching?

About

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books.
  • jpcarson

    Where the reasoning falls down for me is its lack of mention of redemptive suffering. Why did Auschwitz come to exist? In the long chain of causality, the failure of enough people to risk their professional standing and economic security – i.e. endure redemptive suffering – to stand against institutional evil was a link.
    Such a shunning of redemptive suffering, particularly when it may jeopardize one’s professional standing and economic security, is essential for institutional evil/law-breaking to take root and flourish, which manifests much human suffering.
    I’m a man of faith and my faith motivated me to endure much redemptive suffering to expose and stop institutional evil in Department of Energy, custodian of America’s nuclear stockpile and the lead federal agency to secure nuclear weapons material around the world. It’s a long story and, no, I am not particularly optimistic year 2100 finds any desirable civilizations on planet earth, not given present facts and trends. But I trudge on, because to do otherwise would be to enable institutional evil that could far exceeed Auschwitz in amount of human death and suffering.
    Suffice to say that no Country, starting with America, has a viable way that an “insider” could effectively report possible violations of nuclear non-proliferation treaty obligations, let alone be protected from retribution. If America were to decide to change that, at least for itself, perhaps a model would be created so that Iran could, if it wished, demonstrate more good-faith compliance with its statements about nuclear non-proliferation. Just a thought.

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