My Education in Thankfulness

Gates to Auschwitz: “Work Makes Free”

“He that is kind is free, though he is a slave; he that is evil is a slave, though he be a king.”  -Saint Augustine

The past few months I have been doing research on the Holocaust for a historical fiction book I am currently writing. Doing this extensive research has educated to me in the areas of history I don’t think I was properly taught in high school and college not to mention being completely gut wrenching. I have had to set aside a book for a few days or close a website because my stomach just couldn’t take any more of the horrendous details of what really went on behind the gates of the concentration camps.

I have been unable to find adequate words for such a horrific injustice of human life. It is simply unfathomable the form of evil that was perpetrated against the innocent – at the hands of other fellow human beings. The faces that stare back at me in the pictures from those dark days during WWII haunt me. But in the midst of learning about how the Jews and other “inferior” races suffered and died during Hitler’s reign. I have also been educated on the power of the human spirit and how faith and hope can remain in the middle of such desperation especially when it seems like that would be the first thing to go when someone is faced with something like the Holocaust.

The largest gas chamber at Auschwitz

As I have been studying this subject, I began to wrestle with God a little bit. Babies, children, mothers, wives, husbands, fathers and sons were brutally murdered or pushed to the brink of death daily – for years – and no one came to their rescue. It almost seems like God deserted them. As a believer in the face of tragedy, we are the first to say things like, “God is sovereign.” I myself have been quick to say, “We live in a fallen world, bad things are going to happen because man has free will.” But the hardest one for me to understand during this research is the “Christianese” favorite go-to phrase, “God is in control.” If God was in control, why on earth did millions of innocent people have to die such awful deaths?  I have never really questioned God before so this feeling was new to me. Even when horrible things – even death – happened in my own life, I continued to feel God with me through it all. I didn’t question him. I continued to have a belief and faith that went beyond the world’s understanding. I usually had a peace and that significantly helped me reconcile my feelings of despair with the knowledge that God is still with me and He has a purpose.

But this...this was different. Reading page after page about cruel and unbelievably heinous experiments that were done on children – treating them like they were worse than lab rats, torturing people while laughing at them, using people for target practice, literally stuffing babies and small children with bayonets into the gas chambers after it had been filled too full with adults. It makes a person want to vomit and then yell at the heavens, “Where were you, God?!” Why did these people have to die like this? I know God did not cause these events and I would never blame him for war or pain but knowing that the God of the universe can keep things from happening, makes it hard to understand why this was allowed. Just as it is hard to understand why there is cancer, why children get kidnapped, why genocide is still going on in other countries at this very moment. I know we will never understand God’s ways until we are in heaven but I know with assuredness that God did not desert the 9 million people who died in the Holocaust. I have a feeling that they were all greeted by His loving arms and comforting peace before they felt the final sting of death.

Hungarian Jewish mothers, children, elderly and infirm sent to the left after ‘selection’, they will be murdered in the gas chamber soon after. (May 1944)

I have read countless articles and books on this subject and I found something startling amidst the accounts of evil. Hundreds of witnesses to the Holocaust, even Nazi SS guards reported that when some victims were faced with execution, they died with dignity and an unearthly sense of peace. They kissed their families, hugged one last time and prayed silently. Many guards reported how shocking it was to witness how peaceful some prisoners seemed to be when they were standing in front of the shallow graves the Nazi’s dug for them as they waited for the bullets the guards loaded into their guns for the hundredth time that day.

There are very few accounts of anyone begging or pleading for their lives. There was a quiet strength that no one understood, least of all the Nazi’s. One grandmother was seen playing and tickling the baby she was holding – cooing and making the baby smile and laugh right as the guns were being raised to shoot her and her whole family. What could have caused them to be so fearless, to have such a sense of calm in the face of death? I know exactly what it was. They had a faith in God that the Nazi’s couldn’t even tear from their spirits. God was right there with them – at every awful step, giving them peace and providing strength even until the last-minute of their lives.

“God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.”  -Saint Augustine

After all the horrible things I have read about the Holocaust, I came upon something that seemed to rectify some of the emotions I was having. I began seeing things a little differently. I have realized that every day, every single moment of life is truly an amazing gift from the Lord. Liliane Gerenstein wrote a letter to God right after she was discovered with 44 other children who were being hidden in Izeiu, France. This letter was found after the round-up of the children on April 6, 1944. Liliane was 11 years old.

“God? How good You are, how kind and if one had to count the number of goodnesses and kindnesses You have done, one would never finish.

 God? It is You who command. It is You who are justice, it is You who reward the good and punish the evil. God? It is thanks to You that I had a beautiful life before, that I was spoiled, that I had  lovely things that others do not have. 
God? After that, I ask You one thing only: Make my parents come back, my poor parents protect them (even more than You protect me) so that I can see them again as soon as possible.
 Make them come back again. Ah! I had such a good mother and such a good father! I have such faith in You and I thank You in advance.” (Liliane Gerenstein, 11 years old)

Izeiu children

Lilian and her brother, Maurice a few years before the war began.

“On the morning of April 6, 1944, as the children all settled down in the refectory to drink hot chocolate, the Nazis raided the home throwing the crying and terrified children on to the trucks like sacks of potatoes. The children were all deported to Auschwitz and killed.”  http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Izieu.html

If I am having a hard day, my mind wanders to this letter and I am immediately flooded with hope and peace. Nothing “bad” seems so bad anymore. I have so much to be thankful for in my life. A short letter by an eleven-year old girl has brought more conviction to me about my relationship with the Lord and the art of being thankful than anything ever has. Days before her death, Lilian was praising her Lord. She was THANKING Him for the life that she had lived all while knowing she was about to die. She was praying for the safety of her parents instead of her own safety. In the midst of such fear and evil, Lilian knew above all else and even above her own desperate circumstances that she served a good God and that He was still God even when the world around her made it seem otherwise. What an amazing testimony! I can’t wait to meet this sweet girl in heaven someday and tell Lilian how her short life on this earth and her powerful words in her letter affected my own faith in God.

“Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”  -Saint Augustine

Categories: Random Thoughts, Spiritual Reflections, Writing