Silence at Auschwitz

The Revd Paul Cowan reflects on the silence that envelops the camps where the horrors of the Holocaust took place during World War Two.

The Revd Paul Cowan. Photo: Jo Duckles

On 27 January, we will again be reminded of the Holocaust. For me, it’s also the anniversary of a pilgrimage, led by Archbishop Justin Welby, that I made to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. As we arrived at the infamous gates to Auschwitz, the conversations quietened and then ceased. It struck me that silence is at one and the same time both wholly appropriate and inappropriate.

Silence is good

As we focus on the contemplative as a diocese, I’ll start by saying that silence is good. Former CBS anchor Dan Rather found himself unprepared for a television interview with Mother Teresa several years ago. Ron Mehl described the newsman’s encounter: “When you pray,” asked Rather, “what do you say to God?”
“I don’t say anything,” she replied. “I listen.”
Rather tried another tack, “Well, okay…when God speaks to you, then, what does He say?”
“He doesn’t say anything. He listens.”
Rather looked bewildered. For an instant, he didn’t know what to say.
“And, if you don’t understand that,” Mother Teresa added, “I can’t explain it to you.”

At the age of 20 I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what Mother Teresa was saying. I’d have thought she was making an irrational contradiction. As I look back on the way I prayed as a young adult, I am reminded of the prophets of Baal trying to light a fire. The few gaps that there were in my prayers were about trying to squeeze responses out of God, but with guidance, I have learnt to treasure silence. As John of the Cross put it, “Silence is the way God speaks to us.” Job’s friends were doing well in support of their suffering friend until they started talking. Contemplative silence became the secret meeting place where, over two decades, God in an entirely unquantifiable way, has wooed me.

Contemplative prayer, intercession and some level of surrender have given me assurance and peace below the more turbulent emotions that result from the times of suffering that life inevitably brings to each of us.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau there was a deep sense of walking on holy ground that led us, as a group, instinctively to silence. Like the cross, the camps acted as a mirror before me, showing starkly my personal and our corporate brokenness and potential for evil.

Silence is evil

As preparation for the pilgrimage I read Laurence Rees’ book, Auschwitz. Invasion and occupation brought great fear and fear silenced entire nations. A pernicious silence enveloped not only those herded onto cattle trucks but their neighbours, who watched. Martin Luther King said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Silence or the lack of a medium to speak is also so often part of the experience of those who are victims, whatever the injustice. Silence is not always holy. It can be complicit and used for evil ends. It can take tremendous courage and be costly to speak out and name the evils of our world. Throughout history, abusers of power have tried to find ways to silence the courageous, prophetic voices that call for justice, love, peace and the protection of the vulnerable.

‘And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel’. (Amos 7.12)
Our silence at best gives power to evil and at worst makes us complicit in it.

Silence is listening

I am of course aware of how strange it is to talk of holy ground in a place of such industrialised evil. The camps are more than a museum; they give voices to those who were not heard and who died here in secret. The late afternoon visit to Birkenau camp included a Stations of the Cross walk and we were encouraged to listen in four ways – to the voices from the earth, to the voice of our own hearts, to the voice of the other, and to the voice of God. This struck me as being a good framework for a rule of life.

In each generation, we need to learn the pathways to a holy silence that listens to God as we are spoken to through scripture, through the voices of the saints who have gone before us, through our hearts, our reason, the voice of the other, and according to Matthew 25, particularly the voice of the marginalised or vulnerable other. Jesus lived a life that went further than listening; the simple but deeply challenging word being ‘with’. He lived with us. We are celebrating Jesus’ birth, God choosing to live with us and to suffer with and for us.

God is silent

Compassion means more than listening and empathy; it is exceptionally costly because compassion is to walk with and suffer with the silenced and suffering.
Among the physical and emotional suffering, there was also a terrible spiritual anguish.

Not only did God not rescue his children, God remained silent. Many who arrived at the camps as people of faith, in time, rejected God or became atheists. Others continued to find solace and strength from their faith while surrounded by evil. Eliezer Wiesel’s famous account, in his book Night, of having to witness a child hanging on a gallows, encounters this question: ‘Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now? And I heard a voice within me answer him: Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.’
Here is the ‘with’ of God hidden incredibly, mysteriously and paradoxically within the worst experiences of human evil. Only Christ’s death on a cross makes it possible for Wiesel to see in that way. After this experience, Wiesel writes of his desire to reject God but still finds himself praying. There is, somewhere deep within him, a flicker of faith that refuses to be extinguished.

I have seen this incredible, inextinguishable flame of faith myself at times in people who have suffered dreadfully in their lives. I have also seen faith broken for those who cannot see or hear God in their suffering. We need to be God to others at these times; to listen and to suffer with them and without quick or simple answers. Personally, I fail at this miserably; I always want to jump to comfortable answers and explanations along with Job’s friends.

God give me the capacity to sit with and honour those for whom the valley is very dark, who need the freedom and space to rage at,
the God who dies, yet forever refuses to die,
the God who reveals himself in scripture, tradition and reason, yet remains a mystery,
the God who does not rescue his people, yet remains with them through the darkest of evils,
the God who is absent, yet always present,
the God who can be rejected, yet cannot be fully escaped,
the God who is my master and my friend, yet whom I see only dimly,
the God who is silent, yet never stops speaking to my yearning heart. Amen.

The Revd Paul Cowan is the Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford. A longer version of this reflection can be read here. This piece was first published in January 2018

Photo: Main gate to Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz Birkenau, Poland (Shutterstock)