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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Choose Life

Before I went there for the first time in 1980, this is what I knew and thought about Poland, when, rarely, I thought about Poland at all: Auschwitz. The Holocaust. And I knew it was part of the Warsaw Pact. Communist. That’s it. Period. Poland? When you live on the north side of Chicago you learn this about Poland: it is where your Jewish neighbors were sent like cordwood in box cars to death camps, like Auschwitz and Treblinka and Majdanek, from which these remnant few had somehow survived, traumatized ghosts without family or home or faith. I watched Hasidic neighbors from my window go to the Yeshiva every morning. I saw the wives with their wigs play with children on the front stoops. I walked past three synagogues on the way to the grocery store. How could I go to Poland? I struggled for a time with a feeling that I would somehow betray my Jewish friends and neighbors by going to Poland. It was for them a symbol now of death, of trauma. I would be treading on their ghosts, their haunted memories of loss and torture. Having Jewish neighbors, whole communities of Holocaust survivors, the Hasidic Yeshiva across Argyle Street, an Orthodox seminary a few blocks west on Foster Avenue, thriving congregations just up Kimball and scattered all through the neighborhood, and observant religious Jews living next door, all meant learning firsthand about the Nazi horrors, the desperate struggles to live, the terror of being torn from mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and, worse, one’s children. I read their histories, their theologies, their narratives. I read Elie Wiesel, read Night, and carried, as part of me now, the haunting picture he described, of a child hanged on the gallows at Auschwitz, and the angry cry of a fellow prisoner, “Where is God? Where is He?” As Wiesel was forced to march past the boy, hanging between life and death for over half an hour, the man behind him asked again, “Where is God now?” Wiesel writes, “ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is. He is hanging here on this gallows.....’” (Night, page 62) In Poland. Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Viktor Frankl, Wiesel, Hannah Arendt, Chaim Potok — I inhaled their writings. They were foundational to the theology, still Christian, that was constantly forming and reforming within me. I would go to Poland with the witness of these Jews in my heart and mind. “Religionless Christianity,” “the cost of discipleship,” “the way of freedom,” the penetrating insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the dominant influence on my Christian views. Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and scholar, became a leader in the resistance movement in the run-up to World War II and throughout the war, sharply critical of the German church that allowed itself to be coopted by the Nazi’s and was silent in the face of anti-Semitism and other atrocities. DB (as we groupies affectionately call him) ultimately gave up his life trying to save the world from Hitler; as part of a plot to assassinate Hitler on July 21, 1943, he was arrested, sent to Buchenwald, and was hanged in the last days of Nazi power, May 7, 1945. While his own experience was dramatic, heroic, and profoundly sacrificial, worthy of the deepest respect and a challenge to any Christian who hears the words of Jesus, “take up your cross,” and “whoever would save his life must give it up, for my sake and the Gospel,” it was his writings, especially the Letters and Papers From Prison, that gave voice to my own deepest convictions about God and the world. I would go to Poland with Bonhoeffer in hand. Poland. Poland. Poland? I would go to Poland and ask questions. I would go to Poland and wonder about evil. I would go to Poland and try to understand something more about faith. About living. I would go to Poland, defiantly, choosing life in the face of death. So I did. So I do. Humbly, gently, carefully. And I chose. Life.