Back in 2019, I had the opportunity to travel to a conference in Poland and afterward tour Auschwitz/Birkenau, one of the more infamous Nazi death camps. More than a million people were murdered there at the hands of the SS from 1942 until its liberation by the Russian army in early 1945.
The picture I took above shows still-visible fingernail scratches on the wall inside the lone remaining gas chamber. No further explanation needed.
The other four gas chambers and accompanying furnaces were blown up by the Nazis in an attempt to hide their work shortly before the camp was liberated. The ruins are undisturbed as a memorial to those who died.
I read about this camp and others like it since I was in grade school, viewing pictures, watching films, and reading stories, so the horrors of what went on there were not new to me. I’ve walked through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, so the reality was already present.
But my reaction to visiting the camp was a bit surprising, even to me.
First, during the drive over to the camp, we passed through small towns with old churches in them, which undoubtedly were present well before the Nazis arrived.
I wondered if they smelled the smoke.
Then, as I walked the grounds where so many died and stood on the spot next to the train tracks where children were “selected” from families and killed immediately because they were not useful for labor, I found myself wondering something else.
Contrary to how this camp has been characterized, it was not an “industrialized killing” camp. This was personal, low-grade killing by people using rat poison to kill hundreds at a time before putting bodies in a furnace. The wooden buildings that remain were hastily built on the ground with no foundations since they were only temporary. Bathrooms were ditches.
Other than the railroad and electric fences, this same killing could have been done 500 years ago, well before the industrial age.
Auschwitz was not a place where highly skilled engineers of the Third Reich paused from their atomic-weapon research or design work on jet aircraft, ballistic missiles, and some of the most advanced weaponry ever seen in warfare at the time.
It was people murdering people on a large scale.
Today we spend a lot of time trying to explain bad things without using the words “sin” and “evil.” Everything else is blamed for unspeakable horrors; but not the actual reason: sin in the heart of a human being. The reason the world avoids attributing bad things to sin and evil is because spiritual problems require spiritual solutions, and many people don’t want to go there.
I unavoidably “went there” and became even more in awe of Romans 5:8 (NIV):
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
When I realized even the people who committed such evil acts 75 or more years ago were not out of the reach of God’s grace and love, I felt a renewed sense of His greatness.
Did Jesus die for the SS guards who committed these great crimes?
For certain, this fact gave me a greater appreciation of the role of Christian literature as it ventures out into the world to find readers. There is great darkness. As a Christian living in this world, I smell smoke; and it smells like death.
When you start to think your writing is simply showing a way to self-improvement, think again. It is swords of truth attacking the darkness all around us.
The entrance of the camp has the infamous sign in German, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free).
And while standing before the rubble of a gas chamber and crematorium, I knew for certain God’s love was greater than all the sin and evil poured out on the Polish countryside not all that long ago.
So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36, NIV).