God at Auschwitz

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?

Yes.

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).

34 Responses to God at Auschwitz

  1. Joey Rudder February 18, 2021 at 5:49 am #

    Oh my. This post brought me to tears many times, as I think it should. There is great darkness. I smell the smoke too. May we use the powerful sword of truth boldly throughout our writing.

    This post is going to stay with me for a long time, again, as it should. Thank you, Dan. God bless you.

  2. Jodi Artzberger February 18, 2021 at 5:49 am #

    I think this may be my favorite post yet. Thank you!

  3. Cece Whittaker February 18, 2021 at 6:29 am #

    This honest arrow of truth comprises one of the most powerful weapons against what is so wrong in our worlds today; heartfelt, brave, unfettered honesty.

  4. Teresa February 18, 2021 at 6:51 am #

    I have been struggling lately, what can I write that will make the difference in lives. Many people write with encouragement and positivity. My spirit wants to write about the truth. Encouragement is fine, but truth heals our hearts. Stand, and when you have done all, stand some more. May God gives us the strength to write the truth.

  5. Norma thomas February 18, 2021 at 7:03 am #

    Thank you for this post. As a Christian writer I needed to hear this. I’ve never looked at writing as just telling an entertaining story but as an opportunity to ‘stab a candle at darkness’ and hopefully fire a light in the readers heart. This article reminded me of the why I do what I do for Him.

  6. Sister Georjean February 18, 2021 at 7:11 am #

    Truly we must never forget, the evil that is in the human heart. The Lord is forced to see it every day in so many…
    and today I believe we are seeing the escalation of this evil, the virus, the vaccine, those who make the vaccines… Messenger RNA… the profitability of the vaccines – it has Bill Gates fired up!
    We are not so far removed…. so it is best to never forget!
    Lord have mercy on Your own – guide and lead.

  7. Damon J. Gray February 18, 2021 at 7:11 am #

    Like Joey Rudder, I was in tears as I read this, Dan. Thank you for sharing and for jolting us to reality.

  8. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 18, 2021 at 8:17 am #

    Standing in a place of death,
    what does this evoke?
    With each and every measured breath
    do you smell the smoke
    from flames so all-consuming
    of faith and hope and even love;
    what point, now, in assuming
    that we can reach a God above?
    How can there be a nexus
    between mortal and Divine
    when the killing-ground reflects us
    along ghost-halls of time?
    And yet, He spread His arms so wide
    for us, for nails, for spear-pierced side.

  9. Mary Kuhlmann Antholz February 18, 2021 at 8:26 am #

    Thanks. We needed that.

  10. Nancy Lewis February 18, 2021 at 8:28 am #

    Writing should inspire, uplift, and point the way. Your piece did that and more. Thank you.

  11. Cindy Fowell February 18, 2021 at 8:40 am #

    Sobering thoughts. God’s righteousness and grace. And His hope, our only hope for the future. Thank you, Dan.

  12. Nancy Lohr February 18, 2021 at 8:42 am #

    “As a Christian living in this world, I smell smoke; and it smells like death.” Excellent image and challenge to attack the dark.

  13. KT Sweet February 18, 2021 at 9:21 am #

    As we enter into this Lenten season, I’m ever so grateful He lived and died to save me, to save us all, from our deadly sins. Thank you for the reminder, Dan. Powerful

  14. Diana Derringer February 18, 2021 at 9:56 am #

    I also visited Auschwitz/Birkenau while on a partnership mission trip in Poland. The images remain vivid years later. Thank you for the reminder.

  15. Grace Fox February 18, 2021 at 10:48 am #

    Thank you, Dan. I’ve visited that site twice. My mind still cannot comprehend the evil of which man is capable. To think that God loved us while we were sinners is almost as difficult to comprehend, but I’m beyond grateful.

    You wrote: “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.” This has given me a fresh perspective on my calling. Again–thank you.

  16. Sherri stewart February 18, 2021 at 11:04 am #

    I had the same experience at Vught in the Netherlands—not the death camp of Auschwitz but a way station to it and Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbruck. Seeing it firsthand was disturbing but to know the sin that man is capable of is even more so. Most secular humanists shrug it off as an anomaly. And it will happen again. To understand grace we must understand depravity.

  17. Cindy Costerison February 18, 2021 at 11:14 am #

    I love this post so much. Profound.

  18. Janell Wood February 18, 2021 at 11:22 am #

    Wow. Powerful imagery and a great reminder that we are in a battle between good and evil. Thank you for writing this.

  19. Tina Radcliffe February 18, 2021 at 12:20 pm #

    I had the opportunity to visit Dachau when I was in the Army stationed in Germany. Honestly, I cry every single time I think of that visit. Your post really struck home as part of my reminder to myself in 2021 that I need to be on my knees in prayer for our nation.

  20. Leigh DeLozier February 18, 2021 at 12:36 pm #

    Thank you for such a powerful post. Truth can be hard to acknowledge, especially when it means we have to face such evil. Thank you, too, for reminding us that the words we write help battle that evil — even if we don’t see it ourselves.

  21. Cole Powell February 18, 2021 at 12:41 pm #

    What a gripping post! Thank you for sharing!

  22. Andrew Russell February 18, 2021 at 1:12 pm #

    Thank you. This post is profound and heartbreakingly true, and could not be more relevant in today’s world.

  23. Wendy February 18, 2021 at 1:19 pm #

    Thank you, Dan, for your poignant and timely message. Two days ago, I saw a post from a childhood friend that shocked me. It featured an anti-Semitic video, rather than her normal stream of posts about God.

    This morning, an interview with Corrie ten Boom, from decades ago, popped up in my news feed. Her story, recounting her time in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, once again tugged at my emotions. I first read her book, The Hiding Place, in 2014. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it, having heard the horrors of death camps, but I found hers is not just a story of suffering, but of how God was present with Corrie and her family amid the suffering, and how they ministered to other prisoners, and Nazis, during their darkest time. Perhaps what strikes me most is their ability to forgive the Nazi guards who humiliated and brutalized them. It’s a message I’ve taken to heart.

    Many of us see the signs, and sense what’s coming. But we were born for such a time as this. So may God heal us of the wounds others inflict upon us, so we can be a light in the darkness, too. Still, I also pray, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

  24. Pete Nikolai February 18, 2021 at 2:08 pm #

    Thanks Dan for the stark reminder of what was and is. I have been listening to the audiobook for Caste and have been struck by the similarities between Nazi Germany, India, and the United States in terms of how the people of each nation have been and are willing to ignore the evil being done to others.

    I did not grow up in the South but that only means my ancestors and I have been ignoring reality from a distance as people have been and are mistreated, tortured, and murdered because of the color of their skin. I made some feeble attempts after college to deter the murder of the youngest, but in hindsight I see that I chose to pursue a life of comfort instead of continuing the battle.

    The smoke has been around us for centuries and so we do not notice it much anymore. We pursue entertainment and other distractions in a vain attempt to avoid reality. I have no solutions but want to acknowledge my culpability for inaction in hopes that doing so will cause me to change.

    • Dan Balow February 18, 2021 at 2:18 pm #

      Great comments Pete.

      In Erik Larson’s 2011 book, In the Garden of Beasts, he recounts how the US government was well aware of what Nazi Germany was doing back into the 1930’s and the state department did nothing since there was a significant anti-Jewish bias here.

      You are right, we have gotten used to the smell of the smoke.

  25. Kathryn Gardner February 18, 2021 at 3:03 pm #

    First, thank you for sharing your poignant experience. I spent a morning at Auschwitz in October, 2019 with a Chinese missionary and a Polish friend. I made myself go, but I dreaded seeing the horrors. I did not know about the rat poison you mentioned in your blog. Everything else was crystal clear.

    We must never forget and never stop praying that genocide today will stop. I visited seven East European countries on that trip. The Communist monsters who followed for thirty years tortured and executed at will the folks in these captured countries. I visited “the House of Horrors” in Budapest where all the victims’ pictures haunt the walls as you see the rooms of interrogation and torture devices.

    In Bulgaria all mosques were destroyed except the one we visited and only the skeletal frame of one synagogue remained that had been decaying for fifty years.

    After the Communists left, the Socialists came with their brutal tactics. Since WW11, the world has seen genocide in Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Syria, Korea, Cambodia, China, Myanmar and many more countries. We need these reminders like Auschwitz of the past evils.

    • Dan Balow February 18, 2021 at 3:31 pm #

      If you want to learn about a related and very creepy side story of the holocaust, read about the origin and use of the poison used at the death camps…Zyklon-B. It was developed as a rat poison, using cyanide as the killing agent. The German company who developed it in the 1920’s sold a lot of it in the United States where it was used to fumigate rail cars and also as a delousing agent by the US Border Patrol. (Don’t want to think too much about that)

      Later, repackaged and used in the camps, it was the perfect people killer.

      It’s like the reverse of Joseph’s statement in Genesis…what was intended for good was used for evil. There’s a lot of that going on in this world as well.

  26. Gina February 18, 2021 at 4:37 pm #

    Leaves an imprint on the soul.

  27. Bradley Leach February 18, 2021 at 4:47 pm #

    Dan,

    Thank you for this insightful, moving and descriptive portrayal of one of the blackest spots in Europe. It is always disturbing to see the extent to which man’s inhumanity to his fellow man can proceed. Especially when the light and salt of the gospel are either lacking or have been suppressed. This inhumanity can manifest itself in any people, of any color, at any time, as history attests. Even more surprising to me is how those who have been oppressed can suddenly become the oppressor when given a little power. The German worker who needed a wheelbarrow to bring enough money to purchase a loaf of bread in the 1920s could callously toss his neighbor onto a relocation train in the 30s. But as you astutely pointed out it’s a spiritual problem of sin, not an economic or political one.

    But I did want to speak to an overall impression I got that I would think you did not intend – that God is helpless or powerless in light of human arrogance or disobedience. The German death camps did not surprise God as I’m sure you agree. Nor was he incapable of saving some, as miraculous stories recount, and comforting others who were taken to their eternal reward through that ordeal. I cannot fully explain why God allowed that terrible war to rage for five years, or why atrocities on both sides were committed. But I do believe God is in control of all events at all times, and they serve His divine purpose.

    The Bible is replete with stories of God stepping forward to defend and support His people when they were threatened by nations far more savage than the Nazis. And though God extends the offer of love to all, it is clear to those of us (who are not Universalists in our theology), He only applies it to those who have taken the Messiah as Lord and Savior. By this we have the same hope and source of strength as did Joshua, Gideon, Barak, and David facing difficult circumstances.

    And while evil people are not beyond God’s grace, neither are they beyond His justice. The guards, those in the old churches who smelled the smoke, and we today, will face one or the other. But we have a hope. While today’s smoke darkens the sky, the light so easily lost in past suns becomes more apparent. May that be true of all of us as we write.

  28. Kristen Joy Wilks February 18, 2021 at 5:11 pm #

    The hope of scripture held up against that terrible slogan … wow!

  29. Dennis L Oberholtzer February 18, 2021 at 5:46 pm #

    Powerful article. I never knew about the children being killed immediately. If I were the SS, I would have killed myself first. Thank You for sharing this.

  30. Bev Murrill February 18, 2021 at 7:20 pm #

    Outstanding article. Thank you so much. This is the kind of truth we need to be made aware of in the midst of our false persecution syndrome …

  31. Marlene Anderson February 19, 2021 at 3:49 pm #

    I too have visited that place. And I have read many memoirs of that era, of citizens putting themselves at peril to give shelter to Jewish people. It is hard to comprehend how any person could do what they did. But it is also so humbling to know that Christ died, even for them. God bless.

  32. Carol R Nicolet Loewen February 19, 2021 at 7:34 pm #

    What a heartrending experience to be at Auschwitz/Birkenau, Dan. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Corrie ten Boom said “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.” She, her sister and father experienced that deep pit. And yet, God gave His Son for each of us. Amazing love that we can only begin to grasp. It’s only as we recognize our sin and need for a Savior that we are cleansed and made whole, regardless of the depth of our particular pits. Thank you for speaking truth.

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