Two pictures from a recent visit to Poland shaped my sense of Remembrance as it approached this year. The first is a chalk sketch of the face of a toddler, Margolit Lichtensztejn, by her artist mother Gela Seksztajn. Margolit’s family was forced into the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland and died there in the uprising of 1943.
Gela, her husband Israel, and others imprisoned in the ghetto left fragments of their lives in letters, diaries, and pictures, which they stored underground in metal barrels, in the hope that they would one day be found by others and their stories told. Gela’s sketch of Margolit is now preserved in the Ringelblum archive in Warsaw, lovingly recorded and displayed by a team of archivists.
As part of Hitler’s vision of a Nazi state and society across Europe, Jewish families were first imprisoned in ghettos and then sent either to labour camps or to death camps. Around six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, with Poland’s Jews suffering the biggest losses.
Margolit lived all of her short life with her family in the ghetto. Other families were moved out for what was called “resettlement” more swiftly: instructed to pack everything that would be needed for life in their new homes, they took clothing, shoes, pots and pans, photographs, and toys. Many wore extra layers of clothing to save space in their suitcases. In long processions, they walked to the local train station, where they were packed tightly into railway carriages. Those that did not die on the journey found that their destination was one of the extermination camps: Treblinka, Chelmno, Belzek, Sobibor, Majdanek, or Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, they were usually murdered in gas chambers within a few hours of arrival.
The second picture is the railway line and entrance building within Auschwitz-Birkenau itself. Basic sheds, watchtowers, and fences punctuate the bleak landscape. Some prisoners were accommodated there, while they worked in forced labour, until they died of cold, hunger, or typhoid. Across the site, beyond the trees, chimneys would once have produced smoke, offering the promise to new arrivals of a heating system for their accommodation.
Those who did not stay in the sheds, but were transported straight through the camp, soon discovered the terrible truth. Asked to undress and herded into large chambers, ready for hot, disinfecting showers, they were instead showered with pellets from trapdoors in the ceiling, pellets which released Zyklon-B poison gas when activated by heat from the furnaces. Those who stood near the trapdoors died within a minute. Those further away died within ten minutes, having watched others die before their eyes. Half an hour later, after a doctor had certified death, the chambers were aired. The bodies were removed, their hair shaved (to be used for ropes, carpets, mattress stuffing, and action bomb filling), and then they were burned. It was this smoke that could be seen across the camp.
Both pictures capture aspects of the Holocaust that I had not fully contemplated until visiting Poland last month with an ecumenical group of English and Scottish church leaders, as part of a Council of Christians and Jews study tour. Although I knew the scale of Nazi killing and was aware of some well-known individuals and stories, I had never engaged with the detail of individual people’s lives, or with the impact on them as they began to comprehend the imminent destruction of their families and communities. I had never thought how it must have felt to gaze as a mother on the face of my sleeping child and fear not only that she would have no future, but that the world might never even know her name.
And although I knew that the Nazis were highly organized and ruthlessly efficient in their war mongering, I had never considered how meticulous planning, based on rigorous scientific experiments, and using the latest industrial techniques, could be deployed to create a horribly effective system for mass killing. I was shocked by the physical reality of what I saw: sheds, latrines, railway lines, starvation cells, gas chambers.
Human beings imagined, planned, and executed each step of the Holocaust. And millions of human beings, including children like Margolit, died.
Remembrance is twofold. We remember in sorrow the ways in which ordinary individuals justified, enabled, and implemented each terrible part of a masterplan of evil, whilst others chose to look away in complicity. Such remembering cannot be done in the abstract but must record and reckon with the individual acts of evil whose sum total was the Holocaust.
We also remember, in love, individual victims and groups of victims: the millions of Jews, Roma and Sinti; those who were murdered because of their sexual orientation or political views; the soldiers who were killed in combat; the civilians whose homes were bombed; those who suffered sexual violence from occupying forces; and all whose families were ravaged by loss and grief. Such remembering is also about individuals, but in this instance is about restoring their memory, giving meaning and dignity to them as people by recording both their lives and their deaths, and tending with love and care to the fragments of history that they had the courage and foresight to record.
As a Christian, remembering for me has to start by coming face to face with God, acknowledging my own capacity to sin, choosing to repent, and seeking God’s forgiveness. It means choosing to look, unflinchingly, at what we human beings are capable of, and committing myself to acting differently. It means coming face to face too with my brothers and sisters, of every faith, nationality, culture, and identity, seeing the image of God in them and loving them as I love myself.
Remembering means naming and honouring those whose lives have been dismembered, drawing together their memories as a blessing in the community of love.
Alongside her chalk sketch, Gela Seksztajn wrote, “I do not ask for praise, only for me and my daughter to be remembered. This talented little girl is named Margolit Lichtensztejn.”
Had Margolit lived, she would have been 84 on the 4th of November. May her memory be a blessing which guides us to see the face of God in every man, woman, and child we encounter, and to act in love for their dignity, safety, and wellbeing.