Chimneys from the barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo by Ruth Denton
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”
— Deuteronomy 30: 19
I have not quoted a Biblical text before in these pages. Today, however, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the words Moses spoke to the Israelites — standing at the edge of the Promised Land he would never enter – came powerfully to mind.
The iron-worked words over the gate to Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” are seared into the visual memory of anyone who has seen them or walked beneath them into the camp. So, too, are the pictures of the camp, the survivors – many of whom did not long survive their liberation. The mute, haunting evidence offered by a mound of discarded shoes and boots exposes the evil that can hide in the dark corners of the human heart.
If there were to be another sign that reflected their determination to survive the unthinkable, however, a sign that would communicate that determination to generations unborn, it would consist of those two words:
The survivors did, faced with the daily decision in the camp to continue their struggle or simply to give up.
* * * * * * *
Life is a choice. It begins as a gift, but what we do with it afterward is the result of the decisions we make, every day.
Yet too many in the global North – like the privileged everywhere — get lulled into a false sense of security, insulated from the harsh realities of the struggle faced by most of the people of Earth. Call them “the rich,” if you want, but whatever their title, their daily choices are among the apparent trivialities of luxury and convenience, in comparison.
So we convince ourselves of the insignificance of what we choose, not recognizing in those trivialities the same option Moses laid before the Israelites. We think the choice is between red and blue, between salad and steak, and so we sin trivially, not boldly – not seeing in the multiplication of such trivia the same, stark duality of that choice between life and death.
Most of the people of Earth, in places far away and very close to home, however, know that daily duality only too well. Refugees in flight for their lives or huddled in the tenuous existence of a camp, displaced perhaps for generations – too easily could give up, but they don’t. The smallholder farmer, trying to keep a crop for harvest to feed his family; the woman travelling for kilometres to find any water for her family; the child scavenging in a dump to find scraps of food – for them, surrender is a constant and reasonable choice.
But, against all reason and odds, they don’t take that path. If they had the luxury and capacity to reason things out, they would say they believe tomorrow, whatever else it brings, still contains the possibility of something better – even though, today, that hope has escaped them yet again.
In the midst of their struggle to survive, however, the choice is instinctive, not articulate. Faced over and over again with the stark choice between life and death, by their actions, they choose life.
* * * * * *
I am one of those that believe the Shoah, the Holocaust, is not finally about evil and darkness, but about resilience, determination and hope. It is not merely a grim reminder of what humans are capable of doing to other humans, because there are too many other reminders of this darkness in history and in current affairs, though at a smaller scale and for other reasons.
After all, there is no advantage in measuring the enormity of one tragedy against another, of calibrating one expression of evil in terms of another. From the victim’s perspective, facing pain and suffering and death, there is little interest in such an academic exercise. From the victim’s point of view, there is no preferential option among genocides.
We may have no choice about our beginning, having been given life as a gift. We may also have no choice about our ending, if we are powerless to prevent it. But there is always a choice as to how we live in the face of death.
What makes us free is not our work, or our words, but our choices. Those prisoners who walked out of Auschwitz 70 years ago carried with them, for the rest of their lives, the same stark choice they faced daily in the camp. Burdened by horrors fortunately most of us cannot imagine, they had the same reasons to surrender to the memories, every day, as they had in Auschwitz. Some eventually did.
But the survivors who took those memories with them — etched on their souls as the numbers were tattooed on their arms — and yet continued to choose life, gave a gift to the rest of us.
They chose life, with all its burdens and memories, so that those who perished would not be forgotten, that those who were born afterward would learn about what could never be allowed to happen again.
In that choice, repeated every day since liberation as it was every day in the camp, is indisputable evidence of their resilience, determination and hope.
It does not give meaning to their suffering. I am also one of those that sees no point in suffering, no value in the experience, either for those who suffer or for those who must witness it. Nor is suffering inevitable, because of who we are as human beings.
To inflict suffering is to take the other path, choosing death over life and curses over blessings. It is a dark choice, but while we can see its monuments in the chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we overlook its presence in those trivial choices that privilege lays before us every day.
Those dark choices can also become instinctive, bred out of culture and refined by habit, the rote practice of lifestyle that shapes our attitudes and hardens our hearts to what we would otherwise be able to understand.
After all, our personal choices are framed by the groups in which we find ourselves. What we choose, as individuals, is multiplied and magnified by others around us who echo the choices we make.
Those groups also choose between life and death, sometimes with knowledge and intention, but often by instinct. Sometimes there are large decisions, black or white; other times, the choice is disguised by process just as much as it is hidden by trivia or misinformation. These institutional choices are made, all round us, by different groups in our society.
I have watched some choose life, instinctively navigating their choices in a direction that denies the logic of decline. I have witnessed others embrace the ending of their community with the same faithfulness that their forebears demonstrated at the beginning, choosing to seed new life elsewhere rather than to wither until the last person turned out the lights. Yet I have also seen too many others making choices, seemingly small at the time, that lead inexorably to darkness and death.
These local dramas – both personal and institutional — are played out, every day, in a world threatened by climate change and its effects. In small ways and in small choices, we choose death over life, curses over blessings.
These choices are often unnoticed, made without particular intention, with a casual indifference to what they mean and with no real concern for those who are affected, either present or future. When we do notice such choices or are challenged to account for them, at best we offer a lament and label them “unsustainable,” with no real understanding of what it means to live in an unsustainable society.
To be unsustainable means to choose death over life; to choose death over life by instinct, however, is much more frightening than to choose it by intention. We need to ask whether we are now living in a culture with so little hope or thought for tomorrow that, in effect, it has become a culture of death, morbidly underpinning all of our decisions.
Yet we are living into a future determined by the choices that others have made, as well as by the ones we still can make for ourselves. Whether there is some general catastrophe or a series of never-ending disasters, it is our resilience (as individuals and as communities) that will be tested. Whether we are tested by the Earth’s retaliation or by the evil in hearts of other people, whether we choose by reason or by instinct, like the survivors of Auschwitz we must choose life daily — with both its pain and possibilities — over the finality of death.
So today I honour, not those who died, for I have no words to capture the horror of Auschwitz and its cohorts, but those who survived to tell its story and their own. Whether or not they have the words themselves, their lives are witness to the resilience of the human spirit and the instinctive choice for life that is our best and only hope in the face of the unthinkable.