I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!” You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Well, if you paid any attention to the newsletter this month, you probably noticed that I had planned a sermon series for the rest of the summer, but my trip to Auschwitz threw that right out the window. I came back last week and sat in front of my computer screen, feeling at a complete loss on what or how I was going to preach any sermon that would even begin to cover the emotions and feelings that I am experiencing about everything that I saw as I walked through Auschwitz with Eva Kor, who survived the hell of it all. Throughout the week, I kept asking myself where God was present in the midst of all of this, and how anyone could have an ounce of hope for humanity after seeing the terror of the camps. To stand in Auschwitz is to stand in the midst of humanity at its absolute worst- the extremeness of human depravity meets in this location- to walk through and see the destruction of life, the amount of time and money wasted on hatred and intolerance, and to wonder how humans could sink so low as to view people, made of their own flesh and blood, as nothing more as animals to do away with or specimens to study. I’ll admit that as I walked through the camps, I did not feel very much- I was deeply moved by Eva’s story, but I was really focused on taking it all in, learning as much as I could about Auschwitz, and honestly, the days we spent there were quite numbing. It was hard to wrap my mind around all of the things I heard and witnessed, and the vastness of it all- how big it all was- no book, movie, or documentary prepares you for the size of Auschwitz- the amount of space they allotted for mass murder is astonishing. While I was trying to wrap my mind around many things, I also had moments of grief and anger toward humanity itself, especially as I walked into one of the gas chambers, and when I saw the piles upon piles of human hair and shoes, or the hallways filled with pictures of the prisoners who did not even look human anymore. There were many moments of anger and grief that still continue to play over in my mind.
But in the midst of all of this was Eva. While I will continue to process my feelings and experiences of Auschwitz, I hold fast to Eva’s spirit of forgiveness, her sense of humor, her passion for life, and her compassion for people. Even through Auschwitz, she remained a pillar of strength, hope, and peace. She never wavered in her story, never held anything back, and was an open book for all who came to hear from her. One of my favorite stories I heard was when Eva was sitting in front of her liberation photo in Auschwitz waiting for tour groups to come in. A group came in, and the guide pointed to the little girl in the picture and said, “This is Eva Kor.” She then waited a few more seconds, walked over to Eva sitting there, and said, “This is Eva Kor.” One of the young men in the group then dropped to his knee in front of her, and said, “Please explain to me your forgiveness. I don’t understand it.” Eva quickly became famous in the camp wherever she was, rolling up her sleeve to show her tattoo of her number, talking with a group of monks, and catching the attention of a sweet 17 year old girl whose dream it was to walk through Auschwitz and meet as many survivors as possible. But Eva never got annoyed or overwhelmed, or tired of answering questions- her goal is to educate, to inspire, to change the world through sharing her experiences and her feelings of forgiveness. She truly is changing lives, setting people free from their pain, and doing her part to heal the world.
As I wrestled with my own feelings of anger and even hatred toward those who committed the horrendous crimes that we heard about, I also wrestled with my own understanding of forgiveness along with Eva’s. Thousands of people who know Eva’s story struggle to understand her forgiveness- how could she forgive Dr. Mengele or the Nazis who have done such terrible and unspeakable things? For Eva, it’s not about them, but about you and me. If we can forgive, we set ourselves free from the burdens and the pain that we live with. If we can forgive, then we put ourselves in charge of our own destiny, free of the past, and onto a more hopeful future. If we can forgive, we open more doors for ourselves, and to others to experience life to its fullest, free of those who have done us harm. I’ll admit that there are times when I struggle to understand Eva’s forgiveness of Dr. Mengele and the Nazis, especially after seeing Auschwitz for myself. But I don’t have to fully understand it. All that matters is that she is at peace and is changing the world through her message of forgiveness, and after spending a week with her, I can truly say that she is doing just that- changing lives for the better, making peace a reality, making hope a tangible thing to see, reach out for, to touch.
I struggled to connect with God and my faith while at Auschwitz. As we walked through Auschwitz II/Birkenau, Eva made the comment a few times about how surprised she always is to see grass growing there, because there was never any life at Birkenau, and there still isn’t today. It was as if death still hung around there, gray and dark like the clouds. But the grass grows there now, nonetheless. And as we ventured on, it became obvious to me that even though we were walking upon ground that was soaked with blood, sweat, and tears of millions of people, that Eva was a sign of life among the dead- because here she was, alive, strong, and willing to share her story so that those people who died would never be forgotten. Here she was, making little jokes every now and then, smiling at us, smiling at other visitors that day, shedding light on the darkest of situations. Just to give you an idea of her sense of humor, her son Alex told us that when she went to Auschwitz many years ago with her twin sister, he was not able to come along, so she brought him back a t-shirt that said, “My mom survived Auschwitz and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” Eva is one of those people that does not like to dwell on the negativity of the past, but rather make something positive out of it. In fact, I overheard her telling many in our group on occasion, “No more tears, no more tears.”
So as I sat down this week to write a sermon, to prepare a message to share with all of you, this Psalm spoke to me. It is a psalm of hope in the midst of despair- a message of hope and trust in God, a thanksgiving for the strength that we are given in order to make it through tough times, and even to survive. Eva was and is a survivor. Her strong will to live, mixed with some luck and smarts, was what got she and her sister through Auschwitz alive. The psalmist writes, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed…but you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” When I read this psalm, I think of Eva, that strong mountain, that pillar of hope and strength, that woman clothed with joy who will not be silent as she seeks to share her story with the world.
Yes, there is grief, anger, and even hatred still present at Auschwitz. There is grief, anger, hatred, prejudice, intolerance, ignorance still present among us in this world. But if Eva Kor, who survived Auschwitz and lived to tell the tale, and even to forgive to go on to promote a message of peace, there is hope for us as well. There is much mourning at Auschwitz, many tears, many shocking images that will never leave my mind, but in Eva there are signs of life and hope, even laughter and being reminded that it’s ok to laugh, it’s ok to live, it’s okay to sing and dance and celebrate the life that we have. There are lessons that we should never take life for granted, that we should never ever give up, and that we should live each day to the fullest, doing what we can to better the life of someone else in everything that we do and say. And if we have faith in God, yes, but also in ourselves, then our mourning will be turning into dancing and we shall be clothed with joy, and we shall be set free. These are the lessons that I am still learning and have taken with me from Eva while walking through the hell that is Auschwitz. She is proof that mourning can be turned into dancing. In fact, one night after dinner, someone in our group got up and started playing the piano, and the song was “Great Balls of Fire,” and Eva began to dance right there in her seat, and actually at one point grabbed her spoon and fork and began to drum along. Everyone got out their cameras and began taking pictures and filming this great scene unfolding before us. Eva was literally dancing.
So whatever you are going through today, whatever questions you are struggling with, whatever doubts you may have, whatever pain you are experiencing, know that you are not alone, know that there is hope even in the midst of the worst of situations, and sometimes that hope comes in the form of the people in your life who teach you profound lessons, who uphold us through the toughest times, who are right beside us as we walk through the fire. And in our faith, God established us as strong mountains, ready to turn our mourning into dancing. And if we feel that we ourselves are not there yet, may we be surrounded with those who will be that stronghold for us as we seek healing and peace. After my experiences in Auschwitz, I am still trying to get there, still trying to wrap my mind around, still trying to understand. Forgiveness and peace will come with time, but I will hold fast to Eva’s personhood and spirit, who reminds me of God’s promises that death does not have the final word, and that we have so much to carry on and teach the world, and to never ever forget. Amen.