One of the first places I visited in Europe during my 3-week vacation was Auschwitz. If you followed me during the trip on social media, I never posted a single picture of the place. It felt irreverent to do so. Even a month later, I’m still processing my feeling about it and trying to find a way to speak to its solemn gravity.
How do you put into pithy social media language the overwhelming grief and disgust at seeing the mounds of clothes, glasses, shoes, and luggage of the prisoners of these death camps? How do you describe the magnitude of the Birkneau camp that took a solid 15 minutes to cross? How do you describe the systematic evil that you learned about, like how women who were no longer able to work were kept naked in a separate house with inadequate ventilation in order for enough of them to be in there to make using the gas chamber worthwhile?
Auschwitz was eye-opening. There is a difference between reading about a place and seeing it. It was both smaller and larger than I had even imagined. The grounds of Birkneau were larger than I had even pictured. All of a sudden, I could conceptualize how an estimated 1.1 million men, women, and children were systematically killed there. Yet the housing and the train cars were smaller than I had ever pictured. How did so many people fit into such a small place?
Out of everything I learned that day, the thing that stuck out the most to me was this:
This building was the Birkneau kitchen, and that carriage is how children delivered food to workers across the camp. According to my guide (a somber, elderly Polish woman), children delivered bread to each bunker at dinner and to worksites for lunch. They did not want to waste time with workers leaving to get food, after all. After delivering bread, they would collect dead bodies throughout the site on the same cart.
This is the part that got me: it was the most sought-after job for children.
Obviously, the labor itself had no benefits and was horrible. But it was one of the only jobs were prisoners were allowed to go to different blocks and see other prisoners outside of their group. It was the only chance children had to see their parents or relatives. Despite needing to handle dead bodies and carry a horribly heavy cart, children wanted any means to visit their parents and relatives to see if they were still alive.
This is why reading on the new American immigration policy, images of Auschwitz are especially poignant:
Back in late 2015, when the presidential election was heating up, Paris and the San Bernandino County Department of Public Health were attacked, the Syrian refuge crisis was coming up time and time again as a debate question, I wrote a post about the Christian call to hospitality, even in a hostile world. It seems relationships between nations have gotten even worse, which seems crazy to me because I encountered so much hospitality and kindness as I traveled internationally.
Before leaving for Europe, I read Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do by psychologist Dr. John Bragh. He dedicates an entire chapter to the us v. them mentality, providing many examples of how our stranger danger instinct can go awry. He even gives a literal checklist of questions to ask yourself before trusting this instinct. Why? Because we often fear what we do not know, stereotype other people, and create a divide between ourselves and others that is not based on anything concrete but subconscious prejudice.
An us versus them mentality is a powerful, unconscious force. That us versus them or hostility mentality has slipped into the American mindset about immigration. Tt frankly frightens me. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland security, the United States is accepting less lawful permanent residents (1.13 million in 2017 from 1.18 million in 2016) and less refugees (54,000 in 2017 from 85,000 in 2016). The United States is also naturalizing less people (703,000 in 2017 from 753,000 in 2016). Why are we limiting the number of refugees when the Syrian refugee crisis continues? Why are we so afraid of families fleeing violence and poverty? Why are we so afraid of people who speak another language? Why have we made the immigration process so complex, long, and difficult? Why are we not allowing more people who have proven themselves to be worthwhile citizens from naturalizing?
Taking children away from their relatives is not the answer. Punishing people seeking asylum is not the answer. Yes, I understand that there are bad apples in the bunch who know what to say or do to get into the United States just like I have some patients who know what to say or do to try to get an ER bed faster than other patients. But just I cannot in good conscience punish other patients who are waiting over another patient’s bullsh*t, the United States should not either.
As of current reading, I am not satisfied with either party’s response to the current immigration crisis. Taking children away and placing them in detention centers is horrifying and horrible, as one ER doctor recounted for the New Yorker. Even former First Lady Laura Bush has something poignant to say on the matter. I do not understand how any party can preach the Bible and family values and somehow justify current practice. God favors the downtrodden and asks the strong to protect them consistently throughout the Bible.
When the tour at Auschwitz was coming to an end, our elderly Polish guide told us that within 2 years of being freed, prisoners of Auschwitz wanted the camp to be preserved to serve as a warning to other nations. Though comparing the immigration crisis with separating children and detention centers to Auschwitz are a little far-fetched, I have to agree that both are inhumane. Even more, though not much can compare to the horror of the Holocaust, it ought to serve as a warning that any time we separate ourselves from our fellow human being, thinking our worth and dignity is above theirs, horrible things can and will happen. What unites us is stronger than what divides us. However, when we allow what divides us to define us, we end up hurting ourselves and our neighbor in the process.
As Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote in Reaching Out:
The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still – that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.