The Pope at Auschwitz/Birkenau

Pope_at_birkenau_3 This is a great picture of the Pope on his four-day visit to Poland this week (ht: Die Welt).   Die Welt provided informative coverage of this event.   On the last day of his stay in Poland, he visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.  After walking under the infamous Arbeit macht frei gate of Auschwitz, he briefly met with 32 former inmates assembled there.  He prayed before the wall where thousands of prisoners were gunned down in a bid at extermination.  In this picture, the Pope is in the neighboring Birkenau death camp where he prayed at the international memorial for victims of the death camps.  As the newspaper pointed out, this photo is rich with poetic significance considering the rainbow in the background.  Die Welt noted its biblical symbolism of a covenant between God and man but did not elaborate beyond that.  More specifically, it signifies the divine promise of never again with regard to genocide by universal flood (Gen. 9:13-16).

God has kept His promise that "the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh."  Unfortunately, humanity has not been so willing to join together in such a covenant among themselves never to let the atrocities of Auschwitz, Birkenau, and other Nazi death camps happen again.  In the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and elsewhere, people still pursue genocide and extermination of those considered subhuman because of religion or ethnicity.  Too many people, unforunately, are still abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity, as Elie Wiesel noted of the situation of himself and his fellow victims while prisoners in these death camps.

My guess is that even in the Millenium, when Christ himself shall reign personally on the Earth, we will never really understand life in the telestial world as we look back from a more peaceful state of being. 

6 Responses to The Pope at Auschwitz/Birkenau

  1. Jordan says:

    Great post, John. Glad to see you posting again. I need to as well- and I have some things to post. Unfortunately, work has been crazy lately.

    Anyway- nice post. And that is a great picture, capturing the barbed wire symbol of the camp, the religious and healing symbol of the pope, and the hope-inspiring symbol of the rainbow. Obviously a skilled photographer/artist captured this inspiring montage.

  2. During the Pope’s recent visit to Aushwitz he asked where God had been during the terrible happenings there. To be honest, I am disappointed and disgusted to see someone in his position ask those questions without answering them with a message of God’s love. God was where He has always been: working through people. Moses didn’t become the Moses we know right away. He spent years out in the desert before God called him to return to Egypt. That does not mean that in meantime He forgot His people and their suffering. He was preparing to free them. I can’t stand it when people blame God for human evils. The real question isn’t “Where was God” but “Why did these people debase themselves by going along with Hitler?”

  3. Ronan says:

    I think if there’s one place on earth that a Pope is allowed to ask, “why, God, why?” it would be at Auschwitz. I do not find this disgusting, I find it wholly reasonable. Faithful people of all ages have wrestled with the absence of God.

  4. I can’t say why but the idea of him asking “Why, God, why?” is less upsetting than him asking “Where was God?”

  5. Greg says:

    I think PDoE may have read a quote taken out of context. Pope Benedict said that the visitor is rendered speechless by the horror of the place, and this silence is an expression of the question, “why Lord?” as expressed in Psalm 44: “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?”

    If you read the text of the message, you’ll see that the Pope wasn’t really asking where God had been, or saying that God had abandoned the victims of Auschwitz. And he did in fact include a message of God’s love. He ends his message by quoting Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me”

    The message can be read here.

  6. john f. says:


    I understand your sentiment with reference to a macro or global view. As Latter-day Saints we believe in a God of miracles (Mormon 9:15-16), and that God has not ceased to perform miracles. The hand of God is visible in the panorama of history, broadly speaking.

    And yet, theodicy remains a real problem for many or most people. Our Prophet, Joseph Smith, asked the same exact question when he suffered in Liberty Jail, writing/praying:

    1 O GOD, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?

    2 How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?

    3 Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them? (D&C 121:1-3.)

    Imagine the frustration Joseph Smith must have experienced in this situation, since he had seen and conversed with God before this time, as one man sees and converses with another. And yet he knew God existed but just wondered why God was remaining silent on this issue. How much more difficult must it have been for inmates of those death camps to think that something such as God even existed at all, not having already seen God in person.

    O God, where art thou?” asked Joseph Smith, having a perfect knowledge of the existence of God. Now, the Pope, and millions (billions?) of others, ask, “O God, where wast thou?” This is not to be criticized.

    I like Elie Wiesel’s description of the Jewish holy day Yom Kippurim, the Day of Atonements, on which God forgives us and we must also forgive God. Wiesel notes the “audacity” of the Jewish religion to presume such a realistic relationship between God and man — a real relationship in which the actions (and nonactions) of each need to be forgiven. Wiesel recently related, on this topic, the following:

    Late at night, in a death camp, there was a trial. The prosecutor demanded that the God of Israel be brought to justice for abandoning his children, for allowing their suffering and death. After a long deliberation, the jury gave the verdict, “Guilty as charged”. The judge accepted the verdict and and, after having read it, turned to the gathered crowd and said, “now, let’s go and pray”. We should pray to God; we should pray for God. After all, God too needs compassion. We show him compassion by following his way and being his companions. We may be victims of humanity, but I don’t want to be an orphan of God.

    There may indeed be some theologically questionable aspects of this episode. But it is moving nonetheless and, I believe, contains some, perhaps even much, truth. After all, who understands better than Latter-day Saints God’s feelings about the barbarity of His children? Think for a moment about the experience of the Prophet Enoch.

    Like Joseph Smith, Enoch saw and conversed directly with God:

    4 And I saw the Lord; and he stood before my face, and he talked with me, even as a man talketh one with another, face to face; and he said unto me: Look, and I will show unto thee the world for the space of many generations. (Moses 7:4.)

    In this vision, our scriptures tell us Enoch literally saw God weeping, something that completely shocked Enoch.

    28 And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?

    29 And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?

    30 And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever;

    31 And thou hast taken Zion to thine own bosom, from all thy creations, from all eternity to all eternity; and naught but peace, justice, and truth is the habitation of thy throne; and mercy shall go before thy face and have no end; how is it thou canst weep?

    32 The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;

    33 And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood. (Moses 7:28-33.)

    If indeed we are to put these things at God’s feet, we should forgive Him to the same extent we expect forgiveness of Him. Either way, as you note, He is there and is working through people, through his chosen servants and through many other small and simple things, even despite the tragedies that we inflict on each other. But let’s not be too harsh on those who, under the duress of it all, ask, “why, God, why?” or feel, legitimately, that they have been abandoned by God, their only hope of relief.

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