I recently finished reading Elie Wiesel’s book “Night.” It is his first hand account of being sent to Auschwitz and later, other Nazi concentration camps. One reads with horror and compassion for Elie and for all the prisoners as they are subjected to the sick plans of the Nazis. Elie was raised in a devout Jewish home, but as he saw the large piles of burning bodies (the Nazis could not burn all their victims fast enough in the crematoria), he tells us that at that moment he lost forever his faith in God.
Or did he? Because throughout the rest of the book he constantly shows us stories of his fellow Jews continuing to pray, to observe the high holy days, to show compassion for one another. He speaks admiringly of hundreds–thousands of his fellow Jews who gathered to pray on the Day of Atonement, right there in the camp in full view of the Nazis. Wiesel tells us about Rabbi Eliahou: “Despite the trials and privations, his face still shone with his inner purity…he was like one of the old privations, always in the midst of his people to comfort them. And strangely, his words of comfort never provoked rebellion; they really brought peace.”
How is it that the same camp extinguished one person’s faith, but nourished and grew the faith of others?
The same sun that hardens clay also melts butter…
I think of Father Maximilian Kolbe, who at Auschwitz took the place of a prisoner condemned to die. The Nazis starved him and other prisoners, finally ending his life with an injection of carbolic acid. Every time the Nazis came to his cell they found him praying, looking straight ahead at them.
I think of Corrie ten Boom, whose father, sister, nephew, and friends were all murdered by the Nazis. Yet she survived Ravensbruck with her faith not only intact, but stronger than ever. Why?
There is Alexander Solzhenitsyn who survived the Soviet gulag, became a Christian in the camp, and later in life wrote “bless you prison”. His faith only grew stronger.
How did this happen? I think one answer is that Rabbi Eliahou, Father Kolbe, Corrie ten Boom, and Solzhenitsyn all understood at some point that this world is fallen. It is incurably corrupt and on a death spiral. They expected evil people to do evil things. They were not surprised and defeated when they saw raw evil. And all of them also believed in a good God who is invincible and will eventually triumph over evil. They believed that this present darkness was only temporary and this fallen world needed to see light and truth in the lives of “citizens of another world.”
That was the firm faith that all the gas chambers and gulags could never extinguish.