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‘This Cannot Be True’ ... but It Was

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace laureate, is a Holocaust survivor and author of 40 books.

These days, the world has grown used to seeing pictures and hearing stories of huge, frightening, nature-made or man-made catastrophes from places like Bosnia, Rwanda and South Asia. But Auschwitz remains a case apart. It is unique.

By its magnitude, Auschwitz will forever remain a burning wound on humankind’s memory, if not on God’s as well. It represented the ultimate triumph of political fanaticism and ideological hatred.

Those, like myself, who were lucky enough to leave Auschwitz on the forced marches of Jan. 18, 1945, could have shouted with Jeremiah and Job: Cursed be the days such anti-human conduct was born. But we chose not to spend our years cursing, which could have led to hatred. That option was discarded. Hatred is always degrading; it is a cancer that spreads from limb to limb, from person to person, from group to group.

When Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army -- 60 years ago tomorrow -- I was already in Buchenwald, after a death march in knee-deep snow and a murderous journey on open railway wagons that killed hundreds upon hundreds. But I will always remember Auschwitz; how I was brought there and what happened when I arrived.

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Our transport was the last to leave the ghetto in Sighet, then part of Hungary, on May 16, 1944. D-day was still two to three weeks away.

I was 15 when we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination portion of the complex, where the gas chambers were located. What was to become the cruelest event in my life lasted only a few moments. As my father and I marched toward gigantic flames from huge chimneys, a man approached us and said that we were going to be burned. I said to my father: “This cannot be true; we live in the middle of the 20th century, the civilized world will not remain silent.” But it was true. And the world was silent.

A minute earlier, we had still been together: my father, my mother, my paternal grandmother, my two older sisters, my little sister. Stay together, whispered my mother. For a timeless minute we did, clinging to one another. Until that moment, the entire German army had not been able to tear my little sister away from me. Now one brief command did just that. We were all torn apart before I could kiss my mother goodbye, before I could hug my little sister for the last time.

Since then I have not stopped looking for them.

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What made Auschwitz possible? How could a nation known for its culture and education have dreamed up such a place? Why was the outside world indifferent to Jewish suffering and agony? Why hadn’t the leaders of the free world told us not to board the trains? Why had no one ever mentioned to us the names of horror such as Treblinka and Maidanek, Sobibor and Belzec, Chelmno and Auschwitz, all death factories destined to implement Hitler’s Final Solution? Why was the Vatican still and complacent? Why didn’t the Russians come a few days earlier? Why didn’t the Allies bomb the railways leading to Birkenau, where, day after day, night after night, 10,000 Jews were murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable?

Most of the questions that I had 60 years ago when I was first released from Buchenwald, and so many others, remain unanswered. I would go further and say: That’s how it is, and that’s how it must be. Even if there is an answer, I refuse to accept it. Auschwitz is both interrogation and indictment. It represents a watershed in history: There was a before and an after. It represents a challenge to believers and nonbelievers alike.

One cannot conceive of Auschwitz with God or without God. Ever since, all certainties need to be reexamined, all theories reevaluated.

All we know is that Auschwitz did not descend ready-made from heaven. Human beings imagined it, built it, served it, used it against other human beings. When all is said and done, it represents a grave theological challenge to Christianity, an immoral abdication on the part of humankind.

Were the torturers still human beings? Was it human then to be inhuman?

Today, when I think of the guilty, I sense despair. But when I think of the survivors, I strangely discover a compelling promise of hope.


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