This post was originally published in May 2020. During the month of August, Justin is taking a break from Reflect. He’ll be back in September with fresh content.
Inscribed in the entrance gates to Auschwitz concentration camp are the German words, “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning, “Work sets you free.” The sad reality is that thousands of Jews, Poles, and other “enemies of the Reich” were issued slavery and death upon entering this Nazi death camp. The Poles referred to the city as Oświęcim, but the Germans called it Auschwitz. The city lies about 30 miles west of Kraków in southern Poland. Seeing this Nazi slogan firsthand reminded me of the lies the ideology was built on. In reality, every totalitarian ideology–whether it be communism, Nazism, Islamism—is built on a shifting, shoddy foundation of deception and lies. While the Nazis preached, “Work sets you free,” two thousand years ago an unassuming Jewish man from Nazareth preached something radically different. Jesus revealed, “The truth sets you free” (John 8:32).
This humble man also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The only entrance to freedom—spiritual and physical freedom–the Kingdom of Heaven is through the One who is the Truth—Jesus. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). The Godman spoke the truth because He is perfect. No falsehood could ever come from Him—the source of truth, freedom, and life itself.
Every government or ideology based on anything but the truth inevitably leads to suffering, slavery, and death. Auschwitz is a grim reminder of this painful reality. Walking through the death camp was truly a heavy experience. Sadness hovered over the camp. I toured it with scores of other US Soldiers. Prior to entering the camp, some laughter and smiles could be seen and heard. Inside the gates, no laughter, no smiles—just heaviness occurred. You could almost feel the oppressiveness of the place. Very few inhabitants escaped Auschwitz. Anyone approaching the barbed wire fence was instantly executed. Tunneling was virtually impossible as the Nazis reinforced the gates with concrete. Jews were deported to Auschwitz from all over Europe as you can see depicted from this photo.
The bureaucratic and ruthless efficiency of the Nazis was truly remarkable. Evil can be executed competently. I was struck by the shoes belonging to little children. Some of the footwear looked like shoes my own children would wear. There were a few displays off limits for pictures. One of them was the hair. It was truly tragic seeing the beautiful hair—some of it beautifully braided. The Nazis used a courtyard between one of the blocks for firing squads. If a prisoner was caught trying to make contact with Poles outside the camp or helping a prisoner escape, the firing squad was the likely fate. The gas chamber had shower heads installed to sell the deception that the victims would receive a shower. They were never connected to water lines. The chimneys from the crematorium looked so odd. I’ve never seen any construction resembling anything like it. It’s a testament of the sadist architecture of the Nazis.
Birkenau developed as an expansion of Auschwitz. The evil grew to such a scale that the original site could not contain the vile wickedness that occurred. Birkenau was the largest death camp ever constructed. At one point, 90,000 prisoners suffered there. A box car used to transport holocaust victims was identified in Germany by a survivor after the war and brought back to Birkenau. Here’s a photo of it.
Often, some victims died before reaching Auschwitz or Birkenau due to the inhumane and overcrowded conditions of the train car. There are monuments in 22 different languages (English is included) for all the victims who died at Birkenau. Some victims were English POWs. The barracks were even worse at Birkenau. Some women literally had to sleep in the mud. Rats as big as cats descended on the barracks at night and attacked victims with sores on their bodies. During my deployment to Poland, I visited Auschwitz, Birkenau and Kraków. I plan to share some memories and reflections from my Krakow visit soon.
Another thought occurred to me as I roamed Auschwitz and Birkenau. What brilliant doctors, scientists, writers, and poets might the world have known? So much human potential decimated by the forces of evil. It’s sobering to think about–what diseases might we have defeated if the holocaust had never occurred? Our guide finished the tour by stating that the holocaust memorial is not about vilifying Germans. It’s recognizing that man perpetuated this evil to man. We must never forget what evil mankind is capable of visiting on humankind. Darfur, Rwanda, Syria, Soviet gulags, and North Korean and Chinese concentration camps offer more recent reminders.
One of the major lessons of Auschwitz is that ideologies divorced from truth lead to evil and tragedy. In the 1930s, the German people were searching for hope and a better future that would end their national malaise. They put their faith in a fascist strongman instead of a faithful and strong God. That decision led to disaster with millions of innocents across the world suffering and dying. Seventy-five years ago this month, Allied forces defeated the Nazis and much of Europe regained freedom.
The way to real freedom involves pursuing the One who sets people free. It’s consciously deciding, by faith, to take the King’s road. And the freedom path leads to the ultimate Promised Land–peace, reconciliation, and the presence of God.