Last Monday, 27th January, marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945 by the Red army. From the time it was set up by the Nazis after the invasion of Poland in 1939 until that day, an estimated 1.3 million people were murdered there.
On the occasion, our President Michael D. Higgins, said that 'the great strength of this solemn occasion came from the statements of the survivors and their common theme, that it must never happen again'.
But at the same memorial, Auschwitz-Birkenau museum director Piotr Cywinski warned of exploiting the memory of the death camp and its dead for superficial outbursts of short-term emotion. He said: 'How can one say 'never again' he asks when looking in the eye Jews attacked on the streets today' (Irish Times, 27th January).
With these words, Mr Cywinski urged the world to look deeper into the attitudes and thinking that led to the terrible debasement of humanity. As long as these attitudes and thinking are still around, atrocities do and will happen again.
In the words of one survivor of the death camp: 'Auschwitz did not fall suddenly from the skies, it was all tiny steps approaching until what happened here behind me did happen...Horror could happen again in places where the past is stretched to meet present political needs or where the majority is indifferent to minorities being stripped of their rights'.
A number of points can be summarized here. First, atrocities don't just suddenly happen. They arrive in a context. How could the ruling force of Germany sanction what they did? By making the Jews a scapegoat for the countries problems and by continually portraying them as 'Untermensch...sub-human'. This group also included travellers, coloured people, gay people and people with disabilities. These were the people whose rights could be trampled on because they did not enjoy the rights that the Nazis conferred on them.
Do we see this today? Yes. There is always the danger of governments seeing as their prerogative to confer rights on groups of people rather than acknowledge them as equal. It would seem that this line was crossed again with the repeal of the eighth amendment in our own country where we thought we had the right to vote away rights that unborn citizens enjoyed before. The right to choose was trumped above the right to life itself. There is a parallel here to be courageously faced while acknowledging the pastoral complexity and tragedy of abortion and who is directly effects.
Second, the Nazis played God by deciding who lived and who died. People survived because they could be used by the Nazis for work. Old or sick people went straight to the gas chambers. Here is a warning to us never to use people or to see them as a means to an end.
Third, another feature of Nazi repression was the persecution and killing of anyone who dared to defy their authority. They allowed no other authority but their own. No other sources of truth were heard. The will of the German people and their Nazi leaders was the equivalent of the truth.
Here again is a warning about the importance of religious freedom but also against the idolisation of the State and the mistake of identifying truth with the will of the majority. After the war, the whole terrible truth emerged - a truth that the Nazis were blind to at the time of their crimes.
Friends, here are but three points of consideration as we remember the terrible events of 75 years ago. May our remembering and prayers for the victims cause us to examine our collective conscience and be attentive to the root causes of man's inhumanity to man that sadly did not end with the liberation of Auschwitz.