I wrote this for the Rhetoric and Belief class I am taking this semester in which we are studying the rhetoric of sacred space:
* * *
“Lord, forgive us,” I murmured as tears carved canyons down my cheeks. Kneeling, I crossed myself and wept quietly, conscious of the others behind me. I had been wandering around the concentration camp, alone, for the better part of the afternoon when I came across the ovens.
When I was in Middle School we had made jokes like “what is the difference between a pizza and a Jew?” The answer, “a pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven.”
Lord forgive us.
I guess I could say all of the normal things here. I was convicted of my complicity in the murder of Jews. I realized that the SS were human, just as I am human. That I very well could have been complicit in the atrocities committed if I had been a German during World War Two. I comprehended, however distantly and minutely, the vow of never again.
But that’s not really the point here, I suppose. Because what is curious, what strikes me as odd, was that this was the first time. This was the first time that I cried, or really even cared. This was the first time I felt the weight of systemic murder at the hands of a “civilized” people. A “Christian” people. Why?
I had read about the Holocaust, heard lectures about it, and had even been to Houston’s Holocaust Museum. Why now?
Because the sacred blood of those who died had literally soaked the ground beneath my feet. And I knew it.
And this is a great mystery.
Because, for all of God’s supposed grandeur and majesty, Jesus died the ignominious death of the criminal. And, as Elie Wiesel would remind us, God died again and again during the Holocaust.
And the ovens had actually burned people alive. And I was there, able to touch them—they were soaked through with the death of God.
And I saw where the gallows had been. Where those Jews and Roma and Communists had hanged unto death.
And I saw each mini memorial—dedicated, each, to a group of slaughtered lambs.
The horror of it all resonates across time, ringing out the song of the innocent dead, clanging raucously the Lament.
With the song vibrating in my mind, I was compelled by unseen spirits to remember.
This does not happen with a textbook. Or even with a Holocaust museum, though they try hard. For a textbook can only recount the “facts,” such as they are. And even a museum, filled with relics and a dwindling number of those with physical memory, can only re-present what happened.
No. The death-song and the remembrance can only occur when you stand where they stood and the eternal hand of the suffering God drags your spirit to Hell and back.
And in such instances, all you can do is lean into it. To let your heart become a grave and your spirit the gallows.
Only in this sacred space—made so by the blood of the martyrs—is anamnesis possible.
And, perhaps, the hope of resurrection.