“then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” Deuteronomy 30:3 NIV
January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp where it is estimated that 1.1 million people were executed by the Nazis during World War II. About 90% of those executed were Jews….
Auschwitz was a network of concentration, extermination, and labor camps that the German Nazis built and operated in occupied Poland during World War II. Auschwitz I was originally established in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners. The extermination of the prisoners there began in 1941. By early 1942, Auschwitz II was constructed as part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, their plan to exterminate all of the Jews of Europe, and ultimately the world. It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners were executed at Auschwitz; about 90% of them were Jews. Later came Auschwitz III, a labor camp that supplied workers to an IG Farben factory. (Most of this information is from the Wikipedia article “Auschwitz Concentration Camp“)
When I was very young, probably in the range of 5-7 years old, I came across a set of books belonging to my father. They were a five or six volume set, entitled “A Pictorial History of the Second World War”.
As the name states, the books told the story of WW2, mostly with pictures. Some of the pictures were relatively benign: pictures of troops in training; of USO gatherings where coffee and donuts were served, or perhaps a USO sponsored dance; and pictures of Women’s Army Corp (WAC) members dealing with the rigors of life in the field.
Other pictures, though, were taken during battles, of land, sea, and air, and showed up-close ground combat, aerial dogfights, and tremendous naval engagements. As I viewed these pictures, my young heart and mind were awed and made fearful at the same time. What would I have done, if I had been there? Would I have been afraid? Would I have been brave? Would I have come home?
Still other pictures depicted the aftermath of these battles; burned out tanks and sinking ships, the wreckage of planes, the desolation in the wake of the atomic bombs, the fire-bombing of Dresden, and of course, the wounded, the dying, and the dead.
One day, as I paged through a volume, I came across pictures that I had difficulty understanding. They were the pictures of the liberated concentration camps. War, to a degree, I understood, even at that age. There were two sides; they disagreed, they fought, killed, and died, for what they believed in. But the concentration camps were another matter.
At first, I wasn’t even sure of what I was looking at: emaciated survivors with hollowed eyes, crematoriums with half burnt bodies, bodies piled eight feet high awaiting burning or burial, mass open graves with bodies tossed in helter-skelter, where, incredibly, the Nazis had tried to hide their atrocities before the Allied troops arrived, but were forced to flee ahead of the advancing armies before their work was done; and, finally the “showers” themselves, into which the victims, mostly Jews, were herded; and where they were gassed.
This was, to my young mind, incomprehensible. Why had this been done? What had these people done to deserve this? What could anyone possibly do to deserve this? And who were they, the victims of these crimes?
I went to my parents with my questions about the “war” books, and they were a little upset with me that I had been in their room by myself, something I was not supposed to do. But much more than that, they were horrified that I had been exposed to these things at my young age. They made an attempt to explain to me what I had seen, but how do you explain such things to someone so young? How do you explain them to anyone, really?
You can’t, except maybe to simply say that the German Nazis were bad people and, for some reason, they hated the Jewish people. The bottom line though, was that I was absolutely forbidden to look at the books anymore, and in fact I did not until many years later.
But I never forgot them, and the impression they made. Over the years I got answers to my questions, but the answers only raised more questions. For example, to say that the German Nazis considered themselves the “Master Race”, and Jews (and just about everyone else) as inferior; that they were trying to “purify” their nation and their culture, explains nothing. It is delusional and insane.
A modern, “civilized” nation, one of the most modern and most civilized, put people in charge that not only held these deranged ideas, but believed them to the point that the they would methodically and systematically go about the task of murdering a people with the same detachment and business-like efficiency of a successful sausage maker.
Of course, though the holocaust may be the worst example, persecution of the Jews did not begin with the Nazis. We should not forget that Israel was born a nation of slaves in Egypt. The Pharaoh tried to wipe them out when they left Egypt. Later, the Assyrians defeated the ten northern tribes of Israel, and scattered them to only G-d knows where – and He does.
When the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were in exile in Babylon, another villain whose name begins with an H, Haman, plotted to induce King Xerxes to destroy them, only to end up plotting his own ignominious execution. In more recent times, the sorrowful, shameful history of most of the nations of Europe, and their relationship with the Jewish people, led up to the holocaust and made it possible.
And of course, unfortunately, the persecution of Israel did not stop with the German Nazis, either. The day in 1948 when, for the first time in almost 1900 years, Israel once again became a nation, the neighboring countries tried to drive them into the sea, and out of existence. This is still the desire of many, to this day.
The most amazing thing, though, about this story of attempted genocides and persecution isn’t that it happened, but that the people of Israel not only survived, but have prospered. This is where the story gets really interesting because all of this was predicted thousands of years ago.
The prophets of the Torah predicted, starting with Moses, that the people of Israel would be scattered and persecuted. They predicted the people would lose their land and reside in the land of strangers, even those hostile to them; but, they also predicted Israel’s restoration and ultimate vindication
The Christian scriptures, which also had Jewish writers, followed in this tradition and spoke of these things. Jesus Himself spoke of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and the Book of Revelation describes Israel’s restoration in the end times.
What does all of this have to do with explaining the Holocaust?
I am reminded here of the story of Job. In the beginning of the Book of Job, we find G-d holding court, and in comes Satan from “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it”. (Job 1:7 NIV)
G-d asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless–a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil”. (Job 1:8 NIV)
Satan replied that, of course Job fears G-d – G-d has protected Job and made him wealthy, but if G-d took everything that Job had, he would curse G-d. G-d then gave Satan permission to take everything from Job, except his health. (Job 1:9-12 NIV).
Satan left G-d’s presence and attacked Job, taking or destroying all of his possessions, and even killing his children, but Job did not curse G-d. (Job 1:13-22 NIV)
Later, G-d was once again holding court and Satan was there. G-d pointed out to Satan that even though Satan had challenged G-d into allowing him to attack Job, Job did not curse G-d. Satan responded that Job still had his health, and if G-d allowed him to take Job’s health from him, then surely Job would curse G-d. G-d then gave him permission to take even Job’s health from him, but not his life. (Job 2:1-6 NIV)
Satan once again left G-d’s presence, and afflicted Job with terrible, painful sores all over his body. He was in such torment, even his wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9 NIV) But Job refused to do so, and in the end, Job’s fortunes were restored and he was given many children. (Job 42:12-17 NIV)
In my narration, I have skipped many chapters, in most of which three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, try to convince Job that he must have done something wrong for G-d to allow him to be treated this way. Job protests his innocence, and at times, questions God’s justice, because He allows the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer.
Job’s friends, while they say many true things about G-d, persist, and even accuse Job of self-righteousness. This is of course wrong, as G-d Himself said at the beginning of the story that Job was righteous in all his ways; and besides, innocent people suffer all the time in this world, a point which Job’s friends seemed to have missed.
One more of Job’s friends speaks up, Elihu, but instead of claiming that Job must have sinned in some way in order to suffer, he addresses Job’s attitude in the present. He asserts G-d’s essential righteousness and tells Job that G-d cannot treat anyone wrongly. He addresses Job’s complaints against G-d, and provides answers to those complaints, but unlike Job’s other friends, he never does accuse Job of unrighteousness.
Finally, G-d speaks up, but rather than try to explain Himself, He challenges Job with a series of questions; just as Job had questioned and challenged Him. Of course, Job is completely unable to answer G-d’s questions but, through these questions, G-d demonstrates to Job His omnipotence and His sovereignty, and Job realizes his folly for questioning G-d, and repents. When G-d is done speaking to him, Job responds:
“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:2-6
But G-d did one more very important thing besides question Job, He fully vindicated him. He told the three friends who had accused Job of unrighteousness that they had done wrong; that hey needed to make the appropriate sacrifices in the hope that Job would forgive and pray for them; so they would not be punished for their own folly. Job of course prayed for his friends, and was rewarded with far more wealth than he had before. He was given seven sons, and three daughters who were the most beautiful in all the land, and he saw his children’s children to the fourth generation. (Job 42:12-17)
There are many lessons that can be learned from the Book of Job, but one that stands out for me and is most relevant here is that, according to the scriptures, there is a war going on in the spiritual realm. It is a war between good and evil, between G-d and Satan. The war began when the angel Lucifer, the most beautiful and intelligent of G-d’s creation, let pride enter his heart and determined to make himself god in G-d’s place. One of his strategies is to demonstrate that G-d is not sovereign, that He is a liar, and unfit to be G-d.
As part of this war, Satan enlisted man on his side through cleverness and deception. G-d, out of love for man, developed a plan; His own strategy to win the war, and to win man back. G-d could have made other choices, such as to simply destroy Satan and the angels that followed him, as well as man, and started over; but, what would that have proven? In a creation where G-d has given created beings the ability to choose, brute force solves nothing, and persuasion, diplomacy, and most important, love, are necessary.
Mankind, then, is both a combatant and a battlefield in this war. Satan continues his deception and is constantly trying to create doubt in men’s and women’s hearts and minds about G-d. G-d simply continues to show His love for them, and requires them only to have faith in Him and His plan.
The book of Job teaches many other lessons; one very important one is about our attitude towards those who suffer and how we should treat them. Do we accuse them of sin and unrighteousness, or do we provide them with comfort? Do we tell them that G-d is punishing them, or do we assure them that G-d loves them and cares for them?
Our answers to those questions could very well determine whose side we are on in this great, millenniums long war that we are in.
Revised and republished January 2023.