Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

Peace Found in Discussion

Rev Brian Anderson






More reflections, following on from my first blog, here I find my own memories of growing up in Northern Ireland triggered by the words of others journeying beside me at this workshop.

It was a very humbling session to sit and listen to Hanna Ulatowska, an Auschwitz survivor. She told the story of living three years in the Warsaw Ghetto and how as a young girl she saw people murdered at her school. Hanna said, after long reflection, by the time she arrived at the camp, aged 11, she was lost all feelings. She and surviving family members managed a rare escape as they were hidden by a compassionate local family until the camp was liberated by the Russian Army. She is now a professor in the University of Texas working in the area of memory and how it effects the present, asking “what is it we pass on to the future generation of the past?”

As she spoke a memory of my own was triggered “ I vividly remembered the place and moment when at the age 8 it was announced that the “B” Specials were disbanded. They were a reserve police force, exclusively Protestant and perceived as protectors of unionist communities. I remembered my mother and other neighbours fearfully talking of our neighbourhoods being at a greater risk of IRA attacks. The distant shadow still falls.

Hannah, told us we all live with past trauma’s, some more profound than others, some personal and some national but she discovered that only by doing good that her healing started. It was a choice to fall under the trauma or rise with it to create a better future. She saw her work with memory being her way in which to do good. Hanna shared how she had learnt about doing good even in the camp. She reflected that the other prisoners had empathy and at Christmas time she got extra rations from others. She never forgot what others gave to her. In that extreme trauma the doing of good from one to other helped both survive. 

The programme had a session to listen to a number of countries reflect on the Holocaust. The Polish sense of victimhood from many of their neighbours, the German sense of regret and guilt. The Russian speaker told of a changing perspective in her country where the trauma of the past is now being discussed and that previous silences are being broken. She finished her presentation with ‘LOVE LEADS TO TRUTH; TRUTH LEADS TO LOVE. But that led to tensions in the room, particularly when Estonia and the Ukraine added their views on Auschwitz and their relationship with present day Russia. I watched as people, who had difference of understanding gathered together for walks and discussion. History is facts, interpretation of these creates difference but it is only in discussion can we find peace.

At the end of this national perspective conversation Marta from Poland shared with us the 1965 letter of reconciliation sent by the Polish Bishops to their German counterparts. In it was the phrase “we forgive you and ask for your forgiveness” it was a way of beginning a dialogue between the churches and the state on the subject of reconciliation. It was a courageous act. It was Richard Rohr who said “if you are going to build bridges, then you will get walked over” or John Paul Lederach’s challenge to leaders “ you have never really engaged in the work of reconciliation until your own people feel that you have betrayed them.”

On the final day of the workshop we returned to Birkenau. There we engaged in a series of mediations. 

In the foreword we read “in Auschwitz believing is always a struggle for faith. Here our faith in God becomes a search for God which incessantly leads to the question: My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt:27–46). In Auschwitz it is not possible to pray any other way. 

In silence the group walked slowly around the murder camp, stopping at the railway line or the destroyed gas chambers, to the lake were ashes were scattered and finally back to the entrance of the camp. There our leader, Manfred, asked us to look over the vast spread of the camp, look at the chimneys of the kitchens, what is left of houses, to think about what happened here and to hold hands; hands from across Europe and then listen to these words:

“Then he said to me, ‘Prophecy to these bones .. and as I prophesied to the bones, there was a noise… and the bones came together, bone to bone,{…} Then he said to me “prophecy to the breath {..} So I prophesied as he had commanded me, and breath entered them: they came to life and stood on their feet– a vast army…. I will open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirt in you and you will live. I will settle you in your own land.

The grave cannot have the last word, neither can death. Out of the remains of the bones of Auschwitz, new life must arise. It must be a place that helps the world be aware of the dignity of each individual, a place that calls us to our great responsibility to be peacemakers. Just as once people were transported to death in Auschwitz from all over Europe, so we were transported away from that place convinced again of the need for us to be courageous and committed to the work of peace, reconciliation and solidarity.