My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Europe. We had the very somber visit to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. As we drove through the Polish countryside towards the camp we listened to a reading of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, was a inmate at Auschwitz briefly before being transferred to Dachau. He describes the psychology of the prisoners of the camp and the depths of the depravity experienced at the camps. As we walked through Auschwitz, including the one remaining gas chamber, I could not help but weep. A thick cloud of death and darkness still hangs over that place.
We stood on the train platform where an SS Doctor would wave his hand at each incoming prisoner – men, women, and children who had traveled for many days in an unopened box packed so tight most had to remain standing – with no food or water. Those motioned to the left became a prisoner, those to the right were sent straight to the gas chambers. Women with small children were sent to the right. I would have been gassed with my five small children.
How was evil on such a scale able to thrive a mere 70 years ago? Is it concealed in my own heart? What am I capable of? Dr. Jordan Peterson reminds us that we should not so quickly assume we would have been one of the good guys. We need to place ourselves in the role of perpetrator, to come face to face with our own dark “shadow”, if we want to prevent its realization. Perhaps we can honestly conclude we could never be an SS guard beating a pregnant woman. Would we instead have just accepted evil as the “way things are”? Many German and Soviet citizens had full knowledge of the atrocities occurring in their society. As I visited Auschwitz, I had these ideas in my heart and mind. I wanted to attempt to go into the darkness and see the reality of my own corrupt potential.
Despite having read several books on the Holocaust and feeling prepared for the experience, I found I had been naive. I was absolutely horrified as I walked the grounds of Auschwitz, feeling the horror of what happened there. I was unable to believe myself capable of the brutality of the guards, doctors, and even many head prisoners or “Kapos”. As we concluded our visit I still could not “relate” to the depravity perpetrated there. However, as we were leaving I had a very profound and awful encounter. I was outside the Birkenau camp and looking at some images at the Visitors Center. I walked up to one seemingly innocuous image, as my gaze fixed upon it I involuntarily burst into tears, a dark sense of guilt overwhelming me. Even as I write this I can’t help but cry. A starving man lying on the street in the Warsaw Ghetto. He appears to be actively dying. A young woman walking leisurely by, with two young Nazi soldiers. She is turned towards her friends, chatting and laughing as she walks over the feet of the dying man. She does not even acknowledge the man at her feet. The guilt that enveloped me testified to me this fact: that woman is me. She represents what is most near my own potential evil. Since that time, I have been attempting, in my own mind, to unpack this realization. However, my own personal admissions will likely take time. I would like to share some of my ponderings and realizations.
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Preventing Atrocity by My Own Hand
For me, as a mother, I desperately want to discover how to prevent my own soul, and the souls of my children, from ever becoming that dark. I want to be able to say with absolute certainty I would NEVER mindlessly walk over the feet of a starving man. I have heard it said, it is relatively simple to understand what drives men to evil acts, what is less apparent is what drives men to goodness, despite the evil around them.
As we walked through Auschwitz we heard the story of a priest, Father Maximilian Kolbe. I remembered the story from my childhood, my father used to tell it to us. At Auschwitz, the inmates were lined-up after the escape of prisoner. To intimate against future escape attempts, the guards randomly selected ten men to be sent to the starvation cells. They would be crammed in a tiny cell and be given no food or water, dying a slow and agonizing death. One man pleaded for his life, for the sake of his wife and children. Father Kolbe quickly and courageously walked to the commander and volunteered to take the place of the young man and die of starvation. He died two weeks later.
I tend to be a logical person. I think things out and make decisions based on what is most rational. Was this a rational choice? I likely would have reasoned – “This camp is going to kill him eventually anyway, so what is the point?”, “They would never allow me to take his place, and will just send us both for my insolence.” Rationality does not always lead to righteousness. Father Kolbe had a higher reason, he knew this young man was his brother. He knew he would see him someday on the other side. He knew he could not stand by when atrocities were committed. He knew that in losing his life, he would save it. (For me this story illustrates something I have thought a lot about and hope to extrapolate on in a future post – despite what some claim about building a moral society through reason – I see the hopelessness in attempting to form a “good” society based on rational or logical thought. Goodness is very often irrational and Evil is often rationalized).
How can I do my part in raising the next generation of Father Kolbe’s? Especially in light of the evil in my own heart. How can I become a woman capable of a sacrifice like his? Where does that strength come from? The ultimate strength of accepting death rather than sacrificing your integrity. It is unlikely we will pushed to such extremes. However, in analyzing the extremes we are able to discover the source of light we need to overcome the daily temptations that tilt us towards evil.
Jordan Peterson describes how evil was able to thrive in Nazi Germany and the Soviet state due to a society built on deceit. A society of everyday people consistently and collectively stepping off the path of truth and “swallowing lies” until the society degenerated. (start 1:23:40)
Jordan Peterson’s rule of “Speak the Truth, Or at Least Don’t Lie” has been very impactful for me. My goal is to achieve complete honesty. Complete. The problem with the often-justified “white lies” is they are often simply an attempt to make ourselves look better in the eyes of others – and that is a very slippery slope. I think white lies are actually the best place for me to start in tackling my own deceit. Since I have started avoiding white lies I have noticed how manipulative I actually was. For example, a friend once asked me to go out for a girl’s night out dinner. Usually I prefer unwinding at home with my husband rather than going out. I lied and said my kids were not feeling well. I now realize that by making up an excuse I was hiding my own desires and true identity. I wanted to avoid conflict or judgment, I wanted to project a false version of myself, one that would love to go out with her but was selflessly taking care of my children. I should have simply explained that I like to just be with my husband since I don’t see him very much. My friend could have chosen to be offended, or she could have seen me more clearly, we could have begun to open up reality just a bit.
I see so many lies accepted as truth in our society. Modern art being one that comes to mind. Does anyone really find that can of Campbell’s soup beautiful or compelling? People don’t like to admit their true opinions or desires for fear of the perception of others. If that is our biggest fear – the perception of others – we are one BIG step closer to being a perpetrator. If your ultimate authority is God then the perception of others ceases to be of true importance. All your actions are weighed against the ideal – and your own ultimate potential. If you see yourself as a being of eternal significance you can easily sacrifice yourself for your young fellow prisoner, to do otherwise is much more dangerous.
Courage to Stand Alone
In our modern day there is an excess of fake outrage and self-righteous judgment for those who don’t fall in line with prevailing, or even faddish, perceptions of what is right. Courage is in great demand. Standing up against the rising tide of ideology is absolutely critical if we want to prevent the same kind of mass-acceptance of atrocity that we saw a mere 70 years ago. We have to be courageous, we have to teach or children to rebel against dishonesty and group-think. I hope to live a life facing each individual as a child of God, someone with as much potential and worth as myself- even those who may be my victimizer. Without that belief, I simply do not see how destructive ideologies will not take hold. You can rationalize all sorts of cruelty if you do not have an underlying belief in the worth of souls.
There is a certain amount of courage required in admitting own own prejudices and hatreds. We all have them. Who do we see as “the other”? To the Nazis it was then non-Aryan. Who is for me? Who do I hold a little less compassion for? With my logical brain, who do I think is to blame for their own suffering? If instead I refuse to see people as a group or an idea but as beings of individual worth- the chance of me walking over their dying body in the street lessens. To that woman, that man was just a Jew, a subhuman who deserved what he was getting and was unworthy of her compassion. There was no chance of guilt or introspection because her decision of his worth was made before she ever saw him. Enveloped in Nazi society, would that be my attitude as well? This is why today’s identity politics is shockingly destructive. Placing people into groups eases the burden of individual responsibility for those in the group, however it also makes it easier to assign blame to a faceless group entity. Each interaction we have needs to be with the unique individual- one of infinite worth- this is what has made the West the most compassionate society in the history of the world. Why are we voluntarily undoing the progressive enlightening, spanning thousands of years, towards individualism, and instead re-forming into groups?! Could it be that when we strip away our belief that we are unique children of an Almighty God with free will and responsibility, we lose our ability to stand alone.
Meaning as the Motivation for Survival
As well as imagining myself as the victimizer, I found myself picturing myself as victim. Frankl explains that we should not be naive enough to believe all the prisoners, innocent though they were, handled the situation with similar strength. He said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” The conditions in the concentration camps pushed the prisoners to the edge of human limitation and beyond. Judgment on the “proper” behavior of concentration camp inmates is not appropriate as no man can conceive the psychological and physical stress individual inmates experienced. However, Frankl does emphasize that those prisoners who were able to maintain some sense of meaning to their lives were often able to survive longer and maintain their sense of self. Maintaining a sense of meaning was nearly impossible in the face of the reality of the death of all your loved ones, your current torture, starvation, and death at any moment. However, Frankl says that if he could get this fellow prisoner to think of even one small potential source of good they could do in the future – it was enough to help revive their hope and a sense of dignity amidst constant deprivation. One man in the camp held on to the purpose of finishing an unfinished scientific paper. One had a son who may yet be alive and would depend on him.
Meaning as the Motivation for Evil
Now, one can argue that the Nazis were able to achieve so much evil because they were also driven by meaning. Their goal, to eradicate all “inferior” races for the greater good of the world, was meaningful enough to command their total obedience and even the sacrifice of their lives. The Soviets deep meaning was to achieve a communal utopia. All the atrocities committed were simply necessary byproducts in achieving these meaningful goals. So is living a “meaningful life” really the key to hope and avoiding atrocity? JBP speaks about the importance of finding “your meaning” or “your ideal”. I disagree with that phrasing; I believe Nazis were also working towards “their ideal”.
There is ONE ideal and ONE source of goodness – or there is none. Any meaning that is not aligned with “The” ideal is tilting towards evil. That ideal is the “light that shineth in the darkness, which the darkness does not overcome.” So how do we know if our meaning is good or evil? Through examining the requirements of achievement we can see if the meaning is pure: truth, courage, and faith. The one true ideal NEVER requires deceit to achieve. It NEVER requires the sacrifice of anyone but our own selves. The strength required to pursue the true ideal does not come from wealth, power, or the glory of others, it comes from God and the light His goodness brings to our lives.
(Update: In a recent Q&A Jordan Peterson’s position seemed more in-line with my own on meaning. Either he has changed in his thinking or I misconstrued his previous statements, but his answer is worth the listen. Start at 55:32)
Preventing the Duping of Innocents
How do I help my children avoid the same fate of many German youth – subscribing to the evil ideology of their society? Many Nazi youth were simply following the crowd. They believed this must be right as it seemed to be the majority view. They feared the ridicule of their peers if they questioned. They accepted lies despite internal warnings of deceit. In today’s confused world, where darkness is often seen as light, our children need a clear picture of what true meaning and goodness look like. It doesn’t include likes on an Instagram post, or marching anonymously in group protest, or bullying the “intolerant” or “outsider”. We need to teach our children to question the “majority view”, to realize the pathology of the crowd, and to heed their internal warnings of conscious.
Faith – A Step Towards Goodness
I want my children to become leaders, not followers. If I can help children find true meaning it can transcend the necessity for acceptance by their peers – which often requires a loosening of integrity. They can courageously stand up for the truth in the midst of great mockery or shame because they are heeding a higher call. Sharing the stories of faith of great men and women in the most extreme conditions of Nazi Germany – like Father Kolby, or Fredrick Bonhoeffer, or Corrie ten Boom, will give them perspective in a world of temptation and distraction.
I believe that image of the starving man and apathetic woman haunts me because it points to my own personal darkness. That is who I would be if I did not resist it with every fiber of my being. I believe I would rationalize the suffering around me so I do not have to feel it. I would tell little lies to avoid my own condemnation by others. I would try and feel righteous in my own place – knowing the suffering of others was their own doing or for the greater good.
So how do I not become that woman? How do I become a woman who, in any circumstance, would stop and help that man? I think I still have a lot of pondering to do, but what I do know is that if I put my trust in “the world” I will descend to my evil self. We finished our travels at the magnificent symbol of Christian sacrifice, Canterbury Cathedral. This was the setting of the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Beckett, a man willing to stand against his former friend and ruler, Henry II. As I wandered the Cathedral, continually pondering my own darkness, I came upon a powerful inscription. It said simply, “True Christians always have, and always will, follow the call to be the light in the darkness”.
As a Christian, I look to Christ of the ultimate example of someone who in the time of greatest trial was able to face the darkness and prove Himself the ultimate good. The Creator of the world was voluntarily beaten and spit upon. He truthfully and courageously declared himself Savior before men who would have him tortured and killed for the statement. He sacrificed Himself so no one else need suffer. His life stands as a testament to the fact that goodness can stand against, and eventually overcome, the greatest temptation and evil. He stated, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” John 8:12. He is the light that brings justice and mercy to each individual imperfect soul. And because of this, perhaps there is hope for mine.
Postscript: I understand that many of our readers are not Christian. I try and be considerate of that in my writing, while staying true to my own experiences, beliefs, and knowledge. However, there are times where the final answer is only to be found in one place, or there is no answer at all.
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8 thoughts on “Confronting My Shadow at Auschwitz”
Keep up the excellent work. You are amazing. Thank you for this.
This is was very well said, and thank you for your boldness in writing it.
Have you ever read MacDonald’s Phantastes? There is a scene near the end where the main character Anodos and his companion Sir Percival happen upon a religious ritual taking place in the forest. It has all the hallmarks of being holy; Sr Percival is convinced by the solemnity and devotion of the people that something just and righteous must be taking place. (Without giving too much away…he is wrong.) His naïveté during that encounter is something I think about frequently. Earlier in the book, we meet him just after he has slain a dragon. He is completely capable of identifying obvious evil. But the hidden (and far more terrifying) evil he is unable to correctly see. You are right in saying it is not enough to say something is good simply because we (or others) consider it “meaningful” or our “ideal”. There has to be another form of measure.
Erin, I am reading MacDonald’s Hope of the Gospel and I love him so far. My sister has been a big fan of his for a long time and I am now getting into him. I will put Phantastes on the list for next. It is interesting that we are capable of resisting obvious evil but can “nickle and dime” our way to “Hell”.
Always like reading your thoughts Allyson! I really liked this part “There is ONE ideal and ONE source of goodness – or there is none. Any meaning that is not aligned with the one ideal is tilting towards evil. That ideal is the ‘light that shineth in the darkness, which the darkness does not overcome.'”
Bravo. Very thought provoking. Keep these coming.
Thank you so much for writing this! After reading The 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson earlier this year, I have been plagued by the same questions that you reflected on, especially in light of my motherhood, raising up my children in goodness and truth, and confronting my own sinful habits. It so hard to grapped with, and there are very few people to discuss it with, since many don’t even want to come near the subject of systematic evil and how it relates to us. But it does. Thank you again.
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