The other day I realized that the only reoccurring bad dreams I have ever had always seem to include either tornadoes, or Nazis (and sometimes both at the same time). While my feelings about tornadoes are complicated because of my Oklahoma roots – they can be frightening but not always devastating – it’s obviously a much different story with Nazis. When I was a kid I read lots of historical fiction (yes, yes, nerd alert), and a lot of it involved World War II. For me, Nazis represent the worst kind of human evil.
Over the years, I have had the chance to visit two different concentration camps: Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland. Both were sobering, painful, heart-wrenching, and angering experiences, to say the least. While it can seem a little strange and even sick to visit the site of a mass murder, I think George Santayana summarized it best:
“Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It is necessary to feel your heart break in order to remember. Inside some of the buildings at Auschwitz, the faces of the prisoners stare at you out of hundreds of mugshot photos lining the walls – some of them actually in color (!). It’s a chilling reminder that 1945 wasn’t as long ago as you wish it was. The faces, the eyes – they look like faces and eyes you might know. They are uncomfortably familiar.
More than anything, I’ll never, ever forget the rooms full of shoes. One in particular was full of children’s shoes. They were shoes that were obviously worn, shoes that were lived in. You can picture their owners, you can see the scuff marks, broken shoestrings and imprints of little feet. It’s powerfully upsetting.
Outside, you welcome the sting of the cold Polish winter on your face – it helps you catch your breath. It feels a bit like a bad dream, but you know that it’s too visceral to be a dream. As you walk in between the buildings and the old foundations where some of the furnaces once stood, every crunching step along the gravel path seems to sound unnervingly loud beneath your feet. You are conciously aware that not so long ago, other feet made that sound here. Big groups of tourists walk along in huddled groups, strangely silent and perhaps too overwhelmed to speak: crunch, crunch, crunch in the silence.
The calculated mobilization of this kind of hatred and evil is sickening. But it’s even more frightening to consider that it can seemingly be grown and cultivated like a cancer somewhere deep within human hearts – our hearts. Sure, it’s easy to blame and vilify those people – the Nazis, or even terrorists. But what isn’t so easy is to admit to ourselves that, left unchecked, our hearts have the same propensity to become corrupt. Lies can be told, words can be twisted, beliefs can be warped.
Could it ever happen here? I hope not. Today, on the anniversary of September 11th, our nation condemns terrorism. I hope we also condemn the kinds of hatred that breeds it. We must be vigilant, even within our own hearts, examining all of our quiet justifications, motivations, and little white lies. We must be relentlessly courageous in loving, forgiving, and showing mercy- regardless of whether we agree or disagree with a person or group, or whether they have wronged us in the past. Love is like a light that shines on the dark places of our hearts so that we can see things clearly – only by constantly looking through that lens can we prevent the darkness from taking root.