Auschwitz Liberation. Holocaust Writings. Elie Wiesel Prayer. Maximilian Kolbe Priest and Martyr. Etty Hillesum prisoner journal entries. Presence of God in the midst of suffering. (May 2022)

Seeming silence of God.  Presence of God in the midst of suffering. 

Elie Wiesel (Holocaust Survivor) Prayer 50 years after Holocaust - truce with God. 
Maximilian Kolbe - Priest and martyr in World War 2. 
Etty Hillesum - Journal entries of prisoner who died in Auschwitz.  

Good evening.  A quiet Sunday evening.  I have just reread writings on seeming silence of God in the midst of suffering.  Instead of waiting until Thursday morning I am going to resend tonight with all of the news and thoughts on the sadness in Texas.  This is a long note compiling three different writings of three who suffered (2 giving their lives) during World War 2.  Elie Wiesel was a child who survived and felt he “lost his faith” after the war.  This note ends with a writing published in the NY Times where he made a truce with God 50 years later.

The following stories and eulogies are of those that suffered and lost so much and yet went on to mentally choose to find life beautiful.  To find hope.  Below I am writing out for you an account from the Auschwitz website on a Polish Priest who stepped in and gave his life so another man with a family could live.  Following this account is the prayer of Ellie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner for his writings and work following the Holocaust written 50 years after his decisions for a disbelief in God for what he experienced.  His prayer is one that asks for a truce with God.  To make up.  To realize he will never understand God’s seeming silence during the Holocaust, but does not want to live any more of his life divorced from the God he does not understand.  A prayer for anyone who has suffered and cannot see God’s involvement in the suffering.  Then ending with a prayer and journal entry from Etty Hillesum, a young girl who kept a journal before her death in Auschwitz at the age of 29.  Bear with me for this long note, but I want to give you all of these words to remember.  To gain again an eternal perspective.  To find the beauty in life.

“Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941.  In order to discourage escapes, if a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz, the Nazis selected ten others to be killed by starvation in retaliation.  On July 1941 a man from Kolbe’s bunker escaped.  The dreadful irony of the story is that the escaped prisoner was later found drowned in a camp latrine, so the terrible reprisals had been exercised without cause.

The ten were selected, including Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for helping the Polish Resistance.  He couldn’t help a cry of anguish.  “My poor wife” he sobbed.  “My poor children!  What will they do?”  When he uttered his cry of dismay, Maximilian stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and stood before the commandment and said, “I am a Catholic priest.  Let me take his place.  I am old.  He has a wife and children.”

Observers believed in horror that the commandant would be angered and would refuse the request, or would order the death of both men.  The commandant remained silent for a moment.  What his thoughts were on being confronted by this brave priest we have no idea.  Amazingly, however, he acceded to the request.  Franciszek Gajowniczek was returned to the ranks, and the priest took his place.

Gajowniczek later recalled, “I could only thank him with my eyes.  I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on.  The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger  Is this some dream?  I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe.  I was saved.  And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this.  The news quickly spread all round the camp.  It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.  For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian.  By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant.  But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise.  Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope.  In fact he was with them to the last.”

Father Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Building 13 along with the other victims and simply left there to starve.  A personal testimony about the way he met death is given by Bruno Borgowiec, one of the few Poles who were assigned to render service to the starvation bunker.  He told it to his parish priest before he died in 1947:  “The ten condemned to death went through terrible days.  From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles.  The man in charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty.  Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents.  Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered.  At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.  Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and they they would all be free.  One of the SS guards remarked this priest is really a great man.  We have never seen anyone like him...”  Two weeks passed in this way.  Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left.  This the authorities felt was too long.  The cell was needed for new victims.  So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner.  Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done.  Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways.  His face was calm and radiant.

So it was that Father Maximilian Kolbe was executed on 14 August, 1941 at the age of forty-seven years, a martyr of charity.  The death certificate, as always made out with German precision, indicates the hour of death 12.30.  Father Kolbe’s body was removed to the crematorium, and without dignity or ceremony was disposed of, like hundreds of thousands who had gone before him and hundreds of thousands more who would follow.

The heroism of Father Kolbe went echoing through Auschwitz.  In that desert of hatred he had sown love.  A survivor Jozef Stemler later recalled:  “In the midst of a brutalization of thought, feeling and words such as had never been known, man indeed became a ravening wolf in his relations with other men.  And into this state of affairs came the heroic self-sacrifice of Father Kolbe.”  Another survivor Jerzy Bielecki declared that Father Kolbe’s death was a “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength...It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of camp.  The cell where Father Kolbe died is now a shrine.  Maximilian Kolbe was beatified as Confessor by Paul VI in 1970, and canonized as Martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1981. 

But what happened to Gajowniczek – the man Father Kolbe saved?  He died on March 13, 1995, at Brzeg in Poland, 95 years old – and 53 years after Kolbe had saved him.  But he was never to forget the ragged monk.  After his release from Auschwitz, Gajowniczek made his way back to his hometown, with the dream of seeing his family again.  He found his wife but his two sons had been killed during the war.  Every year on August 14 he went back to Auschwitz.  He spent the next five decades paying homage to Father Kolbe, honoring the man who died on his behalf.  Father Kolbe’s incredible deed is an inspiration for all mankind.  His life serves as eulogy to the millions who perished in World War II.  He did not leave his legacy as an ode to the past – rather as a beacon of hope to the future.”   (

Elie Wiesel was a prisoner as a young teenager in Auschwitz and Buchenwald where his father died after a beating only three months before liberation in the bunk bed below Elie.  I read his short memoir, Night, each year to my sixth graders and was affected each time reading this account from the memory of a child who experienced all with his father, including what he thought to be a loss of belief in God.  This short book has been printed now in thirty languages.  Elie was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.  His writings over the fifty years before the following prayer were full of questions of God.  Of God’s presence.  Of the reality of God.  This prayer was written in 1997 at the age of 69.  On making up with God after a lifetime of not being able to reconcile the teaching of God’s infinite love with the horror experienced in Auschwitz.

A Prayer for the Days of Awe by Elie Wiesel (prayer 50 years after liberation ready to “make up” with God)

Master of the Universe, let us make up.  It is time.  How long can we go on being angry?

More than 50 years have passed since the nightmare was lifted.  Many things, good and less good, have since happened to those who survived it.  They learned to build on ruins.  Family life was re-created.  Children were born, friendships struck.  They learned to have faith in their surroundings, even in their fellow men and women.  Gratitude has replaced bitterness in their hearts.  No one is as capable of thankfulness as they are.  Thankful to anyone willing to hear their tales and become their ally in the battle against apathy and forgetfulness.  For them every moment is grace.

Oh, they do not forgive the killers and their accomplices, nor should they.  Nor should you, Master of the Universe.  But they no longer look at every passer-by with suspicion.  Nor do they see a dagger in every hand.

Does this mean that the wounds in their soul have healed?  They will never heal.  As long as a spark of the flames of Auschwitz and Treblinka glows in their memory, so long will my joy be incomplete.

What about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?

I now realize I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life.  I don't know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those one reserves for the Sabbath, and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh ha-Shanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz.  Was it because the prayers remained a link to the vanished world of my childhood?

But my faith was no longer pure.  How could it be?  It was filled with anguish rather than fervor, with perplexity more than piety.  In the kingdom of eternal night, on the Days of Awe, which are the Days of Judgment, my traditional prayers were directed to you as well as against you, Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: your absence or your silence?

In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy.  I would not repeat them today.  But I felt them then.  I felt them in every cell of my being.  Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children?  Why were they abandoned by your Creation?  These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty.  Their established culpability is irrelevant to my ''problem'' with you, Master of the Universe.  In my childhood I did not expect much from human beings.  But I expected everything from you.

Where were you, God of kindness, in Auschwitz?  What was going on in heaven, at the celestial tribunal, while your children were marked for humiliation, isolation and death only because they were Jewish?

These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades.  You have vocal defenders, you know.  Many theological answers were given me, such as: ''God is God.  He alone knows what He is doing.  One has no right to question Him or His ways.'' Or: ''Auschwitz was a punishment for European Jewry's sins of assimilation and/or Zionism.'' And: ''Isn't Israel the solution?  Without Auschwitz, there would have been no Israel.''

I reject all these answers.  Auschwitz must and will forever remain a question mark only: it can be conceived neither with God nor without God.  At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you.  After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven.  It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men.  And their aim was to destroy not only us but you as well.  Ought we not to think of your pain, too?  Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven't you also suffered?

As we Jews now enter the High Holidays again, preparing ourselves to pray for a year of peace and happiness for our people and all people, let us make up, Master of the Universe.  In spite of everything that happened?  Yes, in spite.  Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.

Life.  How can we ever begin to understand those four letters?  Beautiful life.  One final prayer and journal entry I will end with from Etty Willesum; from journals found before her death at the age of 29 in Auschwitz.  “You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share out Your beauty with open hands.  My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue.  Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised towards Your Heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.  At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.  I have been terribly tired for several days, but that, too, will pass; things come and go in a deeper rhythm and people must be taught to listen to it, it is the most important thing we have to learn in this life.  I am not challenging You, oh God, my life is one great dialogue with You.  I may never become the great artist I would really like to be, but I am already secure in You, God.  Sometimes I try my hand at turning out small profundities and uncertain short stories, but I always end up with just one single word:  God.  And that says everything and there is no need for anything more.  And all my creative powers are translated into inner dialogues with You; the beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches.”  

Journal entry from Etty Willesum It still all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful.  And I believe in God.  And I want to be there right in the thick of what people call ‘horror’ and still be able to say: life is beautiful.”  And now here I lie in some corner, dizzy and feverish and unable to do a thing.  When I woke up just now I was parched, reached for my glass of water, and grateful for that one sip,, thought to myself, “If I could only be there to give some of those parched thousands just one sip of water.” And all the time I keep telling yourself, “Don’t worry, things aren’t all that bad.”  Whenever yet another poor woman broke down at one of our registration tables, or a hungry child started crying, I would go over to them and stand beside them protectively, arms folded across my chest, force a smile for those huddled, shattered scraps of humanity, and tell myself, “Things aren’t all that bad, they really aren’t that bad.”  And all I did was just stand there, for what else could one do?  Sometimes I might sit down beside someone, put an arm round a shoulder, say very little and just look into their eyes.  Nothing was alien to me, not one single expression of human sorrow.  Everything seemed so familiar, as if I knew it all and had gone through it all before.  People said to me, “You must have nerves of steel to stand up to it.”  I don’t think I have nerves of steel, far from it, but I can certainly stand up to things. I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes. And at the end of each day, there was always the feeling: I love people so much.  Never any bitterness about what was done to them, but always love for those who knew how to bear so much although nothing had prepared them for such burdens.

Thank you for letting me enter your Thursday again this week.  Tonight we will have the opportunity to write our own epitaph.  Will we have words worthy of inscribing in stone?  Moments today that we will no longer have given to us as a gift again.  The winds blow.  Time does not stop.  Yet, will we stop individual grains of sand as they pass through our sand timers?  Notice individual moments?  Notice notes in the song of our life?  Notice beauty?  Notice eyes?  Hear the birds singing?  Find strength in words from books that have affected us.  Take the time to pick up a book and possibly find words that change our lives?  That keep us with an eternal perspective?  Life.  So incredibly beautiful.  Have a beautiful day – thank you for coming into our store for your gifts, for your friendship, for a place to find seclusion from your own stories.  We will have the coffee, the smiles, and authors hiding behind covers – waiting to speak to you.  Susan

Latin for this week:
caelitus mihi vires – My strength is from heaven.
theism – belief in an actively intervening God
reconcilio – to restore, repair, unite, reconcile, to bring together again
fides in Deum – faith in God
sola fide – by faith alone
martyr – one who suffers greatly and/or gives their life for an important cause
vindico – deliver, protect, liberate
liberatus – to set free, deliver

Works Cited:
Hillesum, Etty.  An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.  1996.  Henry Holt and Company.  New York.
Wiesel, Ellie.  Night.  New York.   Hill and Wang.  2006