|Toblerones in Switzerland (See Postscript below)|
In anticipation of Pope John Paul II’s beatification on Sunday, for table reading in the monastery refectory we are currently listening to The Pope’s Maestro by Sir Gilbert Levine (Jossey-Bass, 2010). In the book, the author—a Brooklyn-born Jew and son-in-law of a Holocaust survivor, recounts his almost two-decade long friendship with Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. The two became acquainted in the 1980s when Levine became conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic. As we know, the Pope (Karol Wojtyla) was Polish and had been Archbishop of Krakow and then Cardinal before being selected Vicar of Christ in 1978.
Tonight we heard of Levine’s first visit to Krakow in 1987. At that time, Poland was still under Communist rule, the vestiges of a horrific world war that began when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded in 1939. As we know, the young Wojtyla was profoundly affected and influenced by the foreign occupation of his homeland and the systematic degradation and murder of many Jewish friends and acquaintances. Even attending Mass was risky business in those days.
In tonight’s reading, Levine kept a promise to his mother-in-law to visit the Nazi extermination camp she had survived—the dreaded Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. More than 1 million men, women, and children from all over occupied Europe, most of them Jews, died in the camp—primarily in gas chambers, but also from disease, starvation, torture, and other unspeakable crimes. Bodies were disposed of in immense brick ovens, spewing the stench of death over the Polish countryside day after day. Truly hell on earth. (As a side note, the most strangely sparse yet harrowing account of the Holocaust I have read is Elie Wiesel’s Night. Its personal account of human madness is utterly sickening, but should be required reading for everyone.)
In The Pope’s Maestro, Levine describes the pall of death that still hovers over what is left of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As he walked through the camp in 1987, he recalls stooping down to scoop up a handful of earth, still riddled with human bone fragments more than 40 years after the war’s end.
No, it is not pleasant table reading, at least at this point. My stomach always curls up when I hear such things. However, no matter how much we all desire peace, we cannot afford to overlook or forget such a horrendous thing. It is simply unimaginable. Hideous. But true. Human beings—God’s children—did this to one another, and not so very long ago. And in many other ways throughout the world to this very day, they still do—we still do.
It may not be happening on the scale of World War II, but it is certainly happening, and ultimately, we all bear some responsibility. We are not isolated beings independent of one another. Quite the contrary, as St. Paul reminds us: “If one part of the body suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1Corinthians 12:26-27).
Although we are still celebrating the joy of Christ’s Resurrection this Easter season, the sober reality is that stark monuments of humanity’s capacity for evil still remain in need of redemption and reconciliation. The promise of our faith is that the Gates of Hell will not prevail. But in the meantime, we have a lot of bulldozing to do.
Pope John Paul II achieved a great deal in this regard, particularly in light of the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. Additionally, much of today’s ecumenical and interreligious dialogue grows from seeds he helped sow and cultivate. As he becomes Blessed (and possibly Saint) Pope John Paul II, let us pray for his continued intercession so that Christ’s peace may truly reign in all hearts, sowing faith, hope, and love througout the world.
POSTSCRIPT: The accompanying photographs have absolutely nothing to do with Levine’s book, Poland, the Holocaust, or the Pope. They are, however, remnants of World War II. I took these pictures in Switzerland last summer. Switzerland was never invaded by the Axis powers, but at one point during the war it was surrounded on all sides, and realistically feared that it would be. Switzerland was neutral in the war, but was ready to defend itself. The fact that neutral Belgium and Norway were invaded demonstrated this very real possibility for the Swiss as well. The objects shown—called toblerones and named after the famous Swiss chocolate bar of the same shape—are huge “concrete teeth” intended to obstruct Nazi tanks. They are covered with steel spikes. Miles of rows of these obstacles were installed throughout Switzerland. When I was at the Abbey of Einsiedeln, I talked to a few of the older monks who distinctly remember how real the threat of invasion was at the time. Some of the toberlones have been removed, but many have intentionally been left in place—reminders that the promise of peace must also be pursued through the love of God. Let us pray...