“Those moments which murdered my God…”
On that September morning, I walked the Krakow cobblestone streets in near-freezing air at 5:30 a.m. to grab a bus to Auschwitz. I had pulled an all-nighter but not by choice.
The reality of visiting that infamous “there.”
I don’t remember the ride but I arrived. The tour guide, a blonde woman in her 50s — speaking perfect English with a thick Polish accent, languid in reciting the blisteringly-morbid data to a dozen tourists who wouldn’t dare utter a word.
I had read the books, watched the documentaries, ingested every frame of Schindler’s list, countless times. But there is something about a place.
As the helpless prisoners arrived, young children, the elderly, and those with illnesses were separated. A guard would point to the left or the right. One direction meant to the “showers,” which pumped deadly Zyklon-B poison gas into the chambers.
I kept my mouth open for hours — a dropped jaw allowed me to cry and breathe, simultaneously, as my nose was plugged. There was something about the ground: the dirt, the cement, the grass, whether inside the gas chamber, along with one of the roads, in the disgusting barracks — “they walked in this ground.”
I should have remembered but I hadn’t — these camps had but one purpose: extermination. If you weren’t shot or gassed it was only so you could work…to keep the killing factory functioning.
The stories of torture, disease, filth, “surgeries” — you can google those if you’d like. I don’t have the stomach right now to repeat them.
A wave of anger — one that I had never felt before, and haven’t felt since — began to arise. The Final Solution — the command to exterminate — was announced on January 20, 1942. Why this anger? Because for nearly 20 years, millions sat silent. Christians. Pastors. Everyday citizens. Sat silent as Hitler attacked the free press, institutions of power, foreigners. Dark-skinned people (he ended up murdering millions of them) — all in the name of making German great.
But Bonhoeffer did. The Lutheran pastor was called “divisive” and “political” for standing against the hatred. He paid the ultimate price at Flossenburg.
The words of Elie Wiesel rang through my crazed mind:
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
Estimates suggest that Nazis murdered 85% of the people sent to Auschwitz. Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million died
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
Today is Holocaust Remembrance day — I will never forget, either. I hope none of us do.
Surrender. You can only do so much.
Sometimes, you’ve gotta let go.
Some things you can change. Some things you can’t.
You can pray.
You can act.
You can raise awareness.
But sometimes, surrender. Because you can only do so much.
The world is full of suffering. Insidious kinds of suffering. I wrote about suffering here.
Atheists use suffering as an argument against the existence of God.
Their logic goes like this:
- If God exists, he must be good
- If he is good, he would not allow needless suffering (like children being locked up in homes with their abusers)
- The world is full of needless suffering
- Therefore, God does not exist
Philosophers call this puzzle the Problem of Evil: Technically, The epistemic question posed by evil is whether the world contains undesirable states of affairs that provide the basis for an argument that makes it unreasonable to believe in the existence of God.
Some suffering is from natural evil — disease and disasters.
The other is due to human evil — things people do to others, bringing physical and emotional (or both) pain.
(As an aside, I’m reading The Book Thief for the first time.)
Humans can’t do anything to prevent natural evil; we can’t prevent earthquakes or tsunamis or tornadoes.
But human evil — physical abuse and rape and verbal abuse and greed — can be stopped.
People have choices. (Though I do hold to a libertarian view of free will, I still, often, find myself afraid that most of our actions are done without decision — we are in autopilot more than we want to believe.)
Even so, human evil is prevalent. (You and I have played our own parts in it.)
When my children were young, one of our prayers before bedtime was the Serenity Prayer. We’d pray it after the Our Father, Glory Be, then Anglican prayer of repentance. Anyway, it’s not really Christian, but it’s a good one: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Acceptance and surrender are the same thing.
The good news is that human evil can be curbed through education, intervention, legal sanction, attending 12-Step meetings.
But even then, you can only do so much. Evil still happens.
Children are still hurting.
I don’t know much about plumbing or civil engineering or heart surgery or geology.
But I know a thing or two about children of neglect, abuse, and abandonment.
I’m living during a time when I sometimes wish that I didn’t.
All over the country, states and counties are scrambling about what to do, given COVID-19.
I sometimes can’t find the words to describe the severity of this crisis. But many are with “writing campaigns.”
Friends, we are talking about children. Three-year olds and seven-year olds and 12-year olds. We don’t know how many, but we do know that close to 500,000 live in the foster care system. Because of neglect, abuse, and abandonment, the circumstances were so dire, that the government had to take them.
Countless have not been reported and are living with their abusers. And given COVID-19 and schools being closed, the reports are harrowing.
Children are dying of child abuse at unprecedented rates. It can be exhausting at times, and very sad. I wrote about it here.
Local and state newspapers are begging for people to become foster parents.
Ironically, this tremendous need was pronounced mostly in the month of May, National Foster Care Awareness Month.
A recent article in The Gainesville Sun titled How You Can Help A Child In Need, the need was stated simply: “Florida needs foster families, and Florida needs them now. Florida needs you.”
I commend the authors for their advocacy. As the President of an international foster care agency, I’d add one line.
Not everybody could be a foster parent, but everybody could make a difference.
Thousands of RFK volunteers around the country and world, are doing just that with “writing campaigns.” Here’s a letter that was recently written by a counselor “Grandma” (many of the children don’t have grandparents). It was delivered to the child who lives in western Massachusetts.
I want to touch her so badly. It’s Mother’s Day, but I can’t.
People have lauded me for the love I have for my mother, Maria Luiga Zeppetella Martin, or “Louise.” They see the all the photos and videos and terms of endearment that I’ve posted on social media since her massive and unexpected hemorrhagic stroke in the evening on August 21, 2015. I wrote about it here.
But I can’t see her today. And I’d be lying if I denied my urge to run past the security guard, the one who sits outside the entrance — one of those kinds who gets to carry a gun — at her skilled nursing facility, just to see that look of joy on her face.
Then she would caress my face.
Later we would sit, and I’d hold her hand.
When one suddenly dies, or in my case, suffers a mentally debilitating stroke, for the first time ever, you appreciate her as you never have. This is loss, defined. In the case of death, the qualities of the loved one exist only in your mind; in the case of mental impairment, you still get to see and touch and listen, but it’s not the same as before.
Not even close.
I haven’t had a conversation with my mother since her stroke.
In addition to Mom, today I think of the millions who have no mother. Or of those estranged from their mothers because of addiction or mental illness. Children in foster care have lost their mothers, temporarily, and oftentimes, permanently.
I relate with them: grief.
My love for my mom is deep. Inside my body. My chest. Real pain — a somatic reality completely different than the emotional pain.
I want to touch her so badly.
Some have said, “Just think about what an amazing woman she was and all the good memories.”
That doesn’t work with me in times like this.
The thing about Mom was that she wasn’t really amazing in the sense of being one of those super-moms. She didn’t care about my grades, as long as I passed my classes. We never took “Mother-Son” trips or have dates or do any of that stuff.
She didn’t care whether I sat on the bench or played quarterback.
Her expectations were simply: help others, respect people, respect the planet.
But she’d always be there. Wearing whatever team pin or t-shirt. And when I finally got up to bat, I’d hear this distinct faint voice, “Go Paul!” And I’d look and you could see the expression that blended smile and joy and pride – her living and loving me, caught up at that moment.
That same faint voice sang flat at every Sunday at mass, or later at the Protestant services. But she’d sing with all her being. And she meant what she sang. You could just tell.
In every season of my life — when I was succeeding and all those times I was failing — she loved me the same.
Mom is gone. The nurses will let us FaceTime with her, but I won’t. It will only confuse her, and I’m almost certain, in spite of her mental fragility, at least possibly, cause her to wonder why I’ve abandoned her.
If she doesn’t see me, she’s not thinking about me.
I want to touch her so badly.
Three mental realities bring a tinge of solace.
First, I am a lucky man to have a mother like Luigia Maria Zeppetella Martin. I was loved, unconditionally, from the time she bore me, to the day I kissed her and told her I loved her and went on vacation. (She had the stroke while I was on vacation.)
Second, I think of the hundreds of thousands of children in the United States (and millions around the world) that either have no mother or have lost them because of neglect and abuse. I work for those children. I’ve been with hundreds. I’m blessed to have that which I…had.
Third, Mom’s real name is Maria. When she immigrated to the U.S. with her family, she didn’t want to be called “Maria” because back in those days Italians weren’t liked much. So her aunt used her middle name, Luiga, and gave it an American twist: Louise.
But I think of the name Maria. And, growing-up Roman Catholic, I think of the respect they have for Maria, Mary, Jesus’ mother.
Mother Teresa was once asked about why Catholics make such a big deal about Mary. She replied, “No Mary, no Jesus.”
Mom’s name in English would have been Mary.
So no Mary, no Paul. No me. That’s the thing about mothers, without them, we wouldn’t be here.
I want to touch her so badly.