Poets are witnesses to the trauma of history.
The Holocaust is one of the greatest traumas history has ever known. In order to describe what Hitler tried to do to the Jews – – to wipe them off the face of the planet – – a whole new word was invented: genocide. Recently, I read two books that testify of the authors’ experience of the Holocaust: Elie Wiesel’s Night and Corrie ten Boom’s Tramp for the LORD.
The stories in these books are ones I’ve heard, many times, before I ever read them because these two books, these two people, are two of the most influential in the world. Among educated people, Wiesel is well known; Miroslav Volf, in his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, has called Wiesel a “passionate prophet of memory.” In Christian circles, Corrie ten Boom is well known. Since I was a small girl, I have heard sermons that use examples from the life of Corrie ten Boom to illustrate points about faith, forgiveness, and miracles. Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize. Corrie ten Boom has been recognized by the State of Israel as one of the Righteous among the Nations. Both are survivors of the brutality of concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Their stories are powerful.
Wiesel was a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy who was taken captive and sent to Auschwitz where his mother, his sister, and eventually his father all died. Ten Boom was a fifty-year-old Dutch Christian who first hid the Jews in her house and then was taken captive and sent to Ravensbruch. Her father, brother, nephew, and eventually her sister all died as a result of Nazi cruelty. These two, Wiesel and ten Boom, lived to tell their testimony to the world.
Wiesel has said that he lost his faith in God as a result of his experiences in the Holocaust. Some of his writings now, in his later years, suggest he may have regained some of it. When reading Night, losing faith seems like one of many natural consequences of the experience of such terror, horror, and agony.
But not all faith perished in the Holocaust.
Corrie ten Boom struggled with hate for those who tortured her and her sister, Betsie, but her sister told her she must not hate but love and forgive. Her sister even said, “God showed me that after the war, we must give to the Germans that which they now try to take away from us: our love for Jesus.” And after the Holocaust, Corrie ten Boom returned to Germany and preached this message of love and forgiveness.
In 1947, at one of the meetings where she was preaching in Germany, one of her former guards, one of the most cruel at Ravensbruch, came up to her. He said to her, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, will you forgive me?” And he held out his hand to shake hers. Corrie ten Boom froze.
Silently, she prayed, “Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” For Corrie ten Boom did not feel forgiving; she merely decided she would forgive in that moment. And she said aloud, “I forgive you, brother! With all my heart.” She writes: For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
In this story from Corrie ten Boom’s life, I see the power of forgiveness. I wonder how I, in my own life, can withhold forgiveness from others for the petty long list of things they’ve done to offend me … if Corrie ten Boom can forgive the man who tortured her and her sister in a Nazi concentration camp. I understand why Wiesel lost his faith at fifteen. But I want to be like Corrie ten Boom, a woman of faith, love, and forgiveness in my generation as she was in hers.
Postscript: The reality of the Holocaust has long been in my mind. I’ve read about it, taught about it, and written about it. I feel like a child of Holocaust survivors with vivid postmemories in my soul. In 1999, I wrote a poem called “Identification Card” in honor of Dezso Rosza after I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.. It can be found in my first poetry collection, Sanctuary.
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