Torn from Home: Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27, 2019

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson at the Holocaust Memorial Evensong on Sunday 27th January 2019, the Fourth of Epiphany.

Last summer I went for the second time in my life to Rwanda. The first time I went there was in 1992, two years before genocide in which more than 1.1 million people were killed within the space of just three months. 2019 therefore marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, and the country faces new challenges as 10,000 genocidaires (as they are called) are released from their 25 year prison sentences and have to find their way back into society. They have to find a home amongst the neighbours who continue to grieve the people they killed.

Last summer I also went to Auschwitz for the second time. The first time I went I vowed to return with my children. 1.1 million people died there between 1940 and 1945, one million of which were Jews. I firmly believe that each generation must know for themselves what a genocide is, and try to comprehend how it can happen. I took my family there because we as a global community don’t appear to be learning the lessons: the Holocaust wasn’t the first genocide it wasn’t the last. Look at what also happened in Dafur, Bosnia, Cambodia and other places.

Not only do we fail to believe what is happening when a genocide is happening, the Holocaust was so terrible that revisionists and deniers continue to threaten our ability to learn lessons from our darkest evil days. I read in the news today that one in 20 people in Britain deny the Holocaust took place, and two-thirds of people don’t believe 6 million Jews were killed. ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts,’ says the Lord, ‘nor are your ways my ways.’

What is evident when you visit Rwanda is that the memory is still there very much influencing everyday life. When you look at someone who is talking about their experiences you can see the pain behind their eyes. There is one story from my time in Rwanda that I just can’t get out of my mind.

Our host, Emmanuel, the Bishop of Byumba, had two children in 1994. As a result of the genocide he and his wife took 3 orphans from his own side of the family, and 4 from his wife’s side. Then they subsequently took in a further 11 unrelated children to give them a home. So his family expanded from 2 children to 20 children. After some time he received a call from social services.

‘Bishop,’ they say, ‘you are the only person we can turn to for help. We have a child that we would like you to adopt. Will you accept another child?’ Emmanuel and his wife could never pass by someone who suffering and needing help. ‘Yes, of course’ he says. Then there is a pause on the line… ‘This child is a little different.’

It turns out that an army helicopter was passing over the forest, and they see a troop of monkeys scuttling away for ground cover. But one of them looks as though it isn’t a normal monkey. Further investigation of this troop of monkeys on the ground reveals that a young boy is part of the group. Obviously ophaned from the genocide he had hid in the forest and been adopted by these animals. The army and social services worked out how to extract him from the wild without harming the troop, and he was adopted by Bishop Emmanuel and his wife, Vicki, to find a home.

At that time he ate like a monkey, walked like a monkey, chattered like a monkey, but he wasn’t a monkey – he is a human being. Slowly he learnt and adapted to what it means to be human and he is now a young man fully adjusted to society.

Being human is what binds us together. No matter what our faith or creed, whether we believe we are made in the image of God or not, our humanity is what is common between us. Germany was a Christian nation but we were deceived enough to let the Holocaust happen in the heart of Europe. Rwanda’s population was more than 80% Christian but the people there were deceived enough to cause a genocide. When genocides happen we lose our humanity… where do we go to regain it?

The examples in Auschwitz of selfless giving are numerous. Such people show their desire for God as expressed in our Psalm and readings is greater than their desire for comfort or pleasure. Perhaps one person stands out. When someone escaped from Auschwitz the guards punished the remaining prisoners by choosing ten at random and put them in a starvation cell to be left to die. On one such occasion amongst the ten who were chosen a man was selected and condemned to die. He cried out, ‘My wife and children!’

On impulse a Franciscan priest, Maximilian Kolbe, shouted out, ‘I will take his place, because he has a wife and children’ Utterly surprised the guard accepted Kolbe’s offer and he was put in the cell with nine others. We visited that underground cell in the camp prison. There isn’t enough room for ten people to lie down. Kolbe led the men in prayers and psalms. He was one of the last survivors as they slowly died of starvation. Guards could not look him the face. His eyes did not convey bitterness, hatred and anger, but forgiveness. Eventually the guards could not bear him to live any longer they killed him with a lethal injection. ‘Blessed are the persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

Maximilian Kolbe shows us that even in the midst of a genocide when SS guards have lost their humanity, there in the midst of such horror, we can also find our humanity. Christians believe that such sacrificial love comes from the divine love of God, who in the person of Jesus demonstrated the willingness to die so that others can live. That same love is what led Bishop Emmanuel to restore a lost child, who was being cared for by animals in the forest, to give him a home, to give him brothers and sisters, and to fulfil his destiny to be human.

As we gather here today to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we do so in unity as human beings. May we never forget the Holocaust, because when we do so, we forget what it means to be human. We give thanks for the likes of people of different faiths, people like Maximillian Kolbe and Emmanuel of Byumba, who demonstrate through their lives in God what it means to love another human being.