Those who cannot remember…

It had been a lush grass field on the outskirts of Gdansk before the war and then it became nearly one square mile of human suffering, mud, blood and shoes.

George Santayana wrote a first volume titled Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason and in it he made a statement that has been quoted and misquoted (more the latter than the former) since he penned it around the turn of the 20th Century. Santayana was born in Spain during the American Civil War and lived in America through the ‘Great War’  and WWII and died while the Korean War was raging. It is a curiosity as to how he would have sided in the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In his book, on page 284 in fact, is the quote: “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps it is appropriate that it is so often misquoted, since Santayana himself turned the phrase of Edmund Burke, a British philosopher who would have been about fifty years old at the time of the American Revolution. Burke was first to write: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” There is a slight turn of phrase, not remembering the past as compared to not knowing history. I don’t think the two are inter-changeable particularly in this instance. Not knowing seems to indicate and ignorance of or indifference toward history. Not remembering the past has different  variables such as physically being unable to recall or being negligent in initially retaining the information.

Memories can be fickle things; clear one moment and as a wisp of air, gone the next. We can come to a point where we are not sure if our memories are actual records of events as they were or as we think they might have been. They may even be simply as we were told they were so repeatedly. I prefer to know something rather than remember it. One is solid the other vapor. Often, as I have left places, particularly in the Balkans or Eastern Europe; I have prayed that God would not permit me to forget what I have seen. I took to writing a travel log of sorts for my Balkan memories. It helps me to know my history there.

My very first visit to a “Concentration Camp”, better understood as Death Camps, this one,  Stutthof, is in Gdańsk Poland and was run by Hitler’s SS (secret police) rather than like the prisoner of war camps run by the Luftwaffe (air force). Each was horrific in their own ways. This, the first camp built outside of Germany was near the town of Skopje where Hitler kept a residence in the early part of the war following the Blitzkrieg of Poland. It was first run by the local chief of police from 1937 to 39 when in September it was transformed to a deportation center and  a re-education camp by the SS. Eventually, Stutthof  had some of the most brutal female guards in Third Reich (perhaps world) history.

There is mostly pristine grass fields and woodlands there now, just a couple of buildings and a gate to let you know where you are. A small memorial stands solemnly to the victims of this Satan’s lair. I trust I will not forget the shoes of Skopje. Taken from prisoners after their death, they are all sizes; many of them are women’s and children’s shoes, even tiny pinkish slippers the size for a toddler. One building houses nothing but the largest pile of discarded shoes I ever expect to see. Other than a small area for visitors to stand, the pile of shoes fills the building. In the center of the long building, the pile of shoes stands as a silent memorial from the floor to the ceiling. Estimates of the number murdered there are around 100,000 but most historians believe that to be a low number because those sent during the  final solution for immediate execution were never registered. Two things stand out in my mind. The first the most horrific, I think, that a small factory near the camp made soap from human bodies. How can one human being do that to another? The other is this solitary hangman’s post. The center of the camp as it is today in the background, the image is stark against the quiet backdrop. But not so in the days of Stutthof. Graphic images from the days of its liberation in May 1945 should be viewed by those determined not to forget, but to know history so we do not repeat it. Hangman's noose Stutthof Nazi Death Camp Gdansk Poland

On the door frame of my home is a small olive wood box from Jerusalem with an inscription on the front depicting Romans 11. The passage describes new believers as grafted in to the tree that began as the Nation of Israel. Inside the small box is a scroll on which is the Shema passage that God instructed the Israelites to know and to pass down to the generations that followed them. They were to place them on their door posts and speak of them in their goings and comings, in their sitting down and rising up. Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. I do not keep it there because of the commandment given to the Israelites in the days of Moses; I keep it there so I will not only remember, I will know. As I go out and as I come in, I am reminded again who is the reason for my hope.

We, as a people and particularly as Americans, need to know our history. We need to be reminded of why this country was founded and upon what and who it was founded. Do not ever say that what happened beginning in Gdańsk, Poland can never happen here. Remember, the first kommandant was the chief of police of the city whose full name was The Free City of GdańskI do not believe that on one day the chief of police just woke up and said, ‘today I will start imprisoning my friends and neighbors.’  Records indicate that, before the camp began in 1937, that since at least 1936 the SS had been secretly creating dossiers on the locals. They gathered information on political enemies of the government. We must also remember that Adolf Hitler was elected to office. 

Look past the hangman’s post and see the fresh grass growing green and new. It had been a lush grass field on the outskirts of Gdańsk before the war and then it became nearly one square mile of human suffering, mud, blood and shoes. Then, it became fresh, green and growing grass again. Gdańsk did not have to endure that interlude. Somewhere in the line of events, someone, some one, could have stood up and said No! Once it began, many tried to say, No, and they paid for it with their lives. But before that power was in place, somebody had the chance to say No! but they didn’t.

Sociologists and historians give us lots of reasons that Hitler was able to be elected and able to change his job title from Reich Chancellor of Germany  to Führer (father). We do know that a group of conservatives who understood the threats Hitler posed were loyal to President-for life Hindenburg. One, a vice-chancellor (Franz Von Papen) almost convinced Hindenburg to return the country to a constitutional monarchy. Hindenburg himself, dying at the age of 87 told Von Papen “…things are going badly, see what you can do.” Von Papen urged Hindenburg to put the declaration in his will that the country was to be returned to a constitutionally based monarchy. Rather than put it in his will, Hindenburg put the decree in a personal letter to Adolf Hitler. I wonder what Santayana thought.

I will leave you with this: first, there is hope… His Name is Jesus. Second, those who are unable to remember history must know history and be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep our society from repeating it.

 

extermination

Dr. Ross L. Riggs Ministry Minute 29 April 2012 http://www.docriggs.com


The sun was as bright as we had seen it and the sky as blue as we had experienced since arriving in the northern city of Sopot, Poland the week before. This day was the 28th of April 2012, a date of no particular importance until mid-way through our day. It was with mixed emotions that I had asked our host to indulge our request to visit a Nazis death camp not too far from the town. The camp was named Stutthof, which was one that was not particularly familiar to me, even as a student of history.
I soon learned that Stutthof was the first concentration camp in Poland used by the Nazis to house prisoners of a political nature, the teachers, professors, doctors, the best and the brightest from the early years of the Poland calmpaign. Hitler had begun his invasion of Poland in the port ciy of Gdansk and it was in the Grand Hotel of Sopot that he kept his offices. It was not long, though, before ‘concentration’ camps were replaced in their methodology by ‘extermination camps’ with Stutthof as the principle camp, feeding other camps and directing the final solution.
In stark contrast to the sign over the Aushwitz gate that proclaimed “Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Makes One Free” the sign below at Stutthof, “Extermination through Work” declared no such reason for hope. Much has been written about life (death) in the camps; some of the most moving by survivors themselves. To quote American President, Abraham Lincoln, as he was taken aback by the sites of Gettysburg, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

The brave who struggled at Stutthof included women and children too, of all ages. I cannot, by my words, add to what was accomplished by the 65,000 murdered at Stutthof and over double the number that went through there, most transferred to other camps.

The emphasis of the 28 April date became clear from a sign within the unit which described the medical mal-treatment and surgical experimentation that was done without anesthesia nor any method to fight infection. Our visit on 28 April was seventy years exactly from the date when a new commander was brought to the camp with some fanfare; who would serve until the camp’s liberation.

Houpsturmfuhrer

A side note, other Nazis SS that held the rank of Haupsturmfuhrer included Joseph Mengele, the butcher and Klaus Barbie the Gestapo Chief of Lyon. It was yet another indication of the barbaric nature of the treatment of all who came into the death grip of the Gestapo.

Dehumanization of the prisoners kept them at bay while it also ‘vindicated’ the men who followed orders, in their own minds, if they could see these fellow human beings as less than dogs. The sunshine, blue skies, green fields with wild flowers growing where once men, women and children huddled together dying of disease, starvation and abuse seemed God’s way of reclaiming this part of His creation. If tortured human souls could haunt their last abode of earth’s plateau, it would be in a place like this. God’s Word tells us though that souls departed from the body are either with the Lord or in Gahanna awaiting future judgment. It follows, though that the demonic forces that once worked their evil would enjoy such a place as this if God does not chose to prevent their return. I would caution any believer when visiting a place of any such atrocity to bathe the visit and themselves in prayer, before, during and after the visit. Protection from the evil one is always a good plea to make before the Throne of Grace.

The purpose here, however, is first to remind folks that, regardless of the lunacy around Holocaust denials, it did happen and civilization must remember through the stories and the faces of the heroes, both living and dead. It must be remembered through visits such as this one and the short narratives of those who chose to write about them. Jesus Christ proclaims the antithesis of Auschwitz, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32)