Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany and Holocaust Memorial Day.
”What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” From Mark 1:21-28.
’If I survive the war… I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on pilgrimage along the via sacra so that they might think and learn about what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.’ David Gillespie, killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.
‘As a five year old, I could stand at the edge of the clearing where the trains were being loaded. People like sardines in those wooden trucks. And the people loading them in – they were railway men, they didn’t look terribly different from the railway men who check my tickets these days – they looked like ordinary people.’
Dr Martin Stern, Holocaust survivor.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is Ordinary People, mindful of those who were perhaps doing ordinary jobs or tasks at the time, people who were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, silent witnesses – and victims themselves.
People such as Henryk Gawkowski, a train conductor who estimated that he had transported about 18,000 Jews to Treblinka concentration camp and said that vodka was the only way to make his job bearable. Or the two hundred Lithuanian railway workers involved in the shooting of more than 60 Jewish men in August 1941, their bodies falling into a pit that had been dug by Russian prisoners of war with noisy motors covering the firing so that it could not be heard by other Jews close by. Or Léon Bronchart, a French railway worker who was made a Righteous Amongst the Nations for helping his Jewish neighbours, hiding a Jew and refusing to drive a train containing political prisoners. These were all ordinary transport workers who responded in different ways to the situation unfolding around them in the horror of the Second World War – see hmd.org.uk for further information. And lest it’s thought that this is all long ago, the case of Irmgard Furchner, 97 and known as ‘the secretary of evil’, has only recently been in the news – she worked in Stutthof concentration camp and was sentenced for her role in facilitating what was unfolding.
This is within living memory, unlike David Gillespie’s reference to what war meant to the silent witnesses on either side in the First World War. Yet, in a letter written shortly before he was killed in 1915, Gillespie wrote of his hopes for a pilgrimage along what he called the via sacra, the way that had become sacred to him through the shedding of the blood of so many who were killed during the warfare. A hundred years later, his hope has been realised, facilitated by those who came after him – the Western Front Way is now a walk of 1,000 km through soil where, for every step taken, ten people had died or been wounded.
Two thousand years earlier, another walked a via sacra, the Via Dolorosa which is sacred to many who follow in the footsteps of Jesus on his journey to a terrible death. Jesus the Jew retained that faith to the end, quoting the Hebrew scriptures when faced with temptation and praying at his death the prayer a practising Jew prays at the end of the day in case they die during the night: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46. Today’s Gospel mentions a challenge to his authority in the synagogue at Capernaum and, when he could have kept silent, Jesus chose to speak out – a man raised in an ordinary human home but one who, through his extraordinary courage and action, links Judaism and Christianity and offers hope that death and betrayal will not have the last word.
Today, ordinary people still face choices which may or may not activate that hope so that extraordinary things may result despite – and perhaps because – of what is unfolding around us. What choices will we make and how might they be extraordinary?
With my prayers; pob bendith,