Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Tonight at the seminary we had a Holocaust Remembrance Prayer Service. It began with a silent procession, followed by songs in Hebrew and from the Book of Psalms. Following the prayers an elderly priest rose to address the seminarians, his name was Father Joseph and he was Dutch. Quietly and humbly he told his story of being a child in the Netherlands during World War II. He spoke vividly about the first day the planes flew over his small town, and the subsequent fake battles he and his friends played later that day, the "Dutch vs. the Germans." The Dutch won brilliantly in his backyard but in reality the invasion had started and they were getting destroyed. He spoke of how the next day at school there were many empty desks from his classmates that had been killed. He was ten and did not fully understand. He then went on to tell the story of how a group of Dutch Catholics, including his parents, had helped to hide a neighborhood Jewish family during the War. With the help of his parish priest a small group of families united, at risk of immediate death if they were caught, to protect a family. Local farmers gave up their food ration cards so that the family could eat. The ration cards were collected at a local pub and hidden carefully. Father had elderly neighbors who hid the family in their house, as he had 13 siblings who would have certainly said something by mistake if the Jewish family was hiding in their home. His parents helped to organize and hide their Jewish friends for years. Father Joseph would drive for miles on his bike each week with food coupons hidden under his clothes so that the family could live. Had he been caught, even at ten, he would have been shot on the spot.
Toward the end of the prayer service Father Joseph shared with us a powerful story from "Night," a brilliant memoir on the holocaust. It tells the story of the Holocaust, in particular life in concentration camps. In particular it shares a haunting scene the day after several people had escaped from the concentration camp. The Germans guards, in order to make a point, randomly picked 12 people to execute as payback for the fact that some had escaped the camp. 11 men and one teenager were subsequently hung on the main yard, in front of everyone. The 11 men died quickly as they were older, weighed more and thus the hanging and strangulation went faster. The teenager did not die right away and struggled as he was too light for the strangulation caused by hanging to work quickly. As the people in the camp stood and watched in horror the young boy struggled to breath, but not dying. As time went on the suffering continued and the people stood in horror. Before their eyes were eleven dead men and one boy who would not die quickly. Then someone in the back of the crowd yelled, while referring to the boy's suffering, "where is God now?" Moments of silence ensued and another voice replied "He is there hanging on that rope."
Father Joseph, with a broken voice and tear filled eyes said "perhaps there is another answer, perhaps God was there in people like my parents."
and then the frail and elderly priest sat down.
Let us never forget the past and let us never be too afraid to fight injustice.
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