Something very strange happens when people face an imminent threat to life and livelihood. The strange thing is unity such as would never have been possible otherwise. History provides countless examples, such as the defense of New Orleans in January 1815. When a veteran British force attacked the city, an odd assortment of people turned out to defend their home. They included Regular soldiers of the American army under Major General Andrew Jackson, as well as Creole gentlemen and their American merchant rivals, common laborers, farmers, militia men from far away states, black slaves and free men, and even pirates and smugglers affiliated with the infamous Jean Lafitte. Once the threat was past, these disparate segments of society returned to their separate lives and the circumstances that divided them, but for one glorious moment they experienced the joy of being a people united in a common cause.
We might consider as well the example of our Jewish brethren in World War II. Immediately before the war, an Arab revolt in British Palestine compelled His Majesty’s government to issue a White Paper in 1939 which closed the door on Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. This was a political and military necessity for the British; another Arab revolt would threaten their hold on Egypt, their link to India and the Pacific, and the lifeline of the Empire. When faced with war against Hitler’s Germany, Great Britain could not afford to lose that lifeline, and thus European Jews in peril of their lives in the Shoa (Holocaust) lost their last and best chance at escape from the death camps.
One might suppose the Jewish response to the White Paper – particularly among those living in the Land – would be violent rejection and revolt. Some did respond that way, but the most memorable response was by David Ben Gurion, at that time among the most prominent leaders of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish settlers in the Land. He expressed his position this way:
Ben Gurion’s pragmatism was instrumental in establishment of the Jewish Brigade, the only regular military unit of any Allied army in World War II comprised entirely of Jews. The Jewish Brigade served with distinction in the British forces in Egypt, Italy, and Northwest Europe, and it also served as a training ground for Jewish warriors who carried the fight for Israel’s independence after the British Mandate over Palestine ended in 1948.
What does it matter to the world if the President of the United States decrees a change to the name of North America’s highest mountain peak? Perhaps it is merely a tempest in a teapot, ultimately signifying nothing of importance. Or perhaps it is far more significant than we may imagine.
For 98 years Americans have referred to the highest mountain on the continent as Mount McKinley. It is not the original name of the mountain. Since time immemorial the Athabaskan people of Alaska have named it Denali, which means Great One in their language. In 1896, a gold prospector in Alaska attached the name McKinley to the mountain, thus declaring support for William McKinley of Ohio, the man who would be elected as the twenty-fifth President of the United States later that year. Since then a controversy has bubbled along regarding the name of the peak, with native Alaskans asserting the original name, and most other Americans who bothered to think about it going along with McKinley. In 1975, the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the United States Government change the name. The name of the national park over which the mountain presides was renamed Denali in 1980, but the mountain itself retained the name of McKinley.
Until now, that is. The administration of President Barrack Obama has announced that the President will use the occasion of his visit to Alaska to bring an end to the dispute and rename the mountain Denali. Alaskans and many others applaud the change, but others have denounced it, particularly the Congressional delegation from McKinley’s home state. Ironically, the entire Alaskan Congressional delegation and most of the Ohio delegation are Republicans, a fact that renders meaningless any charges that this is a political decision by President Obama, a Democrat. Yet it is political, as is everything that a sitting president does. And it is also prophetic.
About the time that Gideon of Manasseh delivered Israel from oppression of the Midianites and Amalekites (Judges 6:1-8:35), a war of (literally) epic proportions took place on the northwest coast of what is now Turkey. The Trojan War really did happen, but the conflict was already wrapped in myth and legend when a Greek poet known only as Homer published The Iliad sometime around 750 BCE, four centuries after the war’s generally accepted dates of 1194-1184 BCE. Homer’s epic inspired a number of classical works telling the tales of the Greeks and Trojans, including a sequel published in Latin seven hundred years later. When the Roman poet Virgil wrote The Aeneid, he probably had a political agenda in mind. His story is that of Aeneas, a Trojan hero of the royal family who escaped the destruction of the city and led a band of refugees in a journey that eventually resulted in their settlement at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy. There they became part of the story of Rome, a city which began as a colony of Alba Longa, the capital of the new kingdom Aeneas and his descendants founded. Thus Rome could trace its origins at least in part to Troy. More importantly, the family of Julius Caesar traced its genealogy to Aeneas, giving it a claim to royalty that helped Caesar’s nephew Octavian consolidate his power as Caesar Augustus. Whether true or not, Virgil’s epic, written early in Augustus’ long reign, cemented the link of the Caesars with Aeneas and Troy in the minds of Romans, making it one of the most successful pieces of literary propaganda ever published.
Even if the Caesar’s claims were falsified, and even if Aeneas never existed outside of classical literature, his tale is an illustration of the remnant: those who remain. Whether it is Ishmael surviving to tell the story of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, or Job’s servants fleeing disaster to report to him (Job 1:13-22), fact and fiction throughout the human experience have featured a fortunate few who escape. The remnant has the task of carrying the memory of those who went before, of rebuilding what they lost, and of achieving their ultimate destiny. These remnant tales would have little impact on us if they were not a common feature in reality. The remnant is a continuous reminder in Scripture that God’s judgment is tempered with mercy in the expectation that a people will at last be able to step into the fullness of the promises YHVH has spoken from beginning of time.
One generation ago, on January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated the Polish town of Oświęcim. The world has come to know that town not by its Polish name, but by the name its Nazi German occupiers called it: Auschwitz. This account of my visit to Auschwitz is offered again in memory of the 1.1 million human beings whose voices were stilled there.
On January 18, 1997, I had opportunity to visit the death camp at Auschwitz. This is the story of that visit. I publish it now as a necessary reminder of what has happened before, for without such reminders we would be only too quick to let it happen again.
Admiral Miklós Horthy was not high on the list of Adolf Hitler’s favorite people. He had proven a lukewarm ally throughout the war. Even though Horthy’s Hungarian legions had fought bravely alongside the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union since 1941, Horthy’s government had never given its unqualified support to the Nazi regime. A particularly sore point was that the Hungarians refused to surrender their Jewish citizens for deportation. True, the leaders in Budapest had enacted repressive laws against Jews, but they never permitted the Germans to gain any measure of control over Hungary’s Jewish population. Consequently, Hungary became a place of refuge for Jews from Romania and other nations whose governments were far less willing to defy Hitler.
Perhaps the Führer would have overlooked Horthy’s insolence in this matter of the Jews had this been the only matter of concern. Yet events during the spring of 1944 brought this and other issues to a head. By March of that year, the Red Army had thrown the Nazi invaders almost completely out of Soviet territory. In the West, the Allies threatened to invade France as soon as the weather proved favorable. Such disagreeable developments merely underscored Hitler’s compelling need for full cooperation from all his allies. Since Admiral Horthy would neither listen to reason nor acquiesce to demands, Hitler employed other means to ensure Hungary displayed the appropriate measure of National Socialist ardor. German soldiers accordingly occupied Hungary late in March. Although they left Horthy in control of Budapest and its surrounding region, the remainder of the country fell completely under Nazi control.
The fears of Hungary’s Jews soon became reality as the Fascists implemented the Führer’s orders. Over the summer of 1944, 300,000 Jews found themselves crammed into cattle cars and shipped off to some faraway place. The Nazis told them they were to be resettled in the conquered lands of the East. Some believed the lie, either out of naiveté or out of the need for a hope of an end to the nightmare that had fallen upon their world. Some did not believe it. Some even whispered of the rumors that the Nazis had built a death factory and were herding all the Jews into it.
Admiral Horthy heard these rumors as well. He was no lover of Jews, but he was a refined gentleman. He was also a realist who understood what was happening to his country. An appeal from Pope John XXIII on behalf of the Jews helped to sway Horthy’s mind, and late in June he reasserted control over all of Hungary. Thanks to this, and to Allied bombing of Budapest, the deportations stopped for a brief time – but only a brief time. The Germans soon put Horthy in his place, and removal of the Jews resumed. Horthy protested and resisted up to the moment the Nazis arrested him in October, but to no avail. By the time the Red Army smashed into Budapest in late December, almost all of the Jews who had sheltered within Hungary’s borders were gone. Most of them were dead.
The story is true. I know.
I saw where they died.
The place is called Auschwitz.