by Miriam Stulberg.
What would it be like to visit the former concentration camp at Dachau, in Germany? I wondered.
It was January 1983, and I was serving in Madonna House in Avignon, France. I had read about the Carmelite monastery that had been founded outside the gates of Dachau, and the idea came to me of making a Lenten pilgrimage to the camp.
Each time I considered it, I found myself fighting waves of darkness and dread.
As a Jewish-Catholic, I knew that going to Dachau would be a pilgrimage to the very heart of the greatest trauma in all Jewish history. To go there would be to lay myself open, so to speak, to the unleashed winds of history. I wondered if something would be integrated. I wondered if I would be torn apart.
The shadows blended with other fears and with the struggles of Lent, and I wondered if this was a sign I shouldn’t force myself to make the trip. Or, conversely, was it a ploy of the evil one to discourage me from carrying out my intention?
The Carmel at Dachau had not responded to my letter asking if I could spend a few days with them. I decided to phone them. If the Carmel accepted me, I would take it as a sign I was meant to go.
Their answer was yes.
On the train to Germany, I began to read a talk by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jewish-Catholic archbishop of Paris, whose mother had died at Auschwitz. The speech had been given to a German audience. Describing his visceral reaction when he returned to Munich for the first time after World War II, he emphasized that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. We cannot pretend that what happened did not take place. True pardon does not deny death; it transforms it. Pardon is the victory of Jesus crucified and risen, whose wounds have been transfigured into signs of healing and salvation. When we allow our hearts to be converted, we unite ourselves with God and share in the pardon founded on Christ’s victory, the transformation of death into life.
As these thoughts made their way into my heart, the knots in my stomach began to unravel. God is here, too, I thought, as we sped across Germany. I was not travelling into death, but into a deeper knowledge of the mercy and forgiveness of God.
The year before, I had attended the international charismatic gathering in Strasbourg, on the Franco-German border. I remembered my reaction to the thousands of Germans at the conference—that instinctive stiffening, the questions and accusations I’d been surprised to discover in my heart.
Where were you then? What did you know? What was your involvement? The word God gave me at that time was unequivocal—I too must forgive; I too must let down my historic defenses; I too must let my wounds be healed.
Now, almost a year later—after the Israeli-Lebanese war in the summer of ‘82, after the reactions of the press, the horror of the refugee camp massacres, and my own confusion as I tried to sort it all out—I understood better that wounds aren’t eradicated as if by a magic wand. They must be touched by grace in order to become one with the wounds of Christ and, in him, sources of healing and reconciliation. Only when we cling to God in a conversion that surrenders to him our past, present, and future does real healing take place.
I spent my first night in Munich with Albert and Elisabeth Kurlanczek, "friends of a friend." Albert was a Jew, and Elisabeth, was a Catholic and belonged to a French charismatic community.
The next afternoon I joined Elisabeth and the members of her prayer group on their weekly rosary walk at Dachau. Moving slowly through the camp, we prayed before the Catholic memorial, the Jewish memorial, and the plaque dedicated to the Poles who had been martyred at Dachau. We concluded with a time of adoration in the Carmelite monastery chapel. As we said good-bye, I felt the strength of their love and support. I was not alone on my mission, and I had a growing realization that I had not come for myself alone.
Dachau, the first concentration camp established by the Nazis, had been a model for those that followed. Not only Jews had been imprisoned there but also thousands of Germans, Poles and other nationalities, including over two thousand five hundred priests. To me, the presence of the Church in the hell of Dachau was a witness of Christ’s identification with all victims.
The sky was overcast and grey as I walked through the camp the next day. The silence chilled me to the bone. Everything was neat, everything was silent, everything was empty. The original barracks had been razed; two had been reconstructed. In the museum were photographs, descriptions, history, items belonging to prisoners.
The crematorium was spotless, surrounded by cypress trees. I tried in vain to remember the Kaddish, the Hebrew memorial prayer for the dead. Instead I found myself praying the Jesus prayer, over and over, as if only that Name had power over the evil that had reigned here.
I stood at the ash grave before the remains of thirty-six thousand lives. "Thirty-six thousand" seemed more personal, somehow, than "six million."
Thirty-six thousand individual existences, destinies, living, breathing, laughing, loving, and now reduced to a six-by-two foot grassy knoll.
I tried to take it in.
Then, in the silence of Dachau, I heard the angel’s voice:
Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here. He is risen (Lk 24:5-6).
That evening, as I received communion at Mass in the Carmelite cloister, I stood for a long moment with the host in my hand. My whole being trembled. To receive the Body of Christ was to receive all those for whom he died. It meant communion with the executioners and communion with the victims.
In Christ, there is neither Greek nor Jew (Gal 3:28), and I too am a sinner in need of God’s mercy.
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