In January 1945, a young girl named Dora Eiger joined the few other survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau in a death march forced by guards who were fleeing the advancing Red Army. Short on food, water, and warm clothing, she somehow survived— only to end up in Bergen-Belsen, where she spent several more weeks in captivity before being liberated by the British. Now ninety years old, Dora Eiger Zaidenweber recently published the camp memoir that her father had quietly kept in Birkenau, having painstakingly transliterated and translated it from his handwritten Yiddish. She calls it Sky Tinged Red; you can order it from the website of that name.
This past January Dora spoke at Bethel University, then took questions from our students. One of them had visited Auschwitz and been struck by the sight of the sun breaking through the clouds over such haunted ground. Did she look forward to the sunrise?, he asked innocently, expecting to hear how God’s beauty is revealed even in the ugliest of circumstances.
“No,” said Dora matter-of-factly. In fact, she had dreaded it: the dawn’s light revealed the dead bodies all around her. Literal darkness had helped her cope with figurative darkness.
* * * * *
We met Dora near the end of a new class I was teaching, on the history of World War II. Bethel’s “J-term” had started on January 6th, Epiphany, the beginning of the Christian season of light, when we often hear the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. (Isaiah 61:1)
They are inspiring words, but also peculiar ones, given that we were about to spend three weeks intensively studying a conflict that killed more than sixty million people (27,000 per day), most of them civilians. “Make no mistake,” I warned my students that first day of class, “World War II is not a ‘good’ war. Never have so many suffered so much in so few years.”
And this all happened more than nineteen centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews, like his parents, had been waiting a thousand years for the return of a king like David. Christians have been waiting nearly twice as long for the return of their King.
So what do we do with this prophecy from Isaiah? “Arise, shine?”
Yes, even in the history of the Second World War, the light shines, but only dimly, in flickering moments of mercy and self-sacrifice.
I urged my students to beware the temptation to see light where it’s not there. “Don’t mistake the kings of earth for the King of Heaven,” I warned. “Don’t celebrate justice without peace or peace without justice. And never think yourself to be more righteous than the people over whose lives, now closed, you are given the power of historical judgment.”
Indeed, as the course continued, we looked less for light than for the darkness that “shall cover the earth, / and thick darkness the peoples” (Isaiah 61:2). To not shrink from the terrible reality that soldiers were shredded by shrapnel, run through with bayonets, and strangled with bare hands. That people froze to death in Stalingrad and burned to death in Dresden. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki they were vaporized —or years later died of leukemia. Women were raped to death, and children around the world perished of hunger, stomachs bloated and eyes pleading. Jews gasped for their last breath in showers and were crammed into ovens—or left for young Dora Eiger to discover at sunrise.
* * * * *
The day after we heard Dora speak, our daily lectionary text was one of the “suffering servant” passages given a few chapters earlier in the Book of Isaiah:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities… (Isaiah 53:4-5a)
After sharing this, I read aloud “Ecce Homo,” an anti-fascist poem by the British surrealist David Gascoyne. Published in 1942, it narrates a contemporary version of the death of Christ:
Whose is this horrifying face,
This putrid flesh, discoloured, flayed,
Fed on by flies, scorched by the sun?
Whose are these hollow red-filmed eyes
And thorn-spiked head and spear-stuck side?
Behold the Man: He is Man’s Son.
Christian imagination often takes historical events like Incarnation and Resurrection and extends them from past into present and future —treating them not only as finite moments, but processes shaping us still. Gascoyne, in a poem written in the present tense, suggests that the same is true of Crucifixion:
He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God.
This is “thick darkness,” indeed.
Most people would rather be inspired, distracted, or amused by the past than haunted or convicted by it. But if Gascoyne is right that, in some way, the crucified Son of God remains “in agony till the world’s end,” then Christians should approach history not only with an eye to how God is redeeming and restoring the world, but in such a way that we can be wounded by the continuing reality of sin and evil.
May we stumble through the “thick darkness” of the past, shining however little or much light we can on the infirmities, diseases, transgressions, and iniquities that strike down and afflict our Redeemer.