More than 1.5 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, including 250,000 children. That number of victims would fill Michigan Stadium about 15 times.
The Rolling Stones in 1968 sang an iconic song, "Sympathy for the Devil," which speaks in the voice of Lucifer: "I was 'round when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain, made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate."
Mick Jagger should have put Auschwitz into his litany of evil. There is no more evil place on this planet.
What strikes you at first as you pass through the gate, which says, "arbeit mach frei" (work makes you free), is the size of the camp. Actually, Auschwitz was made up of a number of camps — the two largest being Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau). The Poles called this place Oswiecim, until the Germans took over this village in 1940, renamed it and made this formerly peaceful village into the largest of the death camps, taking advantage of its railroad location.
Auschwitz I is brick, and once were Polish barracks. Birkenau (used in the film "Schlinder's List") consists of rows and rows of wooden buildings, formerly horse stables brought from Germany. Most of the crematoriums were here and were blown up by the SS as the Red Army moved closer and closer.
One crematorium survived, in Auschwitz I, and you can walk through it, hopefully heeding the sign to be silent because thousands and thousands of people were gassed and burned here.
What Auschwitz represents is the evil that lies in the human heart, in some more than others, but there is evil in all of us.
In the recent debate about guns, many cried out that we need more mental health treatment. Which, of course, is true. But would the 8,000 SS guards at Auschwitz (of whom only 800 were put on trial) be all considered mentally ill? No doubt that many were, but the stark truth is that human beings make evil choices.
Mental illness may be a contributing factor, but what we seem unable to face is that people choose evil far too often, for whatever reason.
What also struck me at Auschwitz was that modern religion — including the Christian church — has neglected its chief message, that life is a battle between good and evil, and that God has given men and women free will. We can choose to do good or we can choose to do evil.
Evil is a slippery slope. We may start with cheating in school or on our taxes, or cheating on our spouses. If the circumstances are right, evil can escalate to mass murder.
The camp commandant, Rudolf Hoess, raised his kids in a lovely house on the grounds of Auschwitz I — and the gallows, built just for him to be hung from, stand near this house. Justice caught up with him several years after the war. He argued in his memoirs that he was only following orders.
The most seductive aspect of evil is that we don't recognize it — until it is too late.
Ninety percent of those who were murdered at Auschwitz were Jews. Most of their killers were Lutherans and Roman Catholics, at least nominally. Was there something inherently evil in the German character, or was there a fatal flaw in Christian religion, or is the problem much broader?
Anti-Semitism is indeed a dark stain upon the Church's history. However, the Church's doctrine of sin argues that all people are sinners with a great capacity for evil. This truth transcends national character, and thus includes the sins of the Church and the evils inflicted by all religions.
The Church in Germany prior to World War II had neglected its own teachings on evil and the devil, its symbol for evil, "the prince of darkness," Satan, Beelzebub being some of its names. Thus, the Church was not armed with a theological arsenal to withstand the evil rising in its midst.
Is the modern Church making the same mistake in its quest for full pews and flush coffers?
These words of Jesus in John's Gospel put Auschwitz and all other atrocities into a theological framework that we neglect at our peril: "The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed" (3:19-20).
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist