In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.
A few months later in July 1942, Lale, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have her number tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.
And survive they do.
Even though they witness and experience inhumanity that defies belief, Lale is able to use his privileged position as the camp tattooist to help others.
And this amazing tale is captured in the Australian novel ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, by Heather Morris. It’s a page-turner of a story, made even more remarkable because it’s true (with a little poetic licence). And yes, I did stay up late reading it.
But not only is it captivating, it’s also a book for our times. As the last remaining Holocaust survivors pass on, we do well to remember this dark moment of human history, when man’s inhumanity to man plumbed new depths. We do well to remember what human beings are capable of. And let’s not forget that the human beings in question — the German Nazis — were among the most educated, cultured and refined people on the planet at the time. Germany was home to the likes of Goethe and Beethoven. It was the birthplace of the Reformation. And yet, it was ground zero for a genocide surpassing all others in human history.
The Haunting Questions Raised by The Tattooist of Auschwitz
This book is haunted. Not in a spooky ghost story type haunted. But haunted by questions: questions that seeped out of the pages as I read them. Questions that left me wondering, left me thinking, left me disturbed.
Here are some of those questions:
1) How Could Human Beings Be So Inhumane?
While the novel is not gratuitous or graphic as it portrays life in Auschwitz, there’s no missing the horrors endured by the inmates: the cruelty of the SS guards; the slave labour; the gas chambers. Not to mention the unspeakable experiments of the infamous camp ‘doctor’, Josef Mengele.
Even now, just reflecting on what those prisoners had to endure brings me to the edge of tears.
How could human beings — educated, sophisticated, human beings — behave in such ways?
As I’ve written about elsewhere, the best answer our secular world can give is that the Nazis were ‘madman’: clinically insane, and irrational.
But the horrifying truth is that the vast majority were acting rationally — they were in their right mind, psychologically speaking. And yet — to import a necessary biblical category — these Nazis were acting wickedly, in line with their profoundly anti-God racist worldview. While the depth of Nazi depravity should shock us (who can look at a picture of starving inmates and not feel sick?), we shouldn’t be surprised by evil — whether the Nazis’ or anyone else’s. The Bible is clear that all of humanity is under the power of sin (Rom 3:9, 23). Thus, given the right conditions, human beings are able to do the most horrifying things — even genocide. If we take God at His word, we won’t be surprised that psychologically ‘normal’, ‘sane’ people helped carry out the Holocaust.
Sadly, Christians can also be caught up in such evil. While the dominating power of sin is broken over us (Rom 6:6), we’re still tempted by its desires (Gal 5:17). And Church history testifies to this troubling fact.
2) How Does Something like the Holocaust Happen?
Because people remain silent, rather than speaking up.
How did millions of cultured, otherwise decent Germans — and others — stoop to such wickedness? How did they perpetrate the Holocaust?
From a spiritual perspective, the Bible indicates there are spiritual forces of evil at work influencing the actions of persecuting regimes (e.g. Rev 12:7-17). Satan and his cohort are at work in the background (Eph 6:12), and sometimes they run rampant.
As could be seen in the Nazi regime.
This demonic influence manifested in a variety of ways, including the ‘brainwashing’ that took place through the Nazi infused German culture, where every area of German life was co-opted to promulgate Nazi ideology. When everyone around you believes something — including Nazi ideology — it becomes much harder to hold to your own convictions. And so, many Germans ended up serving the Führer willingly, including in the concentration camps.
But there was also the pressure from living in a totalitarian society: a society where any dissent is punished. Where speaking out publicly lands you in jail (or worse). Or where a failure to say the right things at the right time could earn you a visit from the secret police.
And so, in such societies it’s easier and safer to go with the flow. Stay silent when you disagree. Say the politically-correct things when you have to. All in the hope that you and your family are left alone.
When people go along with such demonically inspired ideologies and regimes, bad things happen. In particular, a culture of intimidation and silence provides fertile ground for the seeds of oppression to grow. Such oppression doesn’t always result in genocide (thank God!), but where there’s a lack of free speech, you can be sure oppression is not far away.
What about us here in the West? How is our situation?
While we’re nowhere near a totalitarian society — far from it — there is a growing awareness that free speech is being eroded. Christians have felt this for a number of years now (especially when speaking up about issues of marriage and sexuality).
3) An Ominous Sign for the West
It’s getting harder to speak up.
‘Cancel culture’ is a growing phenomena here in the Western world. If a person expresses a view deemed politically incorrect, they get ‘cancelled’. This can take a variety of forms, from being attacked on social and mainstream media, to being fired from their jobs.
Author J.K. Rowling experienced this late last year. In response to a UK court case, she put out a tweet declaring that there is such a thing as a biological female (something common sense 5 mins ago). This got her into trouble with many cultural elites, and so she was mobbed — ‘cancelled’ — on social media.
The cultural pressure to toe the politically-correct line on issues such as gender and sexuality is immense — even for big names like J.K. Rowling.
But as secular academic Colin Wright points out, it’s not just high profile people like J.K. Rowling who are pressured when they say the ‘wrong’ things:
The vast majority of cancel culture’s victims are people you’ve never heard of, who don’t have the means to fight back, or who have learned to keep quiet so they don’t lose whatever reputation or job security they still have. I know, because I was once one of them.
As a result of these public views, his career was put in jeopardy: potential university employers considered him ‘too risky’ to hire. And even more ominously, a close friend and research collaborator publicly denounced him, even though he privately agreed with Wright’s views:
I received a text message from a close friend and research collaborator who is now an assistant professor at a major research university, informing me that his colleagues had started questioning him about our affiliation. He told me that this sort of thing was happening frequently enough that he felt the need to publicly denounce my views to clear his name. And that’s exactly what he did.
Wright concludes with these sobering words:
Ask yourself what other ideological movements and historical periods we tend to associate with such performative acts.
In other words, when else do you feel under pressure to publicly denounce others with whom you privately agree?
Even (some) secular cultural elites are beginning to be concerned by cancel culture
It’s not just lone voices in the wilderness that are raising the alarm about this culture that’s heading down a totalitarian path.
On July 7th, US publication Harper’s Magazine published an open letter from over 150 cultural luminaries, including J.K. Rowling, Salmon Rushdie and Margaret Attwood. They raised the alarm about free speech (something Christians and conservatives have been saying now for years).
In particular, they write:
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism… it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes… the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.
And just recently, Australia musician Nick Cave had a go at cancel culture, writing:
Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) — moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.’
As a Christian whose views are considered outside the boundaries of political correctness, all I can say to these cultural elites (most of whom are on the secular Left) is ‘welcome to the party’.
Voicing ideas and beliefs deemed politically incorrect is now carrying an increasingly high price tag — whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on.
But again, we shouldn’t be surprised to live in a world where freedom is fragile, and intimidation is the norm. As Christians, we have the sure words of Jesus and the New Testament writers warning us not to expect freedom, but persecution (Jn 15:20; Lk 12:11; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12-19). The fact that we’ve had such freedoms over the last few hundred years is a cultural and historical anomaly: perhaps with the passing of the Judeo-Christian ideals from the western world things will return to ‘normal’.
4) The Price of ‘Never Again’
‘Never again’ is the catchcry of many Holocaust survivors. Never again do we want anything like the Holocaust to happen.
And yet, there is a price to ‘never again’. As we look around our planet, we see that genocides and massacres are all too common. It takes effort to prevent a society from descending into that sort of persecution. And arguably, the first step in preventing that descent is a people ready and willing to speak up for the sake of others — no matter what it costs.
But as we’ve seen, the cost of speaking up is growing.
Currently, the pressure is mainly cultural. But it’s starting to seep across into government policy (most notably through anti-discrimination laws).
Of course the pressure we face is nowhere near that of totalitiarian regimes (not even close).
How many churches are deciding not to record their sermons on sexuality for fear of public blowback (especially if they meet in a public school hall)?
How many employees are now choosing not to share politically-incorrect posts, for fear of their employer finding out?
How many Christians are keeping their faith private, whether in the workplace or the lecture theatre?
The pressure is there.
And if we feel intimidated and afraid to speak up now, when the cultural pressure — while real — is mild compared to other times in history, will we speak up against more serious injustice, when the pressure is even greater?
If we’re serious about events like the Tattooist of Auschwitz never happening again, we need a culture that are willing to speak up when it’s unpopular. When it’s frowned upon. When it’s costly.
And as Christians, we of all people have the resources to speak up no matter the cost: we have God’s Holy Spirit, who gives us wisdom when facing accusers; and we have the hope of eternal life, allowing us to be brave no matter what the consequence.
Will we prayerfully and boldly speak up for the good of our neighbours?
Or will we remain silent, hoping this cancel culture will pass us by?
If history teaches us anything, silence is not always golden.
At times it can be deadly.
Originally published at AkosBalogh.com