Concentration Camps, Stolen Shoes & Pilgrimages

One of the more disturbing news stories of the last few days was when the BBC reported that visitors had stolen shoes belonging to Jewish Holocaust victims from a former concentration camp in Poland:

Majdanek Shoes

Indeed, not only shoes have been stolen – but also the ashes of victims. My first reaction was to think, “What kind of person steals from a concentration camp?” Then I analysed my reaction, and I reflected on the truth that we tend to attribute to such places a ‘holy’ quality that, in the past, would only have belonged to pilgrimage sites.

I have, on two occasions, visited the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. Each time it was a profoundly moving experience. On the second occasion I was accompanied by my wife, Janice, and I had somehow managed to visit Germany in winter with no coat! (Much of my life is spent travelling, but I tend to go straight from cars into airports, from airports to cars, from cars to hotels and meetings etc.) I bought a thin hoodie from Lidl for €10 and shivered my way round Dachau. As I stood on the grassy strip beside the camp fence (aware that encroaching on that grassy strip would have meant instant death for a camp inmate 70 years ago) I felt an overwhelming sorrow for the poorly-clad inmates who had shivered on the parade ground for hours in similar wintery conditions.

One jarring aspect of our visit to Dachau was when we entered the co-ordinates into our GPS to travel there and realised that Garmin have the camp listed under ‘tourist attractions.’ That somehow felt very wrong. I didn’t feel as if I was a tourist, or that I was visiting an ‘attraction’. I find nothing attractive about torture and mass murder. We weren’t going to Dachau for enjoyment, or even for education. It felt more like something we had to do because it was going to help us to be better people. That was when I realised that we were doing something that doesn’t always fit comfortably with our Evangelical traditions and mindsets. We were making a pilgrimage.

I had similar feelings on a recent trip to Alabama when Janice and I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, built on the spot where four young girls were killed when racists bombed their church in 1963. Another ‘pilgrimage’ experience was on a ministry trip to the Netherlands when we visited the Corrie ten Boom house in Haarlem where Evangelical believers risked, and ultimately lost, their lives by sheltering Jews from the Nazis.

Of course I’m not talking about such trips earning any spiritual merit, or of aberrant semi-occultic practices such as ‘grave sucking’ (where people lie on the graves of great Christians of the past and try to catch their anointing). But I am saying that there are certain places which, if we ever have the opportunity to do so, it is good for us to visit to help us be more gracious, compassionate and grounded in history. And such places deserve to be treated with respect.

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