Michael A. Signer, University of Notre Dame

The Image of Man after Auschwitz: Imago Dei?

(Oswiecim, Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, 4.10.2002)

Introduction: The Situation of Our Times
Theological reflection at the edge of Auschwitz is an act of rebellion. Many people who visit this place would surely claim that everyone who looks upon the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau or other sites of death camps should paraphrase Theodore Adorno who said, “Poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” To speak of God in a place where human beings murdered babies and separated mothers from children is surely an obscenity. The site of such calculated cruelty should be sheltered from all speculation about the source of life and goodness. One might not exclude the possibility of prayer at Auschwitz. Prayer indicates our ability to commemorate and honor those who have died. In prayer we express our desires and our hopes. However the luxury of speculating about the role that the divine might have played in this very place more than fifty years ago separates us from those who committed atrocities as well as those who were the victims of those tortures and execution. Theology is the mark of individuals who have food in their stomachs and a place to rest their heads at the end of a long day. The ability to think about this place and in this place provides an escape or even a numbing of the raw feelings that we have when we consider what those who walked on these paths and stood in the long lines for the Appell might have suffered.

To come to Auschwitz and speak among these ruins is to come in search. What happened in this place and in the other death camps has wounded the world. We are searching for some trace or some hint about why it happened. We strain our eyes to see what they might have seen. We attune our hearts to feel what they might have felt. In the end, we are doomed to failure. Our comfortable conditions, and our moments of deliberation are separated by the abyss of the loss of their presence and their counsel. Our religious and intellectual lives are surely not theirs. The Christian and Jewish worlds today—in the synagogues and the Churches are very different from the world they new. If Jews and Christians engaged in human relationships before the Shoah it was because of their engagement as human beings and not because their religious communities promoted it. The movement of Jews and Christians toward mutual understanding is part of the post-Shoah world; part of a major re-thinking of the nature of Catholic theological identity buried deeply in the documents of the II Vatican Council. Many Catholics have still not heard the “good news” proclaimed by Nostra Aetate in 1965 nor the message of hope delivered by Pope John Paul II that Jews must become a “blessing to one another and then a blessing to the world.” Within the Jewish community there is only the beginning of trust. As Klaus Kienzler has pointed out the trust is very fragile and brittle. World political events stretch the very thin cord of friendship between us very tightly. One might conclude that the new relationship between Christians and Jews is simply an illusion or a temporary flash of light that will fade because its foundation is a response to a temporal political situation and not the true message of our mutually exclusive claims to faith in the God of Abraham.

My reflections on the “Image of Humanity after Auschwitz: Imago Dei?” are offered despite the warnings of mistrust and the fragile thread of friendship between our two religious communities. I might add that they are offered at a point in the historical relationship between our three nations: Poland, Germany and the USA that is also very tense. The clouds of war are gathering around us. Some of the rhythms of language resonate with what we have all heard before: “An unprecedented danger faces us. We must stop it before it destroys us.” Human beings have something precious that they wish to preserve and protect—indeed what they treasure is something that they value enough to make a sacrifice of their lives to uphold. The thought that in a few months the United States of America may launch its first pre-emptive attack in a war of global scale also is at the foundation of my reflection on the “Image of Humanity.” We would seem to find our image reflected in the words of the biblical preacher Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) who provides the Scriptural lection for the Feast of Sukkot. He puts it all very simply “There is no advantage of the beast among the human being.” There is nothing for human beings that set them apart from the animals. Our daily newspapers and the despair that they bring us force us again to the words preacher who tells us “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity and striving after the wind. One generation comes and one generation goes and there is nothing new under the sun.” Fifty-seven years after the last crematoria were blown up here in Auschwitz and hundreds of prisoners were marching through the snow and the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima flashed in the heavens, we may soon witness battle fields of devastation. Darkness covers the face of the deep. Humanity is at the edge of observing itself mirrored in the story of the creation of the cosmos as it was narrated in the book of Genesis.

Auschwitz: The Counter-Narrative of Creation
The first chapters of the book of Genesis present a series of acts that move forward and backwards. Darkness emerges out of chaos and by the verbal act of the divine light is created and separated from it. The divine speech-acts bring the cosmos and the created world into being with a pause at each step where these newly created objects are considered “good.” As the final act God creates human beings.

1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 1:28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The climax of this creation narrative is the creation of Adam [human beings] in the tselem [image] and demut [likeness] of the divine as male and female. Upon them he bestowed a blessing of rule or caring or possession of all previous. Humans were to be responsible for the new order of the world. There is no need to provide the full account of these early narratives here. We know that the relationship of human beings to God plays a role in the continuing creation stories. Adam becomes the caretaker of God’s creatures. As God now lives in relationship with Adam who is created in the divine likeness and image, God determines that Adam must live in relationship (Gen. 2.18). In a reversal of the act of God’s dominance over him, God brings all of the animals before Adam to see what he would name them. (2:19 So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.) The first hint at imago Dei, how human beings are in the image and likeness of God is the fact that Adam uses speech as a form of “rule” of “dominance” over animals. Adam names them and thereby classifies them. By his word the animals and all creation becomes his possession. Let us underline this fact: Speech [dibbur] is the primary indication that human beings are in imago Dei.
Speech implies our human order to reason. It enables us to record our thoughts in the minds of one generation after another by telling a story. Speech may also be inscribed. It may be written down so that the limits of the human voice can be surpassed and echo in the minds of each and every generation.

We also know that the opening narratives in Genesis indicate that the close relationship between Adam and Eve (representing both genders of Adam) is quickly broken. Speech binds them together, but Adam and Eve have the capacity for independent thought and their idyllic period in the garden is cut short by attaining knowledge. They in turn find that their familial circle is soon broken. Yet the tie with the divine image is not. In Gen 5:1-3 we learn that, “This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created Adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Adam when they were created. When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” As the Adam and Eve generated the human family their link to the divine image is affirmed. With the birth of their child Seth, the relationship is stamped with the same word tselem and demut. The violent murder within the first family has its parallel in the narrative of universal destruction in the flood story. Creation is overturned and yet restored through Noah. Even after that destructive experience the idea of humanity created in imago Dei is affirmed. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:6) Following upon this commandment, God repeats the same command as in the first chapter of Genesis about humanity and the earth. Ultimately the sign of the rainbow links the promise of the continuing care that God will keep for the earth and all that dwell upon it. Once more, the reader can imply that human beings are to imitate the divine act of caring for the earth.

Hearing the creation stories in Auschwitz is then a unique experience. When we look out of the windows we can see the world is still with us. There are still animals and trees. The world turns on its axis producing periods of light and dark. However, we also note the interruptions in the earth. The fragments and destruction of the buildings that stood in this place call to mind very different stories than Genesis. For those who are familiar with English literature we have a sense that we have, like Alice in Wonderland, stepped through the looking glass—the mirror. We now inhabit the pale shadows of a counter-world; of a planet that is the counter narrative of Genesis. This is the place that has been called the “Kingdom of Night.”

Auschwitz is a counter-narrative, an anti-story, an opposition to the narrative of the Torah. The Torah narrates the possibilities of life with the expectation of human mortality and death. Auschwitz was designed and nearly succeeded in being a place that destined human beings to death with life only as a surprising and nearly miraculous outcome. In place of the creation of light, Auschwitz offered only the possibility of darkness. If the purpose of all living things in the cosmos was life; the purpose of every object in this place was death. The image of the “mist that grew up from the earth” in Genesis 2 finds its counter narrative in the smoke that rose up from the smokestacks of the crematoria.

Let me relate a personal incident that happened in Auschwitz that clearly describes this place as the counter narrative of biblical creation. On my first visit here I walked in Birkenau by the ponds where the ashes were deposited. As my colleague described what we saw he bent down and picked up a small white object. He put it in my hand and said, “This is a bone fragment that floated up from the pond.” I was utterly horrified. It felt as if my hand was burning or I had experienced a charge of electricity throughout my body. The fragment of a human being was in my hand. I could not discern whether it was male or female; Jew or non-Jew; Pole, Russian, Greek, Hungarian. Humanity may have been created from the dust of the earth. We may have intellectual knowledge that we shall all return to the dust. However, this fragment bore silent witness to another reality. This was the fragment of a murdered human being. No prayers had been recited. There was no funeral. There was no tomb or visitation by family. Only by chance had two other members of the human species come upon that fragment. This is the reality of the image of humanity after Auschwitz. She is not dust but ashes. He does not die but is murdered. The microcosmic fragment of bone obscured the magnificent idea that human beings are created in the image of God.

From the testimony of survivors and the literary grace of writers such as Elie Wiesel we have slowly come to understand that in this place, and in other places in Europe, the image of Adam’s descendants “being fruitful and dominating the earth” was demonically detached from the creation story. His description in the novella Night of the image of the boy hanging dead has been the entry point for generations of American students into the realities of the death camp. Those who have read the concluding paragraphs where he describes the first time he looks at himself in the mirror understand how profoundly the experience of Auschwitz and the march toward the West in the winter and spring of 1945 changes the “image” of humanity. The faceless ghost who stared back at Eliezar was no longer to be recognized as the Tselem Elokim.

Loss and Restoration: Image of God
The classic description of what happened to human beings in Auschwitz is the Muselmann. This is the counter-human. His eyes have no light. His body is weak and bent over. The lack of food and sleep has driven him to the edge of sanity. Even the power of speech is diminished. Ironically, the Herrenrasse, and their partners in ruling the camps planned this creation of the human being. These camps were part of a cleansing operation that would result in the purification of society and the creation of a true and humanity restored. Auschwitz was to be an apocalyptic judgment within the boundaries of history. Twisting the narratives of the Scripture to their own purposes, they obscured and debased the nature of language; the aspect of humanity that we earlier indicated marked it is created in the image of God.

Edith Wyschogrod has written about the debasing of language in her book, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger and Man-Made Mass Death. Auschwitz was created from bricks and mortar, but the idea of Auschwitz and its realization are born in the “prison house of language.” If humanity was marked for a special purpose by naming every creature, then the creation of the “Final Solution” should be defined by the creation of a language which was a very special code. The real references were clear only to those who had the Gnosis, the secret key to the code of language. Let us take some elementary examples. Jews were moved into Ghettos—a fine protective measure. They could be quarantined and not bring about the disease of the polluting blood into the superior races. Slavs were also considered inferior races. They had a purpose in serving the Reich. But there were those who could be considered “Life unworthy of Life.” This category reached beyond the Jews, but the prepared the way of death that would later become the policy that animated the spirit of the Reich. Another term, “Endloesung”—the Final Solution indicated the murder of Jews. However, note that it was a sanitized, clean term that bore no particular reference to the horrors that awaited the Jews. Another example of this secret language is to be found in the term “Umsiedlung” or resettlement. This term permitted the Jews who were removed from the homes and placed in the Ghettos to dream that they would simply be resettled in the East. Transports that left the Umschagplatz in Warsaw for Treblinka moved in the direction of Bialystok in Northeast Poland. There has been lengthy discussion about how Jews engaged in acts of self-deception during the early phases of the war. However, one can hardly accuse people of self-deception if the very language they hear and understand has been translated into a new group of references.

The biblical narratives of creation reveal a God who is kind but who makes judgments. When human beings turn away from divine there are consequences. They are unpleasant but not destructive. Life continued after the expulsion from Eden. Though Jews and Christians might disagree on the cosmic meaning of the change from the garden to working in the fields to bring forth bread, they would both agree that humanity continued and flourished. Opportunities to repair the strained relationship with God are provided. What is most clear is that the relationship between the biblical God and humanity is that the possibility for repair. The relationship is primary. God promises the sign of the rainbow that humanity and the world will not be destroyed again. However, even in this passage there are certain minimal standards for human beings to observe in order that divine protection remains a possibility.

From Imago Dei to Imitatio Dei
The image of humanity in Auschwitz is a counter-narrative to Torah because it was created for the purpose of separation and disconnection. In Auschwitz the reality of everyday life demonstrated that human image was cut off from the imago Dei because the possibility for relationship was shattered. Imagine the arrival at the Ramp. Families who had been ripped away from their homes now experienced the cutting away of their possession and their relationships. Children were separated from their parents; husbands from their wives; and the old from the young. Only appearance of strength assured survival into the next stage of continuing existence. Those destined for death were cut off from their clothing and eventually from light and air being shut into a room where the possibility of oxygen was denied to them. Those destined to work were segregated into areas of quarantine. They too were separated from their clothing and the most personal external part of their being—their hair. Any object or physical connection to the past and future was removed. The only relationship permitted within the Lager was the relationship to non-productive work. Because supplies of adequate food and water were controlled there was a constant need for competition and the requirement to steal for the purpose of self-preservation. During the periods of massive transports from all over the Reich the population of the camp had so many different language groups that communication was nearly impossible. The babble of tongues contributed to another form of separation and abandonment. People could not speak to one another in the same language. Even though the prisoners were packed tightly into groups for the purpose of sleeping, the camp was created so that each of them would eventually be abandoned and alone to face death either in the mechanized form of the gas chambers and crematoria or in the routine of meaningless work.

Under these conditions Primo Levi has suggested that the categories of “good” and “evil” were inadequate for judging behavior in the camps. He offers an alternative way to describe these human beings who were forced to live in separations: ‘the drowned’ and the ‘saved.’ We should not confuse Levi’s category of ‘saved’ with the metaphysical idea of ‘salvation.’ The saved were those who knew who to survive in a world where relationships were not possible.

To be human in the image of God implies some form of free will or choice. Segregated and separated, the men and women who lived in the Lager had no choice. They did not choose to come to the camps. They were “selected.” They could not disobey or they would forfeit their lives. Lawrence Langer, an American literary critic, has developed a phrase “choiceless choice” which reminds us how far imago hominis in these places had been separated from its origin in imago Dei.

How can we describe this separation from the imago Dei. Perhaps the best way would be to consider the biblical prohibition of idolatry. In rabbinic Hebrew the term for idolatry is Avodah Zarah, a worship of an alien deity. The fundamental category error is to turn away from the image of God and substitute another object of worship. In the Hebrew Bible there is a prohibition against substituting any image for that of God. Yet when the Torah and Prophetic books describe what humans apprehend as God, they form a familiar image—the anthropos sitting on a throne or a chariot. Think for a moment of the Song of Miriam at the Sea or of the vision of Isaiah in the Temple. The Rabbis were very careful to restrict speculation about the human likeness of God to an elite group who engaged in contemplative prayer. Their efforts were devoted, for the most part, to demonstrating how the qualities of God were to be imitated by human beings. As God was merciful, human beings were to act mercifully. As God did acts of charity and good deeds, human beings were to do these good deeds. In the non-esoteric teachings of the Rabbis there is a greater emphasis on imitatio Dei than on imago Dei. The Rabbis could therefore maintain a sense of awe and distance from God while emphasizing that human beings were joined to God by the way they acted in the world. The authentic self, being in the world, was a self that imitated the ways of God. In following in the footsteps of God as merciful, long-suffering and forgiving the Jewish people lived in their exile. Fragments of the divine presence were and are part of the principle activity of Jewish life, the study of Torah [the traces of God’s word in human understanding] and in following the path of Torah in daily life. Torah then becomes the true path to relationship with other human beings and with God.

Martyrdom: What Witnesses to God’s Image?
We turn now to the next question about the image of Humanity after Auschwitz. We inquire about those who died and those who survived this place. They were separated from their families and their loved ones. Their tormentors encouraged their separation and their competition for the few shreds of food and shelter that would enable them to survive. Did the overwhelming human eros or life-force that urged them to survive express itself only in the idolatry of a self-centered and entirely independent human being? Primo Levi’s description of the “saved” might indicate that this was the case. However, Emil Fackenheim’s philosophical meditation on the Shoah called, To Mend the World, would seem to indicate that there were other paths to survival. These paths may provide us with an opening to see some fragments of the image of God that appeared in this place.

Time permits me only limited examples. Pelagia Lewinskaya reports that every day there was an individual who carefully washed herself with a shred of a bar of soap. Our eyes have seen how bizarre this behavior must have been in this place. Despite the camp supervisor’s obsession with sanitation for the overall operation at Auschwitz, there was no regard for the sanitation of the inmates. They were given only minimum time to take care of their physical needs such as using the toilet. Therefore, the effort to wash one’s face or shave one’s beard was a superhuman act of protest. It was a metaphor of resistance to the hail storm of filth that surrounded the life-less life or being toward death in Auschwitz. The second example is of a group of Hassidim who were told to dance for the entertainment of an SS officer. With guns pointing at them, they began to dance in a slow circle. The movement of the body is a sacred activity among the Hassidim. To dance in front of the SS officer was, for them, a form of Avodah Zarah. However, one of them began to sing “Lomis sich iberlebn” [We will survive]. All of the Hassidim took up the melody and began to dance faster and faster. The power of the dance and song frightened the surrounding SS officers. What began as a choiceless choice of being towards death became a hymn of praise and faith. Whenever I retell this incident I wonder whether that Hassid actually made the choice to sing those words or whether the depths of his soul and intuition overcome any rational faculty. The final incident has been narrated by Elie Wiesel, told to me orally by his cousin Eliezar Slomovic [z”l], and is the subject of a book by David Weiss HaLivni, Professor of Talmud at Columbia University. It relates that in Auschwitz one member of a transport had a page of Talmud ripped from the book in his pocket. That page of Talmud became the object of study and devotion by a small group in one of those shelters out there in the field. From the study of this one page, the men were able to reconstruct passages of the Talmud from memory. A parallel and no less valuable incident is the discussion of recipes by women in one of the camps. They argued about how various kinds of cakes were baked and whose mother baked the best Challah for Shabbat. The manuscript of these recipes was written and hidden away after the war.

In each of these examples we find the imago Dei—the use of speech to make connection and relationships that were covenantal. They indicate that even in an environment where the imago Dei was designed to be replaced by the Imago Hominis Diabolis, there was still the fragile light that pierced the darkness. Auschwitz could not become Eden; the huts where Torah was studied and recipes discussed was not the ark of Noah. But in these stories we can discover traces of what made Adam and Hava’s creation part of the original story—fragmentation and restoration.

There are some thinkers who propose that overwhelming evil that took place here erases and obscures the few fragments of light. The over-arching narrative of Auschwitz is one of destruction. Human beings who live on after Auschwitz must come and look upon this place only as the site of monstrous evil. My argument would be that all narratives are composed of small fragments. Often these fragments are in conflict with one another or even in opposition to one another. The task of religious communities is to return to all narratives and rebuild or reconstruct them from even the smallest fragment. The secularization of our world after the Shoah is a reaction to its horrors. Those who draw the line from Christian anti-Judaism to modern anti-Semitism to the Nazi state would argue that we are best to be done with all religious communities. However, sixty years of “secular” hegemony have had two advantages. First, our religious communities have had opportunities to engage in serious rethinking [with lots of resistance from within]. Second, secularity seems to have been replaced by a militant religiosity of fundamentalism that shares some of the same ideology that led to Auschwitz—and I dare say the Gulags of the former Soviet Union. Imago Dei is discovered in micro-narratives, in fragments, and in the will of human beings to return to the sources and rebuild. We are called to be God’s witnesses. Let us remember that the Rabbis tell us truth is established on the foundation of two witnesses, and—more important—the Rabbis warn us “not to follow the multitude to do evil. Those who died in the camps and those who survived provide us with testimony to the reality of God’s image lived in the camps. In our own times the word “martyr” has experienced a significant shift of meaning as one who gives testimony to anger and frustration. Rather than dying in witness to God’s name, they kill themselves and others so that their testimony will strike terror—fear not of God, but of humanity. The testimony in the fragmented narratives of the survivors reminds us of what it means to be a witness to the image of God after Auschwitz.

Tiqqun and Teshuvah: Restoring the Fragments
Let me offer some words of conclusion that I have learned from Emil Fackenheim. In his thinking about the Shoah, Fackenheim reveals that it offers an opportunity to both Jews and Christians. Auschwitz and the death-camps stand between us and our separate but common pasts. The saving God did not save. Christians may have been saved by taking the sacraments and gained eternal life, but they were not saved from either perpetrating or standing by as their neighbors were led off to the Ghettos and the death camps. Jews were not rescued by their God. Those who were true believer as well as those who had been baptized and accepted a new faith perished together in the crematoria whose ruins lie almost literally at our feet.

Our task, according to Fackenheim, is one of repair of Tiqqun. Our task is to rediscover the meaning of Imago Dei. To understand that human beings are created in the image of God and that this awesome responsibility means that they can make choices for life or for death. How shall they gain guidelines for this repair?

Fackenheim urges a process of Teshuvah—of return to our traditions—Jewish or Christian. However, our question is: to what tradition shall we return? Do we seek the tradition that obscures the face of the neighbor who is different? Do we seek a tradition that only emphasizes the universal and obscures the necessity of humans to create communities that require distinct forms of dress, eating, and family habits? If we are to return to our traditions, what guidelines shall we use to assure ourselves that we will not build another Auschwitz and yet destroy another group of human beings whose life is worth less than our own?

This paper suggests that a profound meditation on Imago hominis and Imago Dei might be the place to begin. If God is no longer all-powerful, then is there another imago dei that might be found? Perhaps. We might consider that God is not only a dynamis—a power; but also a presence, an Ereignis. Prior to Auschwitz we might have emphasized the dynamis—perhaps now the time has come to balance that with a profound search for how the image of God in our lives can mean the presence of God in our lives and seeking out how the presence of God is visible in the lives of others.

A rabbinic parable to conclude, “The Ways of the Heavenly Ruler are not like the ways of the earthly emperor. An earthly emperor strikes a coin and the image of the emperor is exactly the same on each coin. Not so the Holy One. The Holy One stamps the divine image on each and every human being—and the image on each is different.”