Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Michael Signer - The Image of Man after Auschwitz

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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.
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