Mauthausen - Remembrance and Reflections

Mauthausen Remembrance and Reflections

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn

Transcription of the speech given by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, 8 May 2005, at the remembrance celebration on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the former concentration camp Mauthausen. English translation done by Mrs. Abigail Ryan-Prohaska.

We catch our breath. Here evil was at home for almost seven years. A piece of hell on earth. This is where people from the whole of Europe suffered and died: Jews and Christians, Sinti and Gypsies (Romanies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals, the disabled, and political dissenters. Austrians were among the victims — and among the perpetrators. This simultaneous grief and shame — immeasurable suffering and unlimited brutality — is something we must live with. The concentration camps on our native soil confront us with the indivisibility of our past. Everything that happened in this country — both the good and the horrific — is written down for ever in our history. We must admit to both, if the future is not to be a repetition of the past.

But Mauthausen holds another terrifying experience for us, the later generation. The havoc that then raged was not the evil doing of some iniquitous hordes from far away. Nor of blind and savage fanatics from another culture, another religion, another civilisation. No, they were people like us. With wives and children at home whom they loved. With dreams and longings like us, with their Christmas tree and their Schiller and Goethe on the bookshelves. Perpetrators and victims were indistinguishable. In the colour of their skin. In their facial features. The line of battle between good and evil cut right through the middle of our people, through families, indeed, sometimes right through our own hearts. Each of us could have been both: victim, but also perpetrator. And we can never be sure in the last resort which side we would have been on then — and would be today.

The gospel of St. Matthew has these terrible words spoken by Jesus: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees,  hypocrites, that build the sepulchres of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the just. And say: If we had been in the days of our fathers we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets...!” This is what always forces us to remember: the acknowledgement of our weakness and our susceptibility to temptation. When the worst comes to the worst, the steps that separate us from the confusion of feelings, from temptation and ensnarement are only very small. But there is also the knowledge of the power of evil — and the depths of God-forsakenness. Even tomorrow or the day after, it can steal upon us in the guise of a new ideology, with new powers of persuasion. And it is not only since the Holocaust that we human beings are confronted with the question from the Book of Job: “Where were you, God?” Where were you when women and children, men young and old were sent to the death chambers in the murderous bondage of National Socialism? There is no simple answer to such questions — simple enough to adequately convince our human way of thinking.

The accusation of the absence of God is also the accusation of the absence of man: where was human kindness, where were the people, when our brothers and sisters had to suffer such atrocities? We could — and must — find an answer at least to this question. And all the more, since the Christian faith has this message at its very core: God put Himself on the side of the tortured and the maltreated, this is where He can be found. This is the Word of the Cross. But this makes the question all the more insistent: how could all this happen in a country formed by Christianity, where the Cross is ubiquitous? Even if there were many among the victims of the terror of National Socialism who suffered and were murdered for their Christian faith, we have to acknowledge how much failure, denial and blame have loaded the burden of guilt Christians must also bear.

Day by day we experience how fragile all human safeguards can be that protect us against intolerance, injustice, even naked violence. We experience how hard it is to accept what has happened and live in the truth, come what may. We recognise how brittle solidarity is, how quickly we are threatened by old adversaries, or what we see as hostile to us. And how arduous it is to build stable bridges of trust and mutual respect and sustain them. So why remember? And why should places such as this rear up eternally out of the “river of forgetfulness” — like a rock, that cannot be borne away by the rushing river of time? The 18-year-old Ivon Mircov (the winner of the Mauthausen speech competition) has just related so movingly why her turning towards history has made her turn more and more to her neighbour. The history of the last century has proved this right; it is a mighty appeal against any leveling and covering over of history.

Adolf Hitler himself provided terrible evidence of this when he brushed away the last doubts about his annihilation campaign against the Jews and the Slav peoples with these words: “Who still remembers the Armenians today?” It’s a fact: the Armenian tragedy of 1915, so long buried by silence and memory suppression, gave the dictators who followed a precedent showing that the expulsion and annihilation of entire peoples are possible. In the twentieth century as well.  Mauthausen is the horrific proof. Sixty years have passed since the liberation. We still feel that the fight against yesterday’s shadows is never completely won. That the way out of endangerment is still a long one. It leads — far more directly than we think — through everyday life.

But what can we hold onto — the signs of hope that are so essential — in the fight against the shadows of the past?

First of all by listening to our conscience, the inner voice of God in our hearts, to the eternal law of dignity, indeed, God’s likeness in each human being which is written into our hearts.

Secondly, in the awareness of our thoughts and actions. World history doesn’t just take place somewhere else, far away — it is not shaped by distant, foreign powers that are anonymous for us. We are all part — and a responsible part — of history. Every day. With every deed, with every word, but also with every omission. The rough draft of the future is being written by us today.

But the third hold is memory. The remembrance of our own mistakes, and even more of the faithfulness of God. The God of Israel, whom we also call Father, will never tire of calling to us through His prophets: Do not forget My deeds, do not forget My history with you. These should remain your roots! This implies that our memory always means a faithfulness to God, too; God, who never forgets; where nothing is ever lost or forgotten — whether tears, whether suffering, or even that still, hidden goodness that was always there in the midst of horror, and that will always be there.

The last two pleas of the “Our Father” are: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” May God grant that we of today never find ourselves in situations in which we fail through weakness, cowardice and fear, and betray humanity. God grant, that the evil that came to an end in this place sixty years ago will never return. Save us from the power of evil. Grant that the whole family of mankind some time, soon, will be released from his power.

With permission. The original text of the speech can be found at the site of the Archdiocesis of Vienna: