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We reflect on the meaning of our lives not because we believe we are so important; we reflect on our lives to discover that we are not alone.
We need to know whether or not our lives are taken up into something larger than themselves, whether or not God is working all things together for good as Scripture claims.
Meaning does not lie on the surface but deeper down. We discover it by self-examination, by tearing apart our experiences and hoping to find the elusive presence of God.
Thus, spiritual autobiography is not a form of self-absorption but self-denial, losing one’s life to find it.

Basketball in Poland

While I was studying at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, I played basketball for a sports club that was sponsored by the university. Our club received an invitation to play in a tournament hosted by The University of Marii Curie Sklodowskiej in Lublin, Poland. It was a unique opportunity to travel behind the infamous Iron Curtain, so I made arrangements for my wife Judy to travel along. We would be gone for a week.

During a game against a team from the former Czechoslovakia, I broke a bone in the ring finger of my left-hand scrambling for a loose ball. It was a bad break and needed immediate attention. A friend of a friend of someone ferried Judy and me to a Polish hospital in his Russian-made car.

After a prolonged search for someone who could speak English, a surgeon introduced himself, inquired about my background, asked whether I played the piano, and xrayed my finger. After deliberating with the other doctors and nurses, he told me that they had decided not to operate to straighten the broken bone because I did not play the piano. A theological student could live with a crooked finger, they had concluded. I did not disagree.

They got out a splint and some tape.

Have You Been to Majdanek?

While these healers dressed the break in a human finger, they addressed the break in the human soul. “Have you been to Majdanek,” they asked.

Majdanek is a death camp on the outskirts of Lublin where as many as 360,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives. Judy and I had never heard of Majdanek, hidden as it was by the Nazis in a remote corner of Poland and hidden by our own ignorance. The doctors encouraged us to go now that my playing time was over, so we hailed a taxi. In ten minutes, we stood before the gates of Majdanek.

We were utterly alone. Our only companions were black birds swooping against a grey sky and scavenging the grounds for some morsel of food. A steep, layered stairway rose before us. It reminded us of an ancient step-temple, but we were fairly sure that these steps did not lead to the third heaven. Supported above the stairway was a massive piece of rectangular, grey stone, some sort of memorial. It was pocked and marred and looked for all the world like the slag residue of a blast furnace.

We climbed the stairs and walked under the huge stone. The camp spread out before us. It was enclosed by a barbed wire fence with wooden lookouts at standard intervals. A road cut through the middle of it. On the left side was an open area where the prisoners once had worked. On the right side were the barracks, warehouses, and the ovens. A tall chimney betrayed the presence of the ovens. The chimney was square, not round, and looked shockingly like a steeple rising above some church.

Surveying the scene, we could account for everything except for what lay directly before us. About three-quarters of a mile down the road we could see what appeared to be a hill. As we walked toward it, we were able to see it more clearly. It was indeed a hill, a hill sheltered by a huge, concrete dome. We walked up a flight of steps, under the dome, and to a railing. We gazed in silence.

The hill was grey, as grey as the concrete and the sky that embraced it. We saw bits of bone and teeth. And then our eyes were opened. It was a hill of human ash, the ash of all the victims burned in the ovens of Majdanek.

Collapsing Inward

What happened next I find nearly impossible to render in words. I felt contractions in my soul. It was as if a black hole had opened up deep within me, and I collapsed inward. Judy and I continued our tour of the camp, but I was now empty, hollow.

I have since taken many pilgrimages to that day, for something significant happened. I sometimes take students with me. I often take biblical passages. I take them to Majdanek to see if they can shed some light upon what happened and what it means.

Part of what collapsed within me that day was the identity I had built for myself over the years as a believer in Christ, specifically a Western believer, more specifically a West Michigan believer.

I had been living with two different theologies without realizing it. My schooled theology talked of human depravity, but my acculturated theology had been formed around a notion of progress. If one worked hard one got ahead. Jesus had come to make a good world better. I came slowly to realize that as long as I assumed that the fundamental tension in life was between good and better, I would never be able to explain a hill of human ash. I would be moved toward a life of indifference and be inclined to ignore the horrible suffering that human beings can inflict on one another.

I know that I cannot ever fully take in the horror that was Majdanek. I am afraid that anything I may say will sound trivial and that any attempt to encompass it will encourage Christian triumphalism.

Yet this I want to say. In the midst of this heated oven that consumed 360,000 men, women, and children, I was reborn. I opened my eyes on a world of suffering that I did not know existed. I felt a compulsion to cherish this life, to work and to teach so that such suffering would never happen again.

*****

This reflection comes from a forthcoming spiritual autobiography, Trying to See Life Through: Places Thick and Thin, in which I probe the thickness of everyday experiences to find traces of the presence of God.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart recently retired after a long career of teaching Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

16 Comments

  • Wow! I almost fell down while reading this. It was extremely moving. Thank you for sharing this.

    Be blessed and stay healthy.

    Mark

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Tom,
    Thank you for these words and images. I had a similar experience at Dachau. Very hard to give words to such a deep soul transforming experience as to not diminish the souls who suffered. I’m with you, teaching to see that this evil is extinguished and life, ALL life is cherished. Again, thank you for some words!

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This one I won’t forget.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    O Tom,
    Now I sense where you got your life-long commitment to human rights and justice.
    Transformative indeed. And your life following has been transformative, in W. MI, at WTS, in your writings and actions.
    My introduction to the Third World in 1975 (watching human sewage draining down a street in Cairo, Egypt), was not nearly as transformative.
    But I was lifted beyond my W. MI upbringing and have been living beyond it and back in it and beyond it ever since.
    You are still a blessing, Tom. To your world. To all of us. Thank you. And it doesn’t seem like God is through with you yet! Not even close.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Tom. Powerful and searing.

  • Thank you for sharing this moving reflection. During the current COVID-19 restrictions we watched the Polish movie “The Pianist” last evening. I mentioned to my wife how hard it is to watch these stories, but we must, lest we forget. Visits to death camps, watching and reading stories like yours, and deep reflection helps keep perspective. Your broken finger led to a deeper brokenness in our world.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Powerful Tom! Thanks.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you for this sensitive and powerfully moving post. I look forward to reading your book!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Tom, for leading us in an exercise of discovering, as you suggest, the elusive God through self-examination. I’m sure it was a gut wrenching experience to stand before that hill of human ash. You would think such a sight would be utterly heartrending for nearly anyone. That there are some people who are epitomized by such evil seems unfathomable. And yet that hill is proof positive.

    What is even more unfathomable is that God is able and willing to forgive such atrocities. That there is the possibility that people like Adolph Hitler are up in heaven with other such sinners rejoicing in the new eternal bliss they will experience in heaven for eternity because of Jesus. An unfair exchange if there ever was one. And Christians call this justice. Justice is when a person committing a crime pays for his own crime. Who would be satisfied when a rapist and murderer has someone other than himself pay for his crime? That’s a far cry from justice. And, yes, such a God does seem very elusive.

    I’m quite happy that such Holocaust criminals are very few and far between and that with most people we can rejoice because of their goodness.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Tom. This resonated deeply with one who has been to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau.
    Feelings too searing for words.
    And “such suffering” keeps happening.
    We see with a writhing soul, and hear the words – “Be still, and know that I am God.”
    It takes a lifetime trying to figure that out, and we never do. The glass we see through is too dark.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    “We saw bits of bone and teeth. And then our eyes were opened. It was a hill of human ash, the ash of all the victims burned in the ovens of Majdanek.”
    My stomach physically constricted and felt as if I’d received a body blow when I read this passage.
    How often do our eyes remain shut tight in today’s world when confronted with this type of evil I wonder?
    Thank you for this.

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Some say all of that simply can’t be described. Whether that’s true, I will never know. But this morning I’m thankful that you tried and that you told us your own unforgettable story of how and why an experience with human suffering, so far away, altered your vision of things.

  • Marilyn Norman says:

    Tom and Judy, I’m grateful for your gifts of story, stories which bring invitation to examine more deeply my own life and to live with gratitude.

  • Bob Crow says:

    Tom, thanks for your blog, hard as it was to write and for us to read. It resonated with me. Like you, I played basketball in Poland. It was the summer of 1984. I was playing for AIA and we played against the Polish olympic team as they have boycotted the summer games in LA that year.
    During our 10 or so days in Poland we visited Auschwitz. It was a day exactly as you described. Grey. Somber. Quiet, really quiet, except for the crows flying about ominously cawing. We walked into the “showers” (gas chambers). We saw other things like what you described. Stunned. Horrified. We were silent, except for a few sniffles, which I suppose is natural in the face of such evil. While I don’t like to walk down this road, I’m glad I read your piece today. Walking alongside you helped.

  • Stephanie says:

    Recognizing that we have wrongfully believed that the fundamental tension in life is “between the good and better” as you describe, is something for the American church as a whole to wrestle with, as I know you have faithfully taught, Tom. I recognize the gut punch or collapsing inward experience of having to reckon with that in the face of purely evil human behavior, when visiting Dachau or the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Even so, I am re-learning that in deepening spirals in our current environment. It’s painful but it is the only way to truly recognize the need for and beauty of the gospel. Thanks for writing this!

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