“This is where your mother would have been forced to stand when she first passed through the camp gates. It’s called the Wailing Wall.”

Rupert is on staff at what was once Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The granite walls, the imposing guard towers, the barracks, the gas chamber, and the ovens now stand as a memorial dedicated to those who suffered and died in that ghastly place.

The site provides a personal guide for family members. Our guide Rupert did more than walk my wife Joy and me through the physical plant of Mauthausen. He led us, as best he could, through my mother’s experience there.

Upon reflection I believe that she endured not only brutal treatment, hunger, and desperate fear. The camp’s diabolical processes were dedicated to stripping her life of meaning.

The psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith argues that a sense of belonging is crucial to having meaning in life. To having the “why” of our existence. If we are stripped of our sense of belonging, we will eventually tumble into an existential crisis. A crisis of meaning.

As thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Viktor Frankl have argued, humans cannot go on long without a sense of life’s meaning. The ultimate aim of all the Nazi camps was death. So it makes monstrous sense that the Nazis would have stripped away their victims’ ability to belong.

Belonging involves mutual recognition. Paradoxically, being one of many also means that each of us is different. You recognize me as me. For you, I am not interchangeable. I am irreplaceable. And I recognize you in the same way. Each of us finds our identity as human beings by recognizing and respecting each other’s difference.

The Nazis sought to make life unbearable for concentration camp victims by making them utterly interchangeable.

Trudy (my mother’s German name was Edeltraud) arrived in the nearby village of Mauthausen by train.

1944 had edged into 1945. Trudy would soon turn sixteen. Previously, the camp had been reserved for adult men. As the tide of war turned against the Nazis, the camp’s mission was expanded to include women and children.

At the station, SS guards hustled the prisoners from their cars and marched them through the village streets. As the shocked and weary prisoners shuffled and stumbled along, the villagers went about their ordinary rounds as if these strangers were invisible.

There was no jeering or staring. There were no furtive, compassionate glances. The prisoners were invisible. Too normal and mundane a sight to give notice.

By contrast, the residents warmly greeted the guards. Shopkeepers and Hausfraus and bankers would smile and wave at them. Call them genially by name. Swap jokes. “Hans, remember dinner at 8:00! My daughter can’t wait to see you!”

This Austrian street would have resembled the hometown streets of Linz—about 12 miles away—that my mother had strolled just days before. Bakeries. Cafes. A post office. A park. As she walked to school, people would have called out to her by name. Slipped her a warm torte or flashed her a friendly smile. They recognized her. She belonged to that place. To those people.

But as soon as the prisoners arrived in the village of Mauthausen, an existential stripping had begun. Stripped of belonging to an address, to a neighborhood, to a family, to a circle of friends, to a community.

After a steep mile and half march, the prisoners came to the camp. After passing through the massive gates, the prisoners marched immediately to the right along the wall. They halted at the Wailing Wall, a section of wall across from a nondescript administrative building.

Here, the stripping continued.

Guards ordered everyone to remove their clothes, to toss all their belongings in a pile by the building, and then to face the wall. Prisoners stood naked, humiliated, terrified at attention.

Along with their clothing and their jewelry, they had been stripped of their individual identity. With clothing we express ourselves. We differentiate ourselves from and identify ourselves to each other. That is how we connect. How we belong.

Next, their heads and bodies were roughly shaved. Each was a assigned an ill-fitting striped uniform and a bracelet with a number.

No hair style to distinguish them from anyone else. A number replacing their name. All vestiges of individual humanity had been systematically stripped from each prisoner. They were interchangeable. They could not belong because they could not be recognized as unique, irreplaceable human beings.

Stripped of meaning, they would gradually, meekly slide into death. At least, that was the plan.

Lest we think that Mauthausen and the other 1200 camps are merely a lesson about a terrible but now bygone era, consider what the late therapist and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl identifies as the symptoms of a crisis of meaning:

• Aggression

• Addiction

• Depression

By these measures, as writers like David Brooks have noted, the United States is in the throes of a crisis of meaning.

We have an aggression epidemic. Mass shootings are so frequent that they no longer shock us. We have been at war for nearly two decades. White supremacy is on the rise as are hate crimes agains LGBTQ people, Muslims, and people of color.

There is an opioid crisis. Around 130 people die from opioid overdoses a day. But other drugs take a toll as well. Between 1999 and 2017 more than 700,000 people have died by drug overdose.

The US suicide rate rose 24% between 1999 and 2014. While there are many factors involved in this statistic, despair and depression surely play a significant part.

Survivors of the camps have a crucial lesson for us. Viktor Frankl observed that those who loved others—those who sacrificed for the sake of others—were more likely to find meaning in even the wretched conditions of the camp.

As it turns out, loving your neighbor is the most effective resistance against the power of death and perhaps a way out of our shared crisis.

32 Comments

  1. My imagination doesn’t have the ability to comprehend what you described as a reality for those living the ordeal that was forced upon them. I met survivors an d heard their stories as a young woman but I know now I didn’t have world knowledge I have since acquired to have understanding that touch my soul. Something like 10 million people not counting any military personal were lost in the war and I don’t believe we as humans have not learnt anything to see that it isn’t repeated. The world not embracing our neighbors with love can be a cruel place. Thank you for sharing this part of your history. Safe travels

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Bishop, for a beautiful reflection on the meaning of life. As one Rabbi so eloquently noted, the Nazi’s didn’t murder 6 million Jews; rather, they committed 6 million murders. Every person put to death in a concentration camp was murdered. There is no such thing as a faceless mass of humanity. Every single person marched through those gates had a face that God gazed upon before he or she was born. Therefore, they all need to be grieved. I hope we never forget that. Blessings on your sabbatical.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jake, I can’t even begin to think how this visit hit the very depths of your soul… this is what is happening on the southern border… this is what is happening in far too many places around the world… I studied Frankl years ago in CPE… thank you for the reminder… and thank you for sharing what is an incredibly personal story… much love to you and Joy as you continue your Sabbatical journey.

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    1. The parallel with the southern border is stark and frightening. In some other writing I’ve talked about resistance, but I haven’t posted it. For now I’m reserving it for one of the chapters of the next book. Pentecost blessings, my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed the parallels are frightening. Here and elsewhere authoritarian thugs are rising… Pentecost blessings to you as well! We head to a three day Ignatian Silent Retreat in Mobile next week followed by a wedding. Looking forward to it.

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  4. What courage you had to visit this dreadful extermination/murder site. When visiting Germany I have talked to people of those terrible times and the shame the German people carry for those dreadful crimes is enormous.
    God bless and keep you whole and sound.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bishop,
    Thank you for your gift of writing and thank you for sharing with us some very intense and personal feelings of this visit. The more people like you speak up about the pain and suffering of others, maybe we will not be so likely to make the same mistakes over and over again. Our prayers were with you and Joy during your trip and remain with you. Stay blessed.

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  6. What a miracle your mother, against all odds, survived. The lesson of love you’ve drawn from comparing ‘then and now’ is very powerful.. I’m grateful for what you’ve shared.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. It hurts my heart to read this, imaging how it must have felt and impacted you to come face to face with such a horrible reality of what your strong willed mother endured. I don’t know that the vision would ever leave my thoughts. Prayers for you during this journey you are on🙏.

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  8. +Bishop, thank you for the generous offering of the raw and tender places of your heart. May all who seek reconciliation with the past gain strength and courage from your faith and experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank God your mother made it out alive, may God have mercy on her abusers. You and Joy are very strong for going on that tour! My grandma was on trail of tears and I am not sure if I went through that tour I would be so strong! I am thankful for knowing you as my Bishop. God bless, safe travels, and blessed Pentecost.

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  10. I just finished reading Shores Beyond Shores, Irene Hasenberg Butter’s story of fleeing Germany to Amsterdam, only to be deported to Bergen-Belsen. Her family survived the camp and she ended up in the U.S. For many years, she did not speak of her experiences–for the sake of “moving on.” But once she started to share her story, she realized the importance of speaking up, of sharing what she witnessed and what she experienced. Thank you for sharing.

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  11. Bishop Jake while your journey has been personal, your story is touching our hearts deeply .I found myself crying with thoughts of the past and the loss and pain that is sadly apart of our daily lives. Lovingly one another is the balm to heal our souls. We must preach loudly this commandment!

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