When people first learn that my mother survived the Holocaust, they frequently ask me if she was Jewish. It’s understandable. The Nazi Final Solution targeted Jews. Six million of them died in the camps.
It comes as a surprise to them when I explain that my mother was a fifteen-year-old Roman Catholic school girl. She is one of the thousands of the non-Jews who were sentenced to one of those dreadful camps. The Nazis killed up to half a million of them in addition to their Jewish victims.
An article I read recently suggested that the children of Holocaust survivors know what it’s like to suffer from secondhand smoke. We are affected in various ways by our parents’ experience. I’ll explain how my life has been shaped by the Nazi genocide in a moment. But first, I’ll tell you what I know about why my mother was arrested and imprisoned.
Mom never told me why the Gestapo showed up. In fact, she never wanted to dwell on her experience in the camp. So, it was only after she had died that I began digging for an explanation.
Before the Allied advance disrupted their administrative processes, Germans kept meticulous records of concentration camp inmates. In Mauthausen, each prisoner was forced to wear a colored triangle designating their classification: Jew, Roma, homosexual, Soviet Prisoner of War, dissident, and the like.
After reviewing the list of prisoner classifications, I concluded that my mother could fit into only one relatively small group: anti-social element. In other words, “You don’t fit. We don’t want you here.” My mother was deemed socially undesirable.
Just think about that for a moment. Somebody somewhere decided that my mother was socially undesirable. They made this decision accepting that it was likely to be her death sentence.
I’ve tried to imagine what sort of consciousness would be required to go about systematically exterminating socially undesirable people as if they were vermin. Consider this. The Nazis used the same gas (Zyklon-B) for delousing and for executing human beings. Of course they did. In both cases, they were merely exterminating vermin.
I can stop trying to imagine that shape and motivations of that consciousness. And I didn’t have to thumb through the pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to find it. The controversial internet personality Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) describes it with chilling clarity. The columnist Graeme Wood summarizes BAP’s worldview this way: “[The] natural and desirable condition of life is the domination of the weak and ugly by the strong and noble.”
BAP contends that strong individuals should strive to dominate and exploit their inferiors. That is the natural order of things. The fittest thrive and survive. The weak serve the strong or perish. So it is, and so it should be. The assertion that all humans are created equal is a myth used by the weak to constrain the powerful.
BAP is the pseudonym for Costin Alamariu. He has tens of thousands of social media followers. Many of them are young men. Clearly, his ideology holds some attraction to large numbers of people. So let me share one of the effects of Holocaust secondhand smoke on me.
My mother was almost embarrassingly compassionate. She felt a solidarity with other people’s suffering as a habitual practice. She didn’t just feel sorry for them. She offered help. In part I believe that she did so precisely because it’s what she learned about a meaningful life in the camps.
Remember that my mother was not Jewish. She had seen all the different triangles worn by her fellow prisoners. The Nazis had continued to widen the circle of their intended victims. It gradually dawned on Mom that, once they come for anybody, they can come for everybody. Some form of the camps is the inevitable consequence of a world where the strong dominate and exploit the weak.
Whether she realized it or not, my mother had understood Jesus’ central message to his disciples. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
The way of Jesus—the way of the cross—is compassion. And compassion is more than a feeling of pity. Compassion is active solidarity. When Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he wasn’t encouraging us to feel warm and fuzzy about them. He was telling us a basic truth about human existence. We are all in this together. Joined at the hip.
That’s why he said that whatsoever we do to the least—to the hungry, the homeless, the poor, the persecuted, the reviled, the discarded—we do to him. (Matthew 25:45) A society worth living in—a society where we are all truly free—is rooted in solidarity with one another. Solidarity in all our differences and struggles. A just society pursues the common good, not the good of the few at the expense of the many.
The bottom line is this, I suppose. To take up your cross is to walk the way of love. And love is the key to true freedom. Freedom from want. Freedom from violence. Freedom from terror.
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 16:21-28 from Proper 17, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up September 3, 2023). As usual, I’m posting one week in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.
 The figure five million non-Jews has often been cited. However, the historian Yehuda Bauer argues that up to half a million is a more accurate calculation of non-Jewish murder victims in the camps. Nevertheless, the Nazis murdered around 35 million non-Jews during the war. See Terese Pencak Schwartz, “The Holocaust: Non-Jewish Victims” at Jewish Virtual Libraryhttps://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/non-jewish-victims-of-the-holocaust
 Daphne Kalotay, “What Holocaust Storytellers Like Me Know about ‘Secondhand Smoke’”, New York Times, April 16, 2023 https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/16/opinion/second-and-third-generation-storytellers-are-telling-the-story-of-the-holocaust-now.html Graeme Wood, “How Bronze Age Pervert Charmed the Far Right,” The Atlantic, August 3, 2023.