Tag Archives: Auschwitz concentration camp

Auschwitz and Destructive Labels

My first article has been published! It appears in the latest ‘Insight’ Magazine. ‘Insight’ is the quarterly magazine from International Christian College, Glasgow. I’ll be putting up a scanned copy soon but here is the original draft. It is a reworking of an earlier blog post.

As always, let me know your thoughts.


This summer I was fortunate enough to merge two of my greatest, creative passions: filmmaking and youth work.

A former youth worker, now teacher, asked if I would accompany a group of pupils on their trip to Auschwitz.  My role would be to document their reactions to the camp in order to produce a series of short educational films based around the Holocaust.  I jumped at the opportunity, not only because I would get an opportunity to widen my filmmaking experience, but I would get to visit an incredible piece of history.

What I saw and felt there will stay with me forever.

I had heard stories about what happened at the concentrations camps. I had seen films depicting events there. But none of this prepared me for how I felt when I physically stood in a gas chamber where hundreds of thousands of people spent their last few minutes on earth screaming; it hit home.

As I walked through the different buildings and saw the piles of clothes, shoes, glasses and hair of the thousands of people who lived and died there; it hit home.

As I walked through the registration building and saw where thousands were stripped, shaved, hosed down and left to die; it hit home.

This really happened, to real people. Death was allowed to flourish here.

As a Christian youth worker, my beliefs, my worldview, permeate every part of my work and are, in fact, at the centre of everything I do. When I was at Auschwitz, I tried to process the horror. I tried to understand how something like this could have happened and how people could have done this to one another.

I believe that what happened stems from labels. The negative labels we put on other people, those that others force on us, and those we choose for ourselves.  This lesson is found in the first few pages of the Bible where Cain murders his brother because labels have divided them.  Abel was labeled as ‘favoured’ and, by default, Cain felt labeled as ‘unfavoured’. The great sadness of the story comes when Cain, unable to break free from the hurt of a negative label, takes his own brother’s life. Throughout the rest of the Bible, I find countless examples of the labeling of people. Both for good and for ill.

Recognising our differences is not wrong, belonging to a group is not necessarily harmful, but the trouble begins when it breeds a persecution mentality of deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. When we strip people of their humanity and no longer see them as God created individuals, the floodgates open wide.  We then feel able to do whatever we like and say whatever we like because they are now different from us.  It is a truth we find in the Bible and a truth that has echoed throughout history.  At worst, labels allow us to indulge our darker tendencies to bully, manipulate, discriminate and hate other humans.

I believe that, in part, this is how the Holocaust unfolded. The Jews, and many other minority groups, were no longer seen as human beings, and so the Nazi’s rallied against them.  They were labeled as ‘different’ and that quickly morphed into them being seen as ‘less than human’, which then led to the justification of horrendous abuse. The slave trade, the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the recent shootings in Norway all happened because human beings chose to label fellow human beings as ‘unimportant’, ‘unwanted’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘expendable’.

What continues to sadden me is that similar attitudes still thrive today. When I see people being singled out as different, and then being ridiculed or bullied because of it, I am aware that the concentration camps are only a few steps away. I recently read an article in “The Independent”, that stated that one in five children are victims of cyber-bullying.  In some cases, this has led to children taking their own lives. All because other people have defined them as ‘different’ and then ridiculed them mercilessly because of that label.

When I read about Jesus’ life in the Gospels, I see a man determined to do away with the labels that constrict, and turn us against one another.  Paul puts the actions of Jesus into words when he states in Galatians 3:28 that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.  These were the religious, political and biological labels of Paul’s day and he claimed that none of them should be used to create divisions.

Instead of starting with what makes people different, Paul urged the early followers, and now us, to find a common identity that unites people, rather than one that forces them apart. And that common identity was Jesus.  In order to heal the rift between mankind and God, Jesus stripped himself of the labels that defined him (Philippians 2:7). To heal the divide that exists between groups of people, we must do the same.

It is this theology of unity that is at the heart of my youth work practice, and it is what I attempt to share with the young people I come in to contact with.  It is a theology that proclaims that we all share a common origin and identity and that are our relationships with one another must start from that place.

Because until we stop casually defining each other with suffocating and toxic labels, there will continue to be casualties.  Tribes will continue to rise up and slaughter other tribes.  Minority groups will continue to be excluded and discriminated against, and individuals will continue to be crushed under the weight of bulling and ridicule. Death will continue to flourish.

Let us stand against this oppressive labeling system and choose to walk the alternative path that Jesus trod.  A path that unites rather than divides; includes rather than excludes; brings life rather than death.


Labeling Auschwitz

Last week I had the incredible privilege to accompany a group of secondary school pupils to Auschwitz in Poland and film their experiences for a series of short teaching aids. As a way of processing some of my thoughts, I’ve decided to blog about it.

I’ve heard stories about what happened at the concentration camps. I’ve seen films depicting events there. But when you physically stand in a gas chamber where hundreds of thousands of people spend their last few minutes on earth screaming; it hits home.

As you walk through the different buildings and see the clothes, shoes, glasses and hair of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived and died there; it hits home.

As you walk through the registration building and see where thousands were stripped, shaved, hosed down and left to die; it hits home.

This really happened. These were real people. Death flourished here.

How do you process something like this?

As a youth worker I try to operate from the view that no one is born evil. I try to believe that it is through a whole series of situations, events and decisions that someone is led to make decisions that would be classified as evil. But when I see what happened there. When I hear the stories and first hand accounts of the atrocities that were committed there, my worldview comes crashing down.

How could human beings do this to other human beings?

I understand that we all have the capacity for acts of great good and great evil but this event seemed to cross a line. And what’s worse is that it still goes on today.

So how do people cross that line? What is it that happens to allow someone to treat another human as ‘less than’ human?

It comes down to labels.

If we choose to label someone, then we no longer have to see them as human.

An overt illustration of this is when all of the prisoners who were taken to the concentration tramps were stripped of their names and given a number.  They were no longer to call each other by their names, only by the number that was tattooed on to their arm. Richard Beck writes an interesting post on this looking at the problem of interacting with people through bureaucratic systems and I think there is much truth in what he is saying.

When we see someone as a number or as an ‘other’ whether it be by religion, sexuality, nationality, we dehumanize them. They stop being a real person with a real life, feelings, dreams and become simply a number. If this is pushed far enough, then the consequences are obvious. If we see people as less than human then there is no problem beating them, ridiculing them or torturing them because they are not like us. They are an other. They do not matter.

This is an important lesson for everyone, not just young people, to understand. Until we stop labeling people, then these kinds of atrocities can and do still happen. At the beginning of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 he talks about  people who have taken their eyes off of God and because they have done so,  have exchanged natural ways of living for unnatural ways. They have become dehumanized and they are dehumanizing other people. They see other people as objects for their own gratification. They abuse one another for their own pleasure.

This is part of what happened in Nazi Germany but also what continues to happen to day in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways.

Are there people we label? That we think of as less than human? Are there people who because of their religion, background, sexuality, political views, we have shut ourselves off from? Are we teaching our young people that no one can be separated from the love of God? That God came to save us all? Do we use inclusive language or do we by our very words or actions, label people to the detriment of them and ourselves?

Let’s make sure we never allow these things to happen again.