A horrific, painful glimpse of war … and a commitment to change things for the better

Peter Seal, 8 November 2020

Ecclesiastes 3: 1–15; James 3: 13–18; Matthew 14: 13–21

On the world scene we acknowledge together that the United States of America has a new president, and we pray for him and for all the people of that vast country.

So today: a Remembrance Sunday probably like no other. We live in the midst of a world pandemic and now, in this country, a new lockdown with an uncertain end date. Strange times indeed – at best unsettling, at worst very frightening. There are many challenges, especially for the vulnerable and the most anxious. We find ourselves tested. So it’s especially good that we can join together for worship and our celebration of this Holy Eucharist.

It’s a real privilege for those few of us here in St Paul’s, enabling today’s service, to join with so many of you, wherever you may be, in this virtual way. Together we can feel strong and cared for. We’re reminded that, together, we will emerge from these winter days to a new freer, safer future. There will be a new springtime.

On this Remembrance Sunday we acknowledge those in past years who gave their lives fighting for the peace we enjoy; and we salute them. We give thanks for those brave men and women who serve in our armed forces today, and we pray for them. And we acknowledge the necessarily hidden work of our security services protecting us from the modern warfare of terrorist attack. We pray for the people of Vienna and of Nice after the dreadful attacks of this past week.

Looking back and giving thanks can help put our current challenges in a wider perspective. Looking back gives us a horrific, painful glimpse of what, as his worst, man can do to man.

You may know the book The Boy who Followed his Father into Auschwitz, written by Jeremy Dronfield. It tells the inspiring, true story of a father and son’s fight to stay together and to survive the Holocaust. It’s a powerful and often uncomfortable story which beautifully captures the strength of the bond between the father, Gustav, and his son, Fritz. They come from an ordinary Jewish family in Austria. One day the Nazis come for them.

Sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1939, they survive three years of murderous brutality. And then Gustav, the father, is ordered to Auschwitz. Fritz, desperate not to lose his beloved father, insists he must go too. And though he is told it means certain death, he won’t back down. So it is that father and son, together, board a train bound for the most hellish place on earth …

This book tells the astonishing, the true story of horror, of love and of impossible survival. It’s deeply moving, it’s brimming with humanity. I want to give you just a tiny flavour from a few excerpts.

After a particularly difficult time, at one point Gustav and his friends tell us that they have regained their influence. The atmosphere among the prisoners has become comradely again. ‘By contrast with what they had just been through, it could almost be called civilisation, albeit a civilisation carved out with bleeding fingers inside the fences of hell.’

‘Everyone in the camp is thinking: tomorrow it will be my turn. Daily, hourly, death was before their eyes.’

Then, towards the end of the book Fritz is released: ‘The journey which had started that day could not be completed until he returned to Vienna and discovered whether it was still his home – and, most importantly, whether his father had also survived’. And he writes, ‘And as for the nightmare of what I had been through, that would never end so long as life and memory lasted. The dead remained dead, the living were scarred, and their numbers and their histories would stand for all time as their memorial.’

And finally, ‘In the end the Kleinmann family not only survived but prospered; through courage, love, solidarity and luck, they outlasted the people who had tried to destroy them. They and their descendants spread and multiplied, perpetuating through the generations the love and unity that had helped them through the darkest times. They took their past with them, understanding that the living must gather the memories of the dead and carry them safely into the future.’

These small windows into the life of the concentration camps help put the Covid pandemic that we are living through into perspective.

These small windows into the life of the concentration camps help put the Covid pandemic that we are living through into perspective.

Today, with heavy hearts, we acknowledge the horrors of war. As well as the terrible loss of human life, both in armed forces and among civilians, there have been countless animals, who did not understand at all. Horses screaming and dogs howling. And then there’s been the loss of flora and fauna, of homes and other buildings, and of infrastructure. Whenever on today’s news I see a picture of violence and warfare, whether from times past or from our own day, there’s always that inevitable pall of black smoke billowing up into the earth’s atmosphere, full of pollution.

I believe that part of our calling, as thinking, caring, imaginative, sensitive human beings, is to really engage with the complexities of our world; to engage with the challenge of trying to change things for the better as much as we possibly can. This involves huge patience and unfailing hope.

Looking ahead and beyond the pandemic, we know that the survival of planet earth is in our hands. So I invite you with me – and I still wear the green ribbon – to renew our commitment to caring for this planet. We can’t ever say that we haven’t been warned about the lasting effects of pollution caused by human activity. One way that we can show our love for younger generations, for whom this pandemic is so limiting, is to work for peace, reducing emissions, so that our created world has a sustainable future.

In conclusion: together, dear friends, we are strong; together we are filled with hope; together we believe in God’s eternal purposes and that all will be well, and that nothing, eternally, will be lost. So we rejoice in our life-giving Christian faith and indeed in the gift of one another. Amen.