Faith Matters

Dominic McGrattan: Angels of mercy and hope can still change history

Holocaust Memorial Day will be observed on Sunday, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on January 27 1945. Fr Dominic McGrattan reflects on the catastrophe of that genocide, and finds hope in 'humanity's angels' who build 'compassion and grace, tolerance and beauty, justice and generosity'

Dominic McGrattan

Flowers placed next to the names of concentration camps at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Picture by AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

ON a recent visit to Krakow, I attended the launch of an exhibition at Lipowa 3 Gallery in the Jewish Quarter.

Aniol, by ceramic artist Marta Wasilczyk was, for me, the standout piece.

The sculpted angel had a head of scroll-like ringlets, resembling those of an Orthodox Jew.

It sat by a window, its gaze fixed on Oskar Schindler's factory, located opposite the gallery, with its wings of trumpet-shaped feathers pinned back, as though overwhelmed by the apocalyptic significance of what it beheld.

'Aniol', by ceramic artist Marta Wasilczyk, depicts an angel bearing witness to all the terrible things that might have occurred but didn't

Wasilczyk's sculpture instantly reminded me of another angel.

In Israel's Museum of Fine Art in Jerusalem hangs Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus or 'The New Angel'.

Painted in 1920, just after the Great War, Klee offers an angel fit for modernity, a mythic form recast for a new and turbulent era.

The soft, sweet, cherubic forms of the Renaissance canvas give way to a primitive approximation of the traditional angel - wings, a head, eyes, a torso, but little else. It's as though Angelus Novus has been sketched by a child.

The painting is given its definitive exegesis by Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin.

Fleeing Nazi persecution in Vichy France in 1940, Benjamin writes his seminal essay Theses on the Philosophy of History.

Confronted by the wreckage of human tragedy, Benjamin interprets Angelus Novus as "the angel of history": "[The angel's] face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.

"The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them."

In Paul Klee's painting 'Angelus Novus', the angel's face is turned towards the past

On this reading, Klee's angel is a witness to history, storm-tossed by the calamities that human beings seem continually to heap at the angel's feet.

It therefore serves as a reminder of the ethical and spiritual importance of bearing witness to the tragedies of the past - and, sadly, the present.

The angel's wide-eyed gaze helps us recall that there are other possibilities available to us, born not from wreckage but from grace.

Holocaust Memorial Day coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27 1945.

It is a moment of grace when we express solidarity with the whole House of Israel throughout the world.

Not only do we remember the millions of people killed in the Nazi persecution, but also the countless victims of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, as well as others including Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

We also honour survivors and challenge ourselves to learn lessons from the horrors of the past, lest they be repeated.

It has been said that for evil to succeed, all that is required is for good people to do nothing.

During the Holocaust, and in other recent genocides, too many people did stand by and look on.

The resolve of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, still has much to teach us: "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation."

So too that passage from St Luke's Gospel, which recounts the merciful actions of the Good Samaritan.

He did not pass by on the other side. He took action in the face of the evil that confronted him on the Jericho road.

It is hard to imagine a worse catastrophe than the Holocaust, and even harder to imagine that it could have been worse.

But it could. And the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, which honours the "righteous among the nations", stands as testament to the unthinkable.

In a world of moral collapse, a small minority of Christians and people of good will mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values.

This "cloud of witnesses" - to borrow from the Letter to the Hebrews - stood in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust.

It is hard to imagine a worse catastrophe than the Holocaust, and even harder to imagine that it could have been worse. But it could. And the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, which honours the "righteous among the nations", stands as testament to the unthinkable

These Good Samaritans, these angels of mercy, recognised the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.

Most were ordinary people. Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, merely human beings who cared about the people around them.

In most cases they never planned to become rescuers and were unprepared for the part they would play in history.

It is precisely because they were ordinary human beings that their humanity touches us and serves as a model for compassionate living.

The righteous were Christians from all denominations and churches, Muslims and agnostics; men and women of all ages; they came from all walks of life; highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from society's margins; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, priests, nuns, diplomats, labourers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.

Amid the tragedy of the Holocaust, these were humanity's angels, a cloud of alternate witnesses.

Through their eyes we observe not just what happened, but what did not happen because faithful people put their faith into action.

It is in this light that I interpret Marta Wasilczyk's Aniol.

Yes, it corresponds to Klee's Angelus Novus, but not quite as Walter Benjamin would have it.

Instead of Klee's mute witness to the catastrophes of the world, Wasilczyk's angel is an equal but opposite angel bearing witness to all the terrible things that might have occurred but didn't, because of the activity and presence of people like Oskar Schindler.

In Paul Klee's painting 'Angelus Novus', the angel's face is turned towards the past

While Schindler and the many righteous remembered at Yad Vashem may not have seen it or noticed it without angelic eyes to guide them, their activities and interventions mattered not so much because of what did take place but because of what did not take place.

And but for their actions, it could have been much worse.

Wasilczyk's Aniol is therefore a metaphor for the work of the engaged and active community in the world.

Even if we can't see or notice it, the smallest interventions, the acts of courage and grace that individuals and groups manage every now and then can avert disaster or, at any rate, worse disasters.

And so instead of an angel bearing witness to the catastrophes that do take place, Wasilczyk proposes an angel that bears witness to the victories that are won because people do step up.

Of course we need both types of angel. We need angels to bear witness to that which really does happen, who contend with the tragic dimension of the world, who are faithful and engaged and alive.

But we need other angels, represented by Aniol, to help us understand that our actions - yours and mine - matter, and perhaps much more than we realise.

There remains a cloud of alternate witnesses observing the tragedies and hardships that continue to be prevented.

Because of the generosity of ordinary, decent people, maybe the heat wasn't turned off in the middle of winter, a family wasn't evicted and put out on the street, a person didn't lose their job.

Maybe the homeless didn't go hungry, and school children received a good breakfast each morning before class, and refugees received welcome and hospitality.

Thank God for all that did not occur because of a handful of faithful and committed people. May we be counted among that number

Maybe an angel of alternate history might be able to show us what might have happened had we not reached out to the sick and elderly neighbour next door, or ignored persecution in Palestine, or not bothered to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity to build that home or school in Honduras.

It might be that the angel, the alternate witnesses, would report no change. It might be that had we not been a part of those things, some other community would have.

It might be that everyone would be better off if we had just minded our own business, tended our own yards, concerned ourselves with this or that.

It might be - but it might also be that those relationships helped someone survive depression, or make it through an alcoholic winter.

It might be that something we did kept a child in school, or offered someone the gift of literacy; it might be that we helped our friends to believe that someone in the world still cared.

Without being self-congratulatory, without hubris or pride, the angel of alternate history might help us understand how consequential our work really is.

Day and daily, one way or another, each of us is empowered to act, to give, to build a world of compassion and grace, tolerance and beauty, justice and generosity.

Because of the ways each of us throw ourselves into the work that needs to be done, an angel of alternate history, and a chorus of alternate witnesses, looks upon the world and thinks, for all the damage that can and does occur, thank God for all that didn't occur.

Thank God for all that did not occur because of a handful of faithful and committed people. May we be counted among that number. Amen.

Fr Dominic McGrattan

  • Fr Dominic McGrattan is a priest of St Brigid's Parish, Belfast and an associate of the Down and Connor Living Church Office

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