Imagination and the Holocaust: Where was ‘Man’ in Auschwitz?

10 May 2019


Where was Man in Auschwitz?

Two explanations before we begin.

Firstly by ‘Man’ we mean humankind or humanity, hopefully my use of the term will not be viewed as me lacking sensitivity; and secondly by Auschwitz we mean the Holocaust or Shoah.   For the benefit of this paper I will use the more commonly used term Holocaust.

Where was Man in Auschwitz?

The question was almost certainly a response to an earlier posed question: Where was God in Auschwitz?

In other words:

  • How could God have allowed the Holocaust?
  • If God exists how could such evil stalk our world?

The same philosophical questions have been posed since time immemorial?

  • How could God allow war?
  • How could God allow earthquakes?
  • How could God allow famine?
  • How could God allow the plague?
  • How could God allow his Son to die on a cross?
  • How could God allow the things that happened to Job happen at all?
  • Where is God in all the suffering of the world?

A Jewish story – I only tell a Jewish story if it is told to me by a member of the Jewish community:

A Holocaust survivor dies and goes to heaven. He meets God. The survivor tells God a joke about the Holocaust. At the end God doesn’t laugh; it’s clear he didn’t get it. ‘Ah,’ says the Holocaust survivor, ‘I’m sorry, I was forgetting, to have got it you’d have had to have been there!’

It was inevitable that both during and after the catastrophe that was the Holocaust, the question ‘Where was God?’ should be put. Indeed you may recall the 2008 TV play ‘God on Trial’ which was set in Auschwitz. In it God is accused by the prisoners of breaking his covenant with his people by allowing the Nazis to commit genocide against the Jews of Europe.

The play was based on The Trial of God a play written by Elie Wiesel first published in English in 1979. Its full title was The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod). This play was a fictional tale that begins:

“Its genesis: inside the kingdom of night, I witnessed a strange trial. Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But nobody cried.”

Wiesel stated that he based his play on an actual event he had witnessed as a teenager in Auschwitz.

At some point, having been asked ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ someone responded ‘Never mind where God was, where was man?’

So that is our question tonight. Where was man in Auschwitz?

Which is effectively asking:

  • How could humankind have allowed this to happen?
  • Where was humanity in the darkest episode of human history?
  • How could man do this to his fellow man?

I wonder, are these questions a failure of imagination? And it is this particular possibility that I wish to draw on in this presentation. Is the question Where was man in Auschwitz? a failure of imagination?

The answer is both yes and no. The Holocaust does that to us – there is no clear, unequivocal answer to almost any question, especially philosophical, that is posed about it.

So I will firstly briefly consider that the question is not a failure of imagination, in other words that it is undeniably reasonable to ask such a question. Then, secondly, I will more fully consider that the question is a failure of imagination, for the answer is so blindingly obvious that it shouldn’t have to be posed.


  1. Where was Man in Auschwitz? A fair question.

Well, how could this have happened? How could one of the most cultured nations on earth during the 19th century have descended to the depths of such depravity over just a few decades? It’s crazy. How could people have let this happen? Indeed, how could they have taken part? Yet take part they did, in their tens and tens of thousands. You don’t kill 6 million people without involving one heck of a lot of people.

  • From those who planned, to those who killed.
  • From those who identified Jews, to those who drove the trains.
  • From those who typed up the reports, to those who moved into the empty homes, received the clothing and the furniture.

But the question is: how could people, human beings, have done this to their neighbours amongst whom they had lived all their lives, or to those whom they had never met? What harm had the Jews of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus etc etc have done to Germans who had never previously left the Rhineland? Looking back, the whole episode looks incredulous.

We watch the History Channel and witness the despair, the destruction and the death and it is all so incomprehensible; it is beyond belief. So we reassure ourselves with the view that the Holocaust was surely an aberration. We stand at the gates to Auschwitz under a summer sun and bright blue sky and consign the events to a monochrome past that can never be revisited. We know better now. This could not happen again. The Nazis were not human beings, they must have been monsters. If we, with the benefit of hindsight, and more than 70 years of analysis, view the Holocaust in this way ie with utter disbelief, then consider how unimaginable it must have been for those who lived at the time.

Surely no one could have predicted what was to happen. And when it did happen, even many caught up in it had been so demoralized, so dehumanised, that it seemed a never ending nightmare. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t normal. How could it be? As for those sitting in Whitehall and Washington, when the reports came in of massacres on an unprecedented scale, all too few could believe it. And seriously, who could blame them? It is sometimes claimed, and not without good reason, that the first casualty of war is truth. There had been sufficient propaganda about massacres during the First World War to give rise to a significant level of skepticism less than 30 years later.

Reading firsthand accounts of those who liberated the camps drives home the shock they had in seeing with their own eyes the full extent of the horror. Nothing could have prepared them for what they witnessed. One man, known to me personally, experienced 40 years of nightmares before he could tell his wife that he had been one of the first British troops to arrive at Belsen. And that is all he ever said about it.

No wonder we ask: how could man have done this to his fellow man?

It’s a fair question.


  1. Where was Man in Auschwitz? A failure of imagination

I begin with a wonderfully insightful Jewish story of a Jew from Leeds who visits New York for the first time.

On his return from New York he tells his friend that while there he met a Jew who was the most generous man he had ever met; he met a Jew who was very tight with his money. He met a Jew who was so admirably devoted to his wife and kids he’d never seen such devotion; he met a Jew who was the worst womaniser he’d ever encountered. He met a Jew who spoke great wisdom and taught him so much; yet he also met a Jew who was so stupid it made him angry. The friend of the guy telling the story responded – ‘I’m not surprised, there’s a lot of Jews in New York.’ ‘Indeed,’ says the guy, ‘but this was the same Jew!’

Each and every one of us has a great desire to do good but equally so a capacity to do bad things. We should not be complacent in thinking otherwise.

The Holocaust has a numbing effect upon us. In one way or another, since about the age of 13, I have spent almost my whole life wrestling with its meaning. The Holocaust, and issues surrounding it, has been the focus of almost all my reading outside anything that I have had to undertake in my role as a Methodist minister, and indeed has also become a very great part of that ongoing formation. Even with this background I had to pause just after I began preparing this paper; for a few moments I was in a dark place; I could not continue and had to steel myself to do so. That’s not unusual.

Such is the impact upon anyone who seeks to wrestle with the meaning of the Holocaust. I know people who have had to suddenly and completely desist, after decades, and renegotiate their lives, lest it consumes them. The impact of the Holocaust didn’t end with the victims, it goes on to this day, upon the last survivors for sure, but also in the lives of the second and even third generation, the children and grandchildren, and often indeed upon the wellbeing of those who study or reflect upon this vilest of vile crimes.

German philosopher Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) is often quoted as saying “after Auschwitz there can be no poetry.” This is an inaccurate translation; what he actually said was: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” What Adorno was saying was that imagination cannot conjure up what it was like to be in Auschwitz; only the reality of being there is authentic. With all humility I agree with those who have not been convinced with Adorno’s conjecture. And the evidence is strongly in our favour. Within just a few years of the destruction of the crematoria, poetry and literature quickly sought to give a voice to those silenced in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the forests of Baltic States. It was not an art form but a necessity. How else could the inexpressible be articulated? Or the inexplicable be understood?

To ask where man was in Auschwitz is clearly then a failure of imagination; not just because of the ongoing search for meaning but also in the physical reality.

Of course man was in Auschwitz:

  • He was in the idea and the expression of hatred.
  • She was in the crowd at a Nuremburg rally cheering and saluting, caught up in the mass hysteria.
  • He was in the planning, the drawing up of the project known as the Final Solution.
  • She was in the roundup, the transportation and the selection.
  • He was the SS officer who attended church frequently,
  • the camp guard claiming he was only doing what he was told,
  • the kapo trying to prolong his life a few more weeks, herding people into the showers and removing the bodies.


  • He was also the one who helped hide his neighbour’s child.
  • She was the one who spirited people away across the border.
  • He was the one who ensured the bucket of water was not spilt in the cattle truck.
  • She was the one kept the spirits up by singing to the fearful.
  • He was part of the supreme effort to rid Europe of the evil that is fascism.
  • She was the one who volunteered to go and bathe the wounds.

Equally so he was also the one who did nothing. Who just stood and watched. Who was neither involved as a perpetrator nor as a rescuer because he firmly believed that this was not his battle.

Here lies the crux of the matter: everyone is in Auschwitz, not the camp but the concept.

Every human being that has ever lived has had the capacity to do great evil or endless good. It is not unimaginable for those who have any ounce of knowledge about the human condition, understanding of others or self-awareness to believe that this was not only possible, but actually occurred and could do so again. After all the Holocaust was not the first time that the Jewish communities had faced an existential threat; it was not the first time that European Jews had been massacred in droves, as the awful phrase has it,  ‘like sheep to slaughter.’

We cannot ignore the fact that the killing grounds of the Nazis were often the very same places where pogroms had occurred over previous centuries. One difference lay in the industrialised mechanisation of the killing process of the Final Solution. And here lies a warning. Despite claims to the contrary the Holocaust was not a one-off event isolated in human history, it was part of an evolutionary evil that had grown out of centuries of contempt. That evil continues to exist to this day and could erupt anywhere it goes unchecked.

Both antisemitism on the left and islamophobia on the right of British politics gain ground week by week. Those who promote such prejudice may couch their vile beliefs in cosy terminology and political rationale, but you don’t have to scratch too deeply to find a hatred lurking in the very fibre of their being. Failure to take such evil seriously is every bit as complacent as those who once scoffed at Hitler’s threats.

I am going to close with two verse of scripture, one from the Hebrew Bible and the second from the Christian Testament.

‘Woe to you who say good is evil

and evil good;

who turn darkness to light

and light into darkness,

who turn bitter into sweet

and sweet into bitter.’   (Isaiah 5.20)


‘Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.’   (Luke 11.35)

2 Responses to “Imagination and the Holocaust: Where was ‘Man’ in Auschwitz?”

  1. Jill Walker said

    Hello! Could you please let me know if you have written any more books. I’ve just finished ‘Echoes of Contempt’ which helps to make v complex issues available for many. Thank you, Blessings, Jill Walker

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