In his heart-wrenching, innocence-shattering, mouth-shutting book Night, Elie Wiesel tells of his experience as a teenager with his father in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald. There was always the threat of “the selection”—the taking away of the weak to be killed and burned in the ovens.
At one point—and only one—Wiesel links Calvary and the camps. He tells of an old rabbi, Akiba Dumer.
Akiba Dumer left us, a victim of the selection. Lately, he had wandered among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone of his weakness: “I can’t go on...It’s all over...” It was impossible to raise his morale. He didn’t listen to what we told him. He could only repeat that all was over for him, that he could no longer keep up the struggle, that he had no strength left, nor faith. Suddenly his eyes would become blank, nothing but two open wounds, two pits of terror.1
Then Wiesel makes this provocative comment: “Poor Akiba Dumer, if he could have gone on believing in God, if he could have seen a proof of God in this Calvary, he would not have been taken by the selection.”2 I will not presume to put any words in Elie Wiesel’s mouth. I am not sure what he meant. But it presses the question: Why the link between Calvary and the concentration camp?
When I ask this question, I am not thinking of cause or blame. I am thinking of meaning and hope. Is there a way that Jewish suffering may find, not its cause, but its final meaning in the suffering of Jesus Christ? Is it possible to think, not of Christ’s passion leading to Auschwitz, but of Auschwitz leading to an understanding of Christ’s passion?
Is the link between Calvary and the camps a link of unfathomable empathy? Perhaps only Jesus in the end can know what happened during the “one long night”3 of Jewish suffering. And perhaps a generation of Jewish people, whose grandparents endured their own noxious crucifixion, will be able, as no others, to grasp what happened to the Son of God at Calvary. I leave it as a question. I do not know.
But this I know: Those ostensible “Christians” who built the camps never knew the love that moved Jesus Christ toward Calvary. They never knew the Christ, who instead of killing to save a culture, died to save the world. But there are some Christians—the true Christians—who have seen the meaning of the passion of Jesus Christ, and have been broken and humbled by his suffering. Could it be that these, perhaps better than many, might be able to see and, at last, begin to fathom the suffering of Jewish people?
What an irony that Christians have been anti-Semitic! Jesus and all his early followers were Jews. People from every group in Palestine were involved in his crucifixion (not just Jews). God himself was the chief Actor in the death of his Son, so that the main question is not, Which humans brought about the death of Jesus? But, What did the death of Jesus bring about for humans—including Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and nonreligious secularists—and all people everywhere?
This article was excerpted from the introduction to John Piper’s book, The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 15-16.
1 Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Bantam Books, 1982, orig. 1960), p. 72.
2 Ibid., p. 73.
3 3 Ibid., p. 32.