The Kingdom of Heaven

On one evening, late afternoon, two or three days later, a big commotion occurred in our prison. Some prisoners had noticed that the guards had left; they attacked the food stores. Imre’s brother-in-law, Shani, and I, and his four friends, and I, decided to leave the camp, and we began marching through the forest. This was by then late in the evening, late at night, close to midnight. We came to a farmhouse; we knocked on the door, woke up the residents, who were scared stiff, an older couple. We looked like angels of death. We were skeletal. I failed to mention that we were infected by lice terribly; we were unable to treat the invasion of the lice that occurred, and many of the prisoners were dying of typhoid fever, in this last camp, Gunskirchen. In German I said to them, “Please cook us some food right away,” and they took out some porridge, and they cooked some porridge for us. We quickly gobbled it, because we were scared that they were going to come, the Germans were going to come and catch us. And so, by this time it was like 2:00 in the morning; we began trying to make our way through the forest carefully, but we developed a diarrhetic attack, because we had not had food in so long, and they had apparently put some fatty substance into it, so we developed tremendous diarrhetic attacks. At 6:00 or thereabouts in the morning, we came to a large, paved highway. We were so weak at the moment that we really decided, hey, whatever happens, happens, and we began marching in an easterly direction. As we marched for about a half a kilometer, all of a sudden a vehicle was moving towards us, from east going west, a vehicle we had never seen before. It came to a stop, we came to a stop, and then we recognized these were not Germans. So we began shouting, and the jeep came close by, and it stopped, and it had three GIs. And the GIs, we began communicating with them as best we could. And of course, at this point we lost one of the men, did not decide to join us, so there were four adults and myself, and I was clearly 14-15 [...] I’m gonna stop for a moment [collecting himself]. I must have looked very pitiful, because I had lice, I was skeletal, and one of the GIs jumped out of the jeep and put me in the back seat. The jeep turned around and went back to Wels, the nearby city, and there was a small American field hospital set up, and the three GIs pulled me out and put me in a stretcher, and three other GIs who were from the hospital detachment because they had Red Cross bands, cut the pants off of me. I had literally huge boils, pussy boils, all over my body, crawling with lice. I must have looked like a real shaggy dog. And they washed my body [collecting himself] [...] as I lay there, one of the men was washing my body and was crying the whole time. (Oscar Ehrenburg, “A Medic’s Care,” from Disc 1; Becky Ebner Hoag, et al., Our Voices, Our Lives: Twenty Holocaust Survivors Remember. Includes 2 DVDs. San Antonio: Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d. [2011].)

Just when you think you have heard every story about the Holocaust, something like this comes along. Oscar Ehrenburg makes it very close to us, except that I wonder if we can possibly imagine the degree of hunger and deprivation that he experienced. The American liberators of his camp, Gunskirchen, who presumably arrived about this time, reported: “It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every inmate was insane with hunger. [...] The people who couldn’t walk crawled out toward our jeep. Those who couldn’t even crawl propped themselves up on an elbow [...]” ( Capt. J.D. Pletcher).

Let’s ask a question. Will Oscar Ehrenburg go to heaven? This is not a question about belonging to the “right” religion or to any religion. (Contempt on those who take it that way.) Further, can Oscar Ehrenburg help us to understand what it means to go to heaven? Does his experience in some sense define what it means to go to heaven or be in heaven?

I am aware that the terms “going to heaven” or “being in heaven” seem banal for the weight of reflection on his momentous human testimony. Yet, for some people, myself included, such terms form part of a practical everyday vocabulary of inner experience. Following the axiom that “phenomenology is a hard science,” what reality can be found in them?

I often think about an intriguing passage from C.S. Lewis.

“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity: when Anodos looked through the door of the Timeless he brought no message back. But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, A Dream, HarperSanFrancisco, 1946, p. 69; cited in Klein, p. 320.)

Although Lewis seems to imagine Heaven and Hell as states ensuing on our earthly existence, somehow in the future, he suggests they are also part of our experience all along, a substratum to our conscious moral life. I read this to say that Heaven is a great happiness which we risk failing to become aware of.

This is not quite the notion that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” This implies we have only to “look within” to find salvation. It may be, on the contrary, that we have to “look without,” that the realization of the Kingdom depends on action and worldly insight. It may indeed hinge on a particular act or gesture, word or response, at a single moment of time. Other translations of Luke 17:21 say that the the Kingdom of God is “among you” or “amidst you,” which is quite a different sense.

Or, following the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the Kingdom of Heaven is between you.

What is clear is that Oscar Ehrenburg had been in hell. Perhaps other human suffering is greater than that of Jewish inmates in a Nazi concentration camp, but we could not normally imagine it. (From another narrative by Ehrenburg we learn that non-Jewish prisoners had a far easier existence.) We certainly would not choose to imagine anything worse.

Part of what is remarkable in Ehrenburg’s story, however, is his own character. When it becomes apparent that the guards are gone, rather than attacking the food stores, he and his friends hit the road. No way are they going to stick around and wait for the Germans to come back! They have courage, presence of mind, a remnant of hope. Then, when he is picked up and brought to a field hospital, and the medic cares for him, he is able to accept it and understand it respond to it. This is heroism. After the experience of his years in the camp (as a young boy, remember), he is, morally, philosophically, able to perceive and accept that compassion and tenderness are possible, even from a stranger, a foreigner. The emotion of this moment is not sentimentality, it is salvation. It is the recognition or realization of a human substratum that, by all odds, he should have left far behind in the camps.

The nameless medic who takes care of him also has a story, though we do not know the details. He is with the 71st Infantry Division, just completing a hard-fought drive through Germany and into Austria from eastern France. His unit was accompanied at that time by the African-American 761st Tank Battalion or “Black Panthers,” distinguished for their service in the Battle of the Bulge and in the breach of Germany’s Siegfried Line. These are the final days of the war. There is no doubt that this medic has been immersed in human suffering and that his senses and emotions have been overwhelmed by the horrific wounds and mutilation of combat. What does it mean to him to see this emaciated boy of 15, covered with lice and oozing sores? What complex of memories, meanings, and hopes fits together at this moment, after so much tragedy, to bring his tears to the surface?

In our church we often hear from the pulpit about the “breaking through” of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a persistent and compelling image. Our reality is a crust of stubborn resistance and self-fixation, fixation on the system of falsehoods to which we are collectively addicted. Beneath the crust is something warm and strong, whose urgings will not always be in vain.

Through the Thou a [person] becomes I. That which confronts him comes and disappears, relational events condense, then are scattered, and in the change[,] consciousness of the unchanging partner, of the I, grows clear, and each time stronger. [...] it continually breaks through with more power, till a time comes when it bursts its bonds, and the I confronts itself for a moment, separated as though it were a Thou [....] (Martin Buber, I and Thou, London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, pp. 28-29.)

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