Next Wednesday is Holocaust Memorial Day. HMD is commemorated internationally on 27th January each year. This date was chosen as it is the anniversary of the day in 1945 on which the Soviet Army liberated the largest Nazi concentration camp â€“ Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The following youth group session is designed for church groups and can be used to explore the events of the Holocaust, while also explaining the Gospel message. It is based upon a BBC News article about a British Soldier who snuck into the notorious Auschwitz during the Second World War. Unbeknown to him, his actions saved the life of another.
Caution: This session requires the young people to understand some of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and should therefore be handled sensitively. Background information for this session was mostly taken from this Wikipedia article. I also used certain historical images to illustrate the conditions at Auschwitz. These were taken from the official memorial website.
Take My Place
To understand the significance of the story, we need to know a little bit about what happened at Auschwitz. You might want to briefly cover the information below with some pictures in a powerpoint presentation.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps and extermination camps, operational during World War II. The three main camps were Auschwitz I, II, and III.
Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, served as the administrative center for the whole complex, and was the site of the deaths of roughly 70,000 people, mostly ethnic Poles and Soviet prisoners of war.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was an extermination camp and was the site of the deaths of at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Roma (Gypsies). This was the largest of all the Nazi extermination camps.
Auschwitz III served as a labour camp.
Most prisoners to Auschwitz arrived by train. Thousands of Jews were crammed into carriages with no food or water for hours on end until they arrived at the entrance to the camp nicknamed “The Gate of Death”. This is a transcript of the message that played to them when they got off the train:
â€œGentlemen and Ladies,
â€œWe know that you are very tired, that you had a very long and exhausting journey. Neither food nor water was plentiful. We are sorry, but this is not our fault. Now, that is behind you. We will put you into a Camp. Those who are able will work. All will live in normal conditions.
â€œWe are sorry that we have to give you some bad news. To the Camp, where you would live and work, are some 3 km and so happen that just today we do not have transportation. Thus, we are asking now that:
â€œAll females, mothers with their children no older than 14, all men sick or disabled to go to the left.
â€œThe rest that are able to work, and thus able to walk to the Camp, to stay put on the right of the ramp.â€
The was part of the Nazi’s infamous “selections”, where incoming Jews were tricked and divided up into 2 groups. Those deemed able to work were admitted to the camp, and those who couldn’t were immediately taken away and gassed. Less than an hour after stepping off the train, families were separated forever.
Everyone had their personal belongings taken away and were made to wear identical striped clothes. When the Soviet army eventually invaded the camp in 1945, they found 348,820 men’s suits and 836,255 women’s garments! Those who were able to work lived in terrible conditions. There are horrendous stories about what happened to those in the camp. Many died from the hard labour, lack of nutrition and terrible conditions. Many were also shot or experimented on. Most people however were killed in the gas chambers. The first gassings were carried out at Auschwitz in September 1941. People were stripped naked and crammed into empty chambers which were then pumped full of cyanide gas.
In early 1943, the Nazis decided to increase the gassing capacity of Birkenau. By June 1943 four crematoria were in use. Most victims were killed during the period afterwards. No one knows the exact amount of people killed in the camp, but estimates are around 2 million men, women and children. The bodies of these millions of people were never buried, but piled outside and burned.
At the end of the war when the Naziâ€™s knew they were losing, they evacuated Auschwitz and forced those who were fit enough to walk 35 miles through the snow. Of 60,000 prisoners, 15,000 died on the way.
Game: Sweetie Smuggling
In order to lighten the mood and to keep the group active and interested, you could play the following game.
Promote two people in the group to become ‘guards’ and station them outside of the room. Tell the rest of the group that they are ‘prisoners’. The aim of the game is for the prisoners to smuggle as many sweets (candy) past the guards as possible, and the guards to confiscate as many items as possible. The winning side is the one with the most items at the end.
One by one, the prisoners have to choose if they want to smuggle an item, then walk out of the room past the guards. If they are carrying an item, it should not be visible. This should lead to some very creative hiding items on people. The two guards are only allowed to ‘search’ half the number of people in the group. For example, if you have a group of ten prisoners, the guards can only search five of them. This way, the guards must choose carefully who they want to search.
Obviously it is not a good idea for the young people to physically search each other, so an adult should keep an eye on who has an item, and make sure they are honest when challenged by the guards. If the guards catch someone smuggling, then they confiscate the item. If a prisoner makes it through with an item, then they get to keep it. If a prisoner is accused of smuggling but is not carrying an item, then they can go free.
When the game is finished, get everyone sitting down again and tell the story of Denis Avey.
Denis Avey was a British soldier in World War II, who was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a camp connected to Auschwitz. Even though he was a Prisoner of War, he was treated well and had relative freedom including sending and receiving letters from home.
Denis was a red head. He says: â€œI had red hair and a temperament to match. Nothing would stop me.”
Denis had heard rumours about what was going on inside the main camp and wanted to find out the truth about the gas chambers, so he could tell others.
After careful planning Denis built the trust of a Jewish inmate and arranged to swap places with him for one night at a time. He exchanged his uniform for the filthy, stripy garments that the inmate had to wear. For the Jewish man it meant valuable food and rest in the British camp, while for Denis it was a chance to gather facts on the inside.
Denis described the camp as “hell on earth” and says he would lie awake at night listening to the ramblings and screams of prisoners.
“It was pretty ghastly at night, you got this terrible stench,” he says.
He talked to Jewish prisoners but says they rarely spoke of their previous life. Instead they were focused on the hell they were living and the work they were forced to do in factories outside the camp.
“There were nearly three million human beings worked to death in different factories,” said Denis. “They knew at that rate they’d last about five monthsâ€.
Denis traded places twice and slept overnight in Auschwitz. He tried a third time but he was almost caught and the plan was aborted.
Imagine what it must have been like to sneak into somewhere like Aushwitz. Discuss in your group what you would have done in that situation.
The Bible tells us that Jesus did exactly what Denis did. He chose to put himself in a dangerous situation and swap places with those who were going to die. But unlike Denis, Jesus actually died on our behalf. Read the following passages:
But he took our suffering on him and felt our pain for us. We saw his suffering and thought God was punishing him.
But he was wounded for the wrong we did; he was crushed for the evil we did. The punishment, which made us well, was given to him,â€¨and we are healed because of his wounds.
We all have wandered away like sheep; â€¨each of us has gone his own way. But the Lord has put on him the punishment â€¨for all the evil we have done. ([youversion]Isaiah 53:4-6[/youversion])
Christ had no sin, but God made him become sin so that in Christ we could become right with God. ([youversion]2 Cor. 5:21[/youversion])
Christ carried our sins in his body on the cross so we would stop living for sin and start living for what is right. And you are healed because of his wounds. ([youversion]1 Peter 2:24[/youversion])
Theologians call this trading of places ‘Substitutionary Atonement’. Itâ€™s a complicated way of saying something very simple: Jesus died in our place.
Denis’ story is one of bravery, but that’s not the end… It was in the camp that Denis met Jewish prisoner Ernst Lobethall. Ernst told him he had a sister Susana who had escaped to England as a child. So back in his own camp, Denis contacted Susana via a coded letter home to his mother.
He arranged for cigarettes, chocolate and a letter from Susana to be sent to him and then he smuggled them to Ernst in the camp. Cigarettes were more valuable than gold and Ernst hoped he would be able to trade them for favours to make life easier. He traded two of those packs of cigarettes in return for getting his shoes resoled.
Denis never saw Ernst again, but did meet his sister Susana when he got home after the war. Both of them thought Ernst was dead. Miraculously though he had actually survived, thanks – in part – to the smuggled cigarettes. His new thick-soled shoes helped save his life on the notorious death march out of the camps during the winter in 1945. Where 15,000 people died in the snow, he survived.
Ernst moved to America after the war, where he had children and lived a long and happy life. He died never even knowing the real name of the soldier who he says helped him survive Auschwitz. But before he died Ernst recorded his survival story on video. In it he spoke of his friendship with a British soldier in Auschwitz who he simply called “Ginger”. It was Denis, now aged 91.
This is a short clip of Denis watching the video that Ernst made before he died (The clip doesn’t seem to be available to download but you can view it online here).
- How did Denis’ actions save Ernst?
- How is it similar to Jesus’ actions on the cross? How is it different?
- What do you think Ernst would say to Denis is he were still alive?
- What would you say to someone who had done that for you?
Spend some time praying for those effected by the horrors of war. Thank Jesus for what he achieved on the cross and what it means for us.