Some Reflections on My Visit to Auschwitz - or - On the Possibility of Atheist Prayer

Yesterday I visited Auschwitz. I knew it wold be an intense experience, and I was also aware that I didn’t quite know how. I was well aware of much of the history of the place, but there are details that make an impact in ways you can’t expect. 


One of those details was how quaint Auschwitz I was, especially in comparison to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Auschwitz I, the original site, were transformed Polish army barracks. The buildings were small, and the first gas chamber was in a basement of one of the barracks. The second site, Birkenau, was built by the Nazis three kilometers away, and was sprawling. It had four gigantic gas chamber/ crematorium centers, separated from barracks by “neutral zones” with electrically charged barbed wire to prevent prisoners from knowing what their purpose was. They were intended to look like factory buildings. Birkenau was always under construction—the Nazi vision for it was unlimited. Eventually, they wanted to turn it into a camp with Slavic slave labor, and so the buildings and infrastructure were made to last. What occurred during the war is indeed beyond horrific, but even more terrifying was the Nazi dream of total expansion, domination, and submission of those they deemed less-than. And this makes sense—when the other is seen as less than human, as deserving of terrorizing, torture, slavery, extermination—there is no rational place to stop. The horror knows no bounds. 


Another thing I had not understood until yesterday was how brief the lives of the people in the camps typically was. When we hear about what happened to Jews and others in Nazi Germany, we often hear of the exceptional stories—stories of escape, survival, or at least prolonged struggle and suffering. In so many cases, however, life in the camps was brutally short. A room with photographs of prisoners recorded under each photograph the date they were born, the date they entered the camp, and the date they died. Many of these recordings showed that prisoners typically survived a few weeks, a month or two. That impressed upon me how terrible, how impossible the conditions of that place must have been. This was not a place humans could inhabit. It was a hostile environment, designed and built to be that way by some humans for others, because they deemed those they kept and killed there as not deserving of human life. 

There were other things that struck me because of my own identity and history, like a little pink triangle on a uniform, or the summer sandals in the piles of shoes belonging to women who were killed. These sandals were so alien to the  place they ended up—they are signs of life, levity, joy in the summer sun. Among the mountain of other shoes they stood in defiance—refusing to blend in, refusing to allow the individuals of that place to go out of focus. Each pair of shoes, each piece of hair, each little children’s outfit—represented an exterminated human because she had been deemed less-than by humans with more power. 


And then there were the things that I noticed in myself, that I am still becoming aware of and trying to bear witness to. It is hard to see these things, and harder still to feel the emotions that come up. So even there, having made the conscious decision to go, I found myself rushing through scenes that generated more discomfort, looking away from the more gut-wrenching artifacts, photographs, signs,  checking my face and body language for what emotions I was letting people see. As gently and persistently as I could, I asked myself to slow down, to look, to feel, to be there, in spirit as much in body, to connect more to myself and to this horrible past than to worry about what others thought. To the extent that I could, I tried to see it. I tried to grasp it, emotionally, intellectually. I let myself be moved. 

I also didn’t force it — that wouldn’t do justice to the place either. To force emotion or its expression there would have been deeply disrespectful, dishonest to myself and to the victims. There was nothing to do but be in the experience. My breath got short and my eyes teared up when, at Auschwitz I, some infant clothes and shoes had been carefully laid out on display, perhaps the way they would have been if their owners had ever removed them from the suitcase in which they were lovingly packed. I imagined what it must have been like to hold that little baby in that beautiful outfit, and what it was like for that baby’s mother to hold him for what she couldn’t know would be the last time. He likely died with her in her arms in a gas chamber, immediately after entering the camp. 

Yesterday was the last day of June, but it was cool, and I had not dressed warmly enough. Several of my group remarked on how cold the unheated Birkenau barracks must have been in winter. Inside temperatures would often go to below freezing. One of the last sites we visited was a barracks for children in Birkenau. I had seen pictures and representations in movies, but the scale of them was something different to experience in person. The camp was so large, the barrack buildings themselves large, the ceilings drafty and tall, and the little platforms where children were kept were so tiny. Six to eight children were crowded onto these little platforms, or beneath them on the floor. They couldn’t have been more than four feet wide, and maybe five feet deep. Below the platform, children slept on the floor. Above the platform was a second “bunk”, open from all directions to the drafty air. All those little children, cell after cell, huddling together for warmth, separated from their parents. Without showers, without bathrooms. Children. In the corner of the barracks was a little ladder for them to get up to the top platform. In this corner of the barracks, staring at the little ladder, I cried. And I prayed. I prayed for all those little souls that had come through this place, that were never meant to survive here. And I prayed for the children in detention camps in the U.S., for those little children who have been separated from their parents, children who are alone and scared and must now support one another alien, hostile environments because their lives and relationships, and those of their parents, are not seen as deserving of more. Although people are not being killed in these camps, those who place them there have made clear their intentions to break their spirits—to crush their dreams to be free from violence and persecution. These detention centers are also not meant to be places for humans to inhabit. 


I let myself cry and pray for a minute or two, before catching up to my group, but I know that I am not done feeling the emotions that came up there. For that moment, I let myself feel what I needed to feel. I didn’t analyze or question it. I didn’t care who saw me or what they thought. I was there, connected to the humanity of those little children who suffered and died, and to the humanity of the little children in detention centers in the US who are currently suffering. I bore witness.

What does it mean for an atheist to pray? Once before I have found the desperate need to pray. In the months after my best friend’s death I knew that I needed to grieve, but I didn’t have any structure, any tools for it. Raised in a nonreligious household, and not believing in God, I didn’t have community practices or rituals to help me emotionally cope with tragedy, with my own suffering. It was on my yoga mat that I first started to pray, that I found ritual and community that could help and support me through difficult times, that could give me the space to feel and process my emotions and thoughts repetitively, day after day, until they transformed into a part of me that I could live with. That was the beginning of my identification as a spiritual atheist, and my attempts to understand what that meant, and to live my life accordingly.

We pray for many reasons. For me, both that first time several years ago on the mat and yesterday, I am most desperately called to prayer in situations of suffering and grief. Why isn’t grief enough? Why did I also need prayer? Why did my feelings of grief and sadness, my connection to other people’s suffering, need to manifest as prayer? In the moment yesterday I just tried to let myself feel and pray, but last night and this morning I have been asking myself this question. Here is the most sense I can make of it right now. Prayer can be grief manifested as hope. Hope. Hope is what is missing when all we allow ourselves to feel is suffering and grief. 

What does it mean, then, for an atheist to pray? For this atheist, yesterday, I was deeply, emotionally connecting to the suffering of the Jewish children kept in concentration camps by Nazis, and to the Latinx children kept in detention centers by my own government. I couldn’t fully experience the suffering and grief on its own. I had to feel some kind of hopefulness in order to feel the grief. The hopefulness wasn’t rational. It had no direction. It wasn’t conceptual or articulated. It represented no path forward or strategy. But it was there, and it was deeply necessary for the experience of human connection. For me, yesterday, there was no other way. 

Prayer has a somewhat bad reputation these days, as a series of school shootings in the U.S. leaves many angry at the expressions of compassion and prayer, but no action, or even protection of forces of harm. This criticism is well-deserved, but let us not forget the power of prayer in these situations. Yesterday, I think I understood, in a new way, how prayer can be deeply powerful. When things are too terrible to really understand, we can grasp them more deeply if we can at the same time hold some hopefulness, some hope of peace or resolution or improvement. If we do not allow ourselves this hope, the suffering can be too great to bear and we can become paralyzed, or suppress our emotions, or avoid learning about what is happening, so that we do not really grasp the tragedy and suffering that surrounds us. 

So when I prayed yesterday, it wasn’t to a higher power. For me it didn’t need to be. I just needed to feel the grief and suffering not all on its own. I needed to grasp some sort of hopefulness along with it. When I prayed for the souls of the dead Jewish children yesterday, it wasn’t because I believed that they still exist. I don’t. It was because of all the potential they embodied, of their humanity, and I couldn’t fully grasp that potential, and the loss of it, without somehow feeling hope alongside that grief. Nothing justified this hope. I just needed to feel it too.   

Many atheists—especially those with public platforms—entirely denigrate prayer as irrational. They take prayer to be motivated by false belief in deities or metaphysical entities, by wishful thinking and anti-scientific attitudes about the possibility of theistic intervention, or of a better life after death. Although I am an atheist, I think there are many rational religious positions, and I am much less concerned with convincing people to abandon religious beliefs I think are false than I am with understanding how to make atheism as full, fulfilling, and satisfying an alternative as religious life. 

Visiting Auschwitz taught me many things yesterday, but I think this was the most important. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or in eternal souls, or life after death—as I don’t—there is still a place for prayer. Sometimes we need to experience hopefulness even if we don’t have a good reason to. We need it in order to fully experience the suffering and tragedy that is an unfortunate fact of our lives. The alternative to a life without prayer for me is not a more “rational” one where I only believe and am motivated by the facts, for I cannot truly grasp the facts without prayer. They are too horrible to look at all on their own. And so I pray. 

As I sit here at the airport waiting for my flight back to the U.S., I am deeply grateful for this lesson. I will doubtless need to pray many times in the coming months. The political situation in my country is too horrible to witness without it. Although I have been trying to stay aware of current events, I have often been doing the equivalent of walking quickly through corridors, avoiding looking too long at the more difficult scenes, skipping reading the information signs. Only when we truly see what is happening can we be moved to make a difference. Only when we truly grasp what is happening can we productively work to change it. We are little humans with little hearts in little bodies and all of this knowledge and suffering and grief can be too much to handle on its own. And so I will allow myself to pray. I will allow myself to pray as often as I need to. I will pray, not as any kind of resolution but as a deeply human kind of beginning. I will pray as a way of opening up my mind and my heart to the horrors of my social and political situation, as a way of supporting myself and others in doing the brave work we need to do to find realistic methods of change.