Friday, September 22, 2017

Auschwitz, Forgiveness, & The Tale of Two Women

A picture of the gate at Auschwitz

As I sit down to write, it is cold and rainy outside -- it fits the mood of my topic.

Last week I went to Auschwitz with a group of 11th and 12th graders and my fellow teachers. History is a hobby of mine. I have studied both world wars, and I am familiar with the Holocaust. I know enough about Auschwitz that I needed  to visit the former concentration camp. Some things you do, not because it is fun, but because you should. It is about the Jewish people but also bigger than any one race or nation.  The Nazi's perfected genocide, but there were others. Russia’s regime under Stalin killed far more people, yet the immediate aftermath of those killings was not exposed.  We do not generally speak of Stalin in the same way as Hitler -- history is indeed written by the conquerors.

More beside Stalin could be mentioned here. History is filled with such abuse of power and of people, but I digress.

I want to focus on what happened in the Holocaust,: the aftermath and what we as Christians have to say about it. As fair warning, if you are sensitive to such details, skip to the end, what I am writing needs to be said but is not for everyone.

Skip this section if you would like to avoid some of the more difficult details of the trip to Auschwitz.

We stayed in Krakow and drove to Auschwitz early that morning. It was to be a long day. We started at Auschwitz 1, the head camp. The students were tired but somber, and anyone who has ever traveled with 40 to 50 teenagers knows there will usually be laughing and joking among them but not today. We entered through the main gate to the camp and saw the sign 'Arbeit Macht Frei', which means ‘work makes free.’  It is a mockery -- there was no hope of freedom. A few survived, but they were liberated by Allied troops. One did not escape Auschwitz.  

Most know of the Holocaust, but here are a few details:

In 1942, the Nazi regime set in motion a plan to eliminate the Jewish population in Europe.  From 1942 to 1944, the Nazi's managed to murder approximately 6 million of the 9 to 12 million Jews in Europe. The ones who were not immediately killed in gas chambers faced medical experimentation without pain killers, psychological torture, and inhuman living conditions. Auschwitz 1 is where many of these abuses occurred. Dr. Mengle, dubbed the Angel of Death, experimented here, among others.

Auschwitz 1 is a memorial to the Holocaust; it tells the story of those killed there. The Jews were told to bring their most valuable possessions, and rooms at the camp are filled with valuables left when the camp was taken.  It is sobering. Shoes, brushes, pots, and pans are some of the things we saw.

The worst for us was the room full of human hair the Nazis used to make horse blankets.  My daughter, Lydia, had to leave the room so she wouldn't throw up. I stayed and just stared, as did many of the students. It was numbing. There was, quite literally, over a ton of hair. If you looked closely, you saw the curls and the variations in color of the women murdered.

We entered Auschwitz 2, also called Birkenau, where the trains entered the camps.  Prisoners traveled 2 to 4 days confined without food or water. They arrived and were processed. Able-bodied men and some women were sent to the camp. Almost all children and elderly, along with the adults not deemed fit for the camp -- roughly 75 percent of all prisoners -- went directly to the gas chambers. They were nasty from the trip. They weren't even allowed to go to the bathroom. When told they were going to the showers, they believed it.  There, they were forced to strip nude and enter the showers, male and female alike. The doors closed as nearly 1,000 were gassed at a time.

Long hair was cut, gold fillings were pulled, and they were cremated. The Nazis made money running the camps. They looted these people to fuel their war machine.

The 25 percent that survived were not  the lucky ones. Conditions at the camp defied imagination. I will not go into them now.

Resume reading here if you skipped the previous section.

Next, I will discuss two Auschwitz survivors. The first we met in Krakow the next day.  She told how her  parents hid her with others before they were killed. She told how she survived, how she searched for her parents story because nothing was written. She had to research to even know who they were.

She took a number of questions from the students, and one of my students asked a bold question: had she had forgiven the people who killed her parents and destroyed so many lives? The woman didn't even blink. The answer was, "No." There was no explanation.  Her point was clear -- her answer was not open for discussion.

The second woman's story Lydia forwarded to me. When her family arrived in Auschwitz she and her twin sister were selected by Dr. Mengle for experimentation. She never saw her family again. It is almost certain they were killed in the gas chambers.  Her time in Auschwitz was horrific, but she and her sister survived.  In the 1980's, her sister was dying from kidney failure tied to the experiments at Auschwitz.

She gave her sister one of her kidneys, but she needed more information to save her sister. She found a former Nazi doctor who worked for Mengle. When she met the doctor, she confronted him. He was tormented by what he had done.  She worked with him and publicly forgave the doctor and the Nazis. She even returned to Auschwitz with the doctor.

I was struck by the two women and asked myself if I could have forgiven the Nazis if I shared their experiences.  Honestly, I don't know. I know what I should do as a Christian, but I have not walked in their shoes. I only hope I would have the strength to do as the second woman.

To be precise, it wouldn't be my strength. Would I be able to forgive with God's strength?  Again, I don't know.  I considered this while preparing to preach on Sunday.  I asked myself, what could I teach the refugees on forgiveness? They have been through so much. Because they converted to Christianity, they will be persecuted or killed if they return to their home country. They need to forgive those who have wronged them, and they have much to forgive.

I began by discussing the Holocaust -- I wanted them to understand what happened.  Next, I spoke of my trip to Auschwitz and the stories of the two women. Then, we looked at the prophet Jonah. Jonah is a study of unforgiveness and God's grace. God told Jonah to preach in Ninevah, the capital of Assyria.  Jonah was deeply flawed. He was arrogant. He was bitter. So, Jonah ran from God. He swam with a big fish and got a ride in the right direction.  He ended up in Ninevah, his clothes and hair gone, digested by the fish.  It terrified the Assyrians, and they repented. Yet, Jonah hated the Assyrians. He was mad at God for caring about them. Jonah hated the Assyrians so much he would not forgive them no matter what God said, not unlike the first woman.

The second woman came to a different conclusion. Forgiveness was not only possible but it was better than unforgiveness. Why? What happened with her that was different? Jesus spoke often of forgiveness and its importance. One key example is from Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus' famed sermon on the mount.  Paraphrased, forgive others when they wrong you and you will be forgiven by God, if you don't forgive others when they wrong you, you won't be forgiven by God. Following this has to do with the state of the heart. In his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul called it being ‘circumcised in heart.’

I closed with a more practical aspect of forgiveness.  It is good to say we should forgive our enemies, but how do we go beyond mere words? Is forgiveness a feeling? An action? Is it both?  What do you do when you don't want to forgive? When you cannot muster the strength to do so?  Does forgiveness mean allowing an abusive person the opportunity to continue to be abusive?  To that question I would answer a definite "no". To the other questions, begin with prayer. Ask God for help. It is no surprise to Him that you are struggling. He will help you in the way you need most. Do not expect quick results, these things take time. Be persistent. It is worth it.  Decide you will forgive. Say it aloud. Say it in your heart and stick to it.

Prisoners being freed at the liberation of Auschwitz

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Stand United. One Mission. One Message

August 23rd was the first day of school at ICSV for the 2017-2018 school year.  We welcomed many new faces this year including several new staff members.  We are excited about our theme this year:  Stand United. One Mission. One Message.   We hope the excerpt below from our weekly newsletter will give you peek into our first week of school!  
A New Theme for 2017-2018!

Welcome back! It is my sincere pleasure to welcome you to the 2017-2018 school year at ICSV. We had a great turnout at the New Family Orientation on Tuesday. At least 150 parents and students were here, and that doesn’t include all of our staff and faculty who were available to greet everyone. Our secondary student ambassadors did a wonderful job of making the new students feel welcomed at our school.

This year our theme is Stand United. One Mission. One Message. The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Philippi: “Stand united, singular in vision [with] one Message, the good news.” As we continue to grow in size, it becomes more important that we make it a priority to maintain our unity as a community with a shared mission and message. What is our mission? As a school, we promise to do our best to provide “high quality, individualized education, equipping students with Christian character to impact the nations of the world.” We also emphasize respect and esteem for others and want every student to be “valued and empowered with truth and knowledge for life.”

Our message is Christ. No more. No less. All those who believe in Him have their sins forgiven and have a restored relationship with God. Before Christ came and gave His life for us, this good news was not available to everyone. The Apostle Paul explains it this way: “The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.” No matter what your cultural or religious background, YOU ARE WELCOME HERE! We will love and respect you because you are a wonderful creation of our Heavenly Father. Your students will be valued and appreciated. That is our Mission and Message in a nutshell.

During our opening assemblies on Wednesday, I challenged the students to go out of their way to make the new students feel welcomed. I encouraged them to truly value and love their teachers and classmates, with a love that puts others first. And I asked them to keep unity at the forefront of what they do here, whether in the classroom, on the stage, or on the athletic field. 

This year, we choose to stand united. God takes great pleasure when He sees His children supporting each other in community. My prayer for this school year is that we will remain focused on our school’s mission and that we would demonstrate God’s love to each other as we walk out our message of love and acceptance. We are truly excited that you are here!

Because of His Faithfulness,
Sharon Brobst, Ed.D.
It’s not too late to contribute to the Cool the School fundraiser. Just this month, over €2600 have come in toward our goal, and we are waiting for two additional gifts to come in from churches. Our total is now at €18.935. This still leaves us with a deficit of €21.065. I am confident that our school families and friends can come together to raise this needed amount. If you have been planning to contribute, but have just not done so, now is the time! Every gift, no matter how large or small, is helpful!

To make a donation by bank transfer: 
Account Holder: Hilfsverein der Internationalen Christlichen Schulen
Bank Name: Bankhaus Krentschker 
IBAN: AT41 1952 0018 0009 3849 

Send your check to: 
RCE International PO Box 4528 Wheaton, IL 60189 
Please indicate ICSV “Cool the School” Project–02157

Credit Card payment:

We currently have air-conditioning working on the third floor, in a couple of other classrooms, and in the secondary office. We are waiting for another part to arrive in order to hook up the majority of the classrooms. This delay has increased the cost of the entire project, so your gift today is very much needed. Please continue to pray that the air-conditioning will be installed very soon so that the staff and students can benefit from the cooler air in the near future.

Thanks to all of you who have contributed to this essential improvement to our school facility! Your investment into the lives of our students is so very much appreciated. 
Meet the New Staff!
We will be introducing several of our new staff each week in the Eagle. This week, meet David Vundi, Joel and Lee Ann Alba, and Lydia Phoenix.
David Vundi is our new secondary math teacher. He has 20 years of experience in teaching mathematics, physics and Bible, including two years at the university level. He is a dedicated person with a family of four and enjoys reading. The knowledge and perspective that his reading gives has strengthened his teaching skills and presentation abilities. He has also completed a Masters of Philosophy in Math and loves being with children and helping them learn the value of life, the most precious asset one has. His family will be joining here in Vienna shortly.

Mabuhay! Joel Alba hails from the Philippines, the Pearl of the Orient. He teaches secondary social studies. Joel likes climbing mountains, swimming in beaches and doing any outdoor adventure. He has a degree in Theology and Education and has taught in several different international schools. His wife, Lee Ann, also joins us as an aide in the elementary school. The opportunity for them to serve at ICSV is indeed a testament that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. An awesome school-year awaits us all! Soli Deo Gloria!
Some of you may remember Lydia Phoenix as she was the student teacher in Ms. Sipos' third grade class last fall. She loved being a part of our school's community, and she is thrilled to be returning as the second grade teacher this year! Since leaving Vienna, she graduated from Wheaton College and moved to Florida, where she worked at a private, Christian school. She is originally from New Hampshire and will always consider that home. When she is not teaching, she enjoys doing almost any outdoor activity, especially those involving mountains, as she is an avid hiker and backpacker. She has always dreamed of doing a backpacking trek through the Alps, so now that she is back in Austria, she hopes to make that dream a reality.

Faces Seen on the First Day of School!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Returning to Vienna

Lydia and I are now back in Vienna, Ada returned a week ago, and I have a few observations:
  1. First, air conditioning is nice.  That statement speaks for itself but we don't have air conditioning in our apartment in Vienna. Bummer.  It is not needed here for nine  out of 12 months but it was in the 90's in our apartment yesterday.  There is no good way to look at sitting in your apartment and sweating.  Just saying.
  2. Good byes don't get any easier.  As I will mention below I don't really enjoy international air travel.  To be fair, this probably has a lot to do with it.  Leaving Vienna to go to the states is difficult because we are leaving our Vienna family whom we love.  Leaving to come back seems to get harder every year.  Without question the most difficult part of our jobs here is being away from family, especially during the holidays. I don't expect that to ever get easier.
  3. International air travel seems to get less and less enjoyable.  We go to a lot of trouble to get the lowest cost airfare when we travel.  This usually means extra connections and time spent in airports.  Security in airports has increased considerably. Don't get me wrong, security is good. I like planes, especially the one I'm on, to stay in the air while it should be there.  Further, not to state the obvious, it is good not to have terrorist attacks at airports.  That said, it has become almost painful to move around international airports.  That, coupled with airlines fighting to make ends meet, makes for crowded airports and planes with long lines and grumpy people.
  4. Sometimes people shine through traveling challenges.  Lydia and I had a delay getting to Atlanta from Jacksonville.  The people with Delta in Jax did all they could do to help us make our connecting flight in Atlanta and with a good run through the airport in Atlanta we made our flight with about a minute to spare.  Yes we were praying.
  5. The airport in Paris, Charles de Gaulle, is often mentioned as one of the worst airports in the world.  Our experiences have been mixed and it definitely has its problems.  Still, as a continuation of people shining, two Air France employees went out of their way to help resolve a ticketing problem with our flight to Vienna.  This was well appreciated as we were tired and needed help or Lydia and I wouldn't be making it to Vienna that night.  We made it due to their assistance and slept in our beds that night.  Yes, as before, we were praying.  
  6. After living out of a suitcase for 5 weeks it is nice to sleep in your own bed.
It is good to be back.  Each year I wonder what God will do here and each year I am amazed by what He did do in the previous year.  God is good and I believe, with anticipation, that He will continue to do Great things in Vienna.  May God smile on each of you in the coming year and bless you and yours.


Friday, July 7, 2017

The Pilgrims' Process
David is one of the pastors at our church. He does a very good job describing the church we attend and discussing his heart for ministry.
David is a Baptist pastor and missionary in Vienna, Austria. Originally from the UK, he now works with Projekt:Gemeinde (Project:Church) as well as being involved in the year-out bible and mission school Project:Vienna and the Austrian Baptist Union’s home mission.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. -Matthew 5:43-45

What a difference a night makes. Friday night after a busy week Billy and I went for a walk around Vienna. It's one of the things we like best about living so close to the city center. We walked to dinner and then on into downtown. The weather was cool, but not too cold. I snapped pictures along the way of some of the sights we saw as we strolled through the city. We enjoyed seeing the canal, window displays, cathedrals, and Christmas Markets. It wasn't until later after we returned home that we heard something was happening in Paris. We began seeing initial news reports about attacks there, but it wasn't until we awoke early Saturday morning to notifications on our phones that we found out how bad the attacks were in Paris! This was within a day of very serious suicide bombings in Beirut Lebanon where many were killed and injured.  

Thankfully we heard that Billy's cousin and his wife who live in Paris were safe!  
Sometimes it is hard to know how to respond, but as Christians we are to respond in a uniquely Christian way, we are to pray, pray for Paris, France, Muslims, Families, Government Leaders, Refugees, the World, our Enemies.
Heading toward the city center.

Window display at a 5 star hotel.

Donau (Danube) Canal

Stephansdom Christmas Market

Demel cafe window display - Apple Strudel

Rathaus Christmas Market - Pre-tree lighting
Rathaus Christmas Market

Back in our neighborhood.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Enjoying Fall

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!  The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us.  God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!
Psalms 67:5-7

We are enjoying the fall weather in Vienna!  This week it has been sunny with temps in the 60's!!  Fall means soccer, volleyball, pumpkin soup and beautiful colors on the trees!

Happy Fall Y'all!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


The past few weeks have been exhausting with our return to Vienna and the start of a new school year.  We are finally settling into a routine and the pace is slowing a bit.  Fall is in the air today as we awoke to temperatures in the 40's.  Throughout the past few weeks God has graciously provided others to encourage us and breaks for rest and refreshing.  During the first week of staff orientation we were treated to a wonderful luncheon prepared by several of our student's parents.  

Billy and I have been walking home from church on Sunday afternoons.  It provides the perfect opportunity to get a little exercise and then enjoy some ice cream!  The weather has been lovely and the flowers beautiful.  One Sunday we enjoyed a free "open house" at the Rathaus (city hall).  The interior was beautiful and it was such a treat to see inside the building we pass each Sunday on our way to church.  We only stayed a short time as it was very crowded.  Once outside and in front of the building, it was funny to see a circus tent and palm trees.  Of course as the weather cools, the palm trees will be stored away for the winter.

Mitchell and Lydia are staying busy with school and enjoying time with friends.  Lydia is playing volleyball this fall and also has a part in the high school musical, Fiddler on the Roof.  Mitchell is back to playing soccer along with being part of student leadership and high school praise band.  

Recently we have had the opportunity to spend time with friends from near and far.  Ada's friend Julie and her husband were in Vienna for the night last week and we enjoyed a perfect night walking in downtown Vienna.  We got to see many of the historic sights at night while catching up with each other.  The conversation flowed just like always.  This past weekend was especially relaxing and refreshing!  Friday night we enjoyed dinner with close friends and their new baby.  Saturday was spent with friends relaxing and sharing a meal. Then on Sunday we had friends, Ted and Mary Lou Strawbridge from Ocala, show up at our church!  What a surprise!  That evening we got to have dinner together before they left town the next day.

Lydia with Baby Mateo

We were so encouraged from this time spent with friends.  As I texted to say "good-bye" Sunday evening and thank Mary Lou and Ted for dinner and the encouragement, she responded "God is so kind!!  Yes, yes He is, most gracious and kind!  May you experience the rest and refreshing that only He can give!

Love and Blessings from Vienna,
Ada (aka "Miss" Clair)

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