The Dachau Cross – bearing the weight of suffering in light of Easter

For more on the Dachau Cross from Dr. Ely:
The Dachau Cross: Bearing the Weight of Suffering in Light of Easter
National Catholic Register


The Power of the “Dachau Cross”
Mike Allen Show (podcast)
beginning at the 25 minute mark

“Bear the Cross cheerfully and it will bear you.” Thomas à Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ

We are people of Easter, who have just experienced the risen Lord yet who careen daily towards life’s certain pitfalls, large and small, which challenge our ability to live like Christ. It must be our hope, our resolute commitment, to imitate Christ through a focused understanding of His Passion. The happiness of our Easter message and the smiles of Spring and new life all around us are dramatically enhanced when we contrast the season to the reality of the burden Jesus bore for us. As a lung doctor, I often imagine His weight, while He hung on that thick wooden cross, caked in blood, pulling His thorax down towards the ground and making each breath more and more difficult and painful. Dying of shock and suffocation would be beyond misery, and yet He bore on that Cross not only His precious weight, but that of you and me piled onto His shoulders. Jesus’ cross never breaks, and I’d like to draw on two historical religious relics to explain how that relates to our life today and always …

It is said that Thomas à Kempis’s book The Imitation of Christ is the second most reproduced book in the history of the world (translated into over 50 languages) behind the Bible. Years ago, as we wrested with a burned house, Kim and I were gifted a modern translation of the famed guide to “imitating” Christ by the Nashville Dominicans. In its introduction, the translation mentioned that the original c.1441 autographed manuscript, which was carried by Thomas in his pocket as he traveled Europe converting and guiding others, is held in a hermetically-sealed safe in the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels. After locating this Royal Library last week, I managed to coerce the unyielding librarian to soften up and consider opening the safe to allow me to see this precious religious artifact. Thanks to my phone camera, you can see the worn 570 year old book pictured here, complete with his signature on the last page.

From Belgium, I traveled to Utrecht Netherlands, where the spiritual lesson unfolded in a surprisingly stark, yet timely manner that holds instruction for you and me in our daily imitation of Christ. In the Dom Cathedral, the most famous building in Utrecht, I found displayed renditions of a cross the curator said was housed in the rear. Curious, I went to see this cross and was struck by the fact that it was broken, as you can see in this picture.

On returning to the curator to find out more about the broken cross, he told me that it was cast in Dachau by the prisoners. I mentioned that it was a shame and surprising that it has been broken in subsequent years, especially since it was made of such thick metal with no signs of rust or corrosion whatsoever. That is when he looked away.

Almost instantly, his eyes began to water and he murmured something under his breath. I was struck by his change in demeanor, and felt compelled to find out what he’d said. “What, Sir?”

“It was made that way.” he whispered, “It was made broken by inmates in Dachau.” Empty, we walked away from one another. Nothing more could be said.

I went back and prayed before the cross. It immensely hurt to consider the prisoners’ pain that led to that Dachau cross, just like it hurts today when we lose a child or a grave, seemingly unjust occurrence happens in our life. As a person of Jewish heritage whose relatives were incinerated in the holocaust, I suffer at the thought of the heartache that led the inmates to think that Christ’s cross no longer held hope for them. And yet, could any amount of pain that we will ever endure come close to the mental anguish of the God-man being spit on by us in our daily life, those He brought into the world?

Jesus’ cross never broke, and to this day and always He offers himself and holds us on His shoulders, bearing the weight of any suffering we will ever experience, whether we know it or not. We get confused by life’s events, and only one thing ultimately makes any sense of it all: the mystery of the Cross and its message of God’s forgiveness, mercy, and love. Today and every day, this is what we must carry with us out into the streets. The Dachau cross is a message of our brokenness, not Christ’s. This is our Easter message, replete with immense joy, as Thomas à Kempis’s book directs us: “If you seek Jesus in all things, you will surely find Him.” The Imitation of Christ, Book II, ch. 7

AMDG, E. Wesley Ely, MD, MPH

FOLLOW UP CONVERSATIONS between me and an Agnostic Jew

From: MH
Sent: Friday, February 24, 2017 6:05 AM

Dear Wes, I remember discussing the broken cross with you a few years ago, perhaps after I visited Holland. I wish there were a way to know whether your interpretation of the cross and the prisoners’ interpretation were the same. So many people lost faith because of the Holocaust and, even today, then fact that the Holocaust happened is cited as proof that a loving God could not exist because a loving God would not have allowed it to have happened. For this reason, I could imagine the prisoners made a broken cross to symbolize loss of faith. Additionally, since the cross was also the device by which Jesus was killed, and since the prisoners heroically resisted being killed, the broken cross could also symbolize defiance.

Of course, my interpretation represents only the Jewish agnostic’s perspective.

Warmly, MH
On Feb 24, 2017, at 7:15 AM, Ely, Wes wrote:

MH, there were two reasons for me to send this to you. One, to share myself. Two, to learn from you. I acknowledge the truth of what you write below…and out of deep respect for you and my Jewish brothers and sisters, I can only answer you from the mouth of another Jew who lived in Auschwitz:

From Frankl’s 1948/1975 preface to his “The Unconscious God,” p.16… “The truth is that among those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz, the number whose religious life was deepened – in spite, not to say because of this experience – by far exceeds the number of those who gave up their belief. To paraphrase what La Roche-Foucault once remarked with regard to love, one might say that just as the small fire is extinguished by the storm whereas a large fire is enhanced by it – likewise a weak faith is weakened by predicaments and catastrophes whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.” Viktor Frankl

From: MH
Date: February 24, 2017 at 6:29

Thanks Wes, that’s helpful. I hadn’t read that book and was more familiar with the alternate perspective. It seems like evidence that core beliefs are unshakable. That deep and abiding faith cannot be killed, even by the worst tragedies. Also that challenges to our beliefs lead most of us in the end to believe more strongly.


Thomas à Kempis’s book The Imitation of Christ, the original manuscript, worn leather and parchment, carried by him circa 1441 over 570 years ago and now held in a vault in Brussels

dachu-2 dachu-1

A “broken” cross caste of thick metal by inmates at Dachau Prison Camp, WWII Germany.