At Auschwitz, seminary students confront tough ethical questions

Paul Flo (second from right) is pictured in Berlin with other seminary students selected for the Fellow-ship at Auschwitz for the Study of Profes-sional Ethics. 

Ellen Futterman, Editor

At Auschwitz, seminary students confront tough ethical questions         

A story about a second-year Concordia Seminary student on his way to becoming a pastor with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod isn’t typical fodder for News & Schmooze. But then Paul Flo isn’t all that typical.

Flo, who is 28 and from Hillsboro, Mo., will leave next month for a two-year vicarage assignment in the Dominican Republic, where he will help to oversee three to four parishes there. This past summer, he was one of 12 seminary students from across the country to receive a 2016 Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE). The interfaith fellowship included a 12-day trip to Germany and Poland, including a visit to the site of the infamous Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau Nazi concentration camps.

Of the 12 fellows selected from a pool of 175 applicants, three were rabbinical students (all from the Northeast). The other nine, including Flo, were Christians. Flo was the only student from the Midwest region and the first from Concordia to be awarded the fellowship.

According to FASPE, this interfaith seminary fellowship is designed to help participants examine the roles played by clergy in Nazi Germany and during the Holocaust. This historical examination is used as the foundation from which to discuss the moral codes that inform and guide human behavior, and to consider the fundamental ethical issues facing the clergy today. 

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“Right when we got there it was made clear to us that the goal of the program was to use these events as a platform on which to build discussion on current and future ethical issues,” said Flo. “So the program always had a forward aiming scope to it.”

The first week was spent in Berlin visiting the city’s historical and cultural sites, attending workshops and participating in group discussions. One workshop took place at the House of the Wannsee Conference, where in 1942 representatives of State and Nazi Party agencies convened to discuss and coordinate plans for the “Final Solution.” 

During the second week, the fellows traveled to Krakow and Oświęcim, Poland, the town the Germans called Auschwitz. There, they toured Auschwitz-Birkenau and worked with staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

“One of the things that really struck me at Birkenau was its rural beauty today,” Flo said. “You have birch forests, ponds, the birds are singing. Contrast that tranquility to just 70 years ago when millions of people were cycling through, deceived into thinking they were being relocated and then brutally murdered. 

“There are bricks where you can see people’s names carved into them. That stuck with me. To be brought to this place, stripped, shaved and robbed of your humanity . . . But these people were still trying to latch onto something by carving their names into the bricks.”

Flo said he left FASPE with two big takeaways. “The first was the need to value all human life,” he said. “The second was speaking out and being vocal and adamant about standing up against small injustices in our society because they can very quickly escalate to much larger ones.”

Flo said he learned that the Holocaust was tied to small progressions. “The pattern with evil in general is taking small, bite-size moves. It’s slowly devaluing human life. 

“In the case of (Adolf) Hitler and the Nazis it was to take a step forward, test the waters and see if there was push back from German society. If there was, they’d take a step back and wait. Then they’d do the same thing again. Always movement, then pause and test. In doing so, they were able to desensitize the culture around them.”

Flo recalled being at the Brandenburg Euthanasia Centre where the Nazis began experimenting with gassing and cremation.

“The Nazis didn’t start with any ethnic group but rather with disabled people,” he related. “We watched a video that was part of the Nazi propaganda machine with nurses leading disabled people out to the yards to feed them and what a tragedy it was that these people had to live this way. Then it transitioned to the cost it takes to maintain a ‘life’ like this and how many healthy German families could be supported with this money.

“It struck me that they were couching this devaluing of human life with the language of mercy and care. What they were saying is that this life was not worth living and this one is,” and the Nazis were the ones who got to decide.

A unique aspect of the program, noted Flo, is that it looks at the Holocaust from the perspective of the perpetrators, and doesn’t just dismiss them as evil monsters.

“Typically, when we study these events, we do so from the victims’ perspective,” Flo said. “And (program organizers) were very clear that they didn’t want to minimize that. At the same time, it’s also important to ask questions like, ‘What sort of justifications do people have in their minds to participate in something like this?’ What kind of social ground was laid and how was it laid for people to jump aboard this terrible system?’”

Flo said these kinds of questions sparked a great deal of conversation and debate among the fellows, especially when it came to matters of forgiveness within the context of the Holocaust.

“The Jewish students were so insightful,” he said. “They really brought a level of emotional investment and background knowledge to the conversations that I don’t think the Christians by themselves could have brought. The group had an emotional maturity to push each other’s boundaries and really expand ways of thinking and seeing things.”

As part of the program, fellows must write an essay or sermon that focuses on what they learned and how to apply it to a current ethical issue. The writing can also talk about how the fellowship experience will shape their future ministry in a church, parish or synagogue. Flo is still crafting his essay, but says it will likely have to do with personal responsibility.

 “When the system is being driven by fear and you feel that if you speak up, the system will turn on you, it’s easy to shift blame and responsibility,” said Flo. “It’s really easy to turn a blind eye and say things like, ‘I’m not going to be a hero in this situation.’

“We talk of sins of commission and omission,” he continued. “One thing that became clear was the importance of vocalizing and standing up for injustices even if they seem small because they can slowly escalate to large injustices.”

In addition to the seminary fellowship, FASPE offers similar ones to emerging medical professionals, lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to