Saturday 24 March 2012

Thomas Merton. Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site With Furnaces

This chilling poem by Cistercian monk, writer and poet Thomas Merton offers a dramatic portrayal of SS Officer Rudolf Hoess. Hoess served as commandant of Auschwitz from May 1940 to November 1943. He was convicted of genocide at the Nuremberg trials and handed over to the Polish authorities who charged him with the murder of three and a half million men, women and children. Hoess responded, "No. Only two and one half million. The rest died from disease and starvation."

This poem was published in 1961 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the inaugural edition of "Journal for the Protection of all Beings."

The music that accompanies this piece was composed and performed by Henk van der Duim.

Chant to be used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 audio file is available for download here.

 The Story

Thomas Merton has directed his incisive intelligence towards many areas. These include the roots of Christian mysticism in the lives and writings of the desert fathers, the nature of monastic life, the role of contemplation in spiritual development, and the common understandings that unite various spiritual traditions. Throughout his life as a Cistercian monk at Gethsemane Abbey, he also kept fully abreast of the times and wrote extensively about the social, political and economic forces that generated conflict, division and alienation both within and between nations.

He strongly opposed the militarist tendencies of the US government and was appalled by the pursuit of nuclear supremacy by both the US and the Soviet Union during the early decades of the Cold War. He was fully aware of the dehumanisation implicit in the creation of vast arsenals of destruction.

Hoess at Nuremberg
Merton was deeply familiar with the activities as Hitler's SS as a recent manifestation of the human capacity to objectify and dehumanise the other. He had closely studied the signed testament given by Rudolf Hoess at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials from which it is clear he drew much of the material presented in his Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces. In fact, many of the images presented in the poem have their source in Hoess's testament. This is evident in the following passage that appears in his Nuremberg testament:
"Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chamber to accommodate 2000 people at one time whereas at Treblinka their 10 gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each. The way we selected our victims was as follows: We had two SS doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. The prisoners would be marched by one of the doctors who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were for work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. . . . .

Very frequently, women would hide the children under the clothes, but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated. We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz."
In his classic work "Obedience to Authority" published in 1974, Stanley Milgram addressed this human capacity to abide passively and without protest in the face of heinous cruelty and blatant deception. Milgram wrote:
"There is always some element of bad form in objecting to the bad course of events, or indeed in making it a topic of conversation. Thus in Nazi Germany, even among those most closely identified with the Final Solution, it was considered an act of discourtesy to talk about the killings."

Although there are many who take pride in what they consider to be the civilised nature of Western societies, it is sobering to recall that a short 70 years ago, grotesque and barely imaginable machineries of death were set into motion by one of the most technologically and philosophically sophisticated nations in Europe.

There is no shortage of examples in the time since where we have witnessed the State-sponsored killing of innocents, be it in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the former Soviet Union, Central and South America, Tibet and China, the Balkans, or Africa and the Middle East.

Through such acts of remembrance and reflection as that offered by Thomas Merton in this poem, may the will for peace, justice and human fellowship be increasingly realised in the life of a ravaged humanity.

The Poem

Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces

How we made them sleep and purified them
How we perfectly cleaned up the people and worked a big heater
I was the commander I made improvements and installed a guaranteed system taking account of human weakness I purified and I remained decent
How I commanded I made cleaning appointments and then I made the travellers sleep and after that I made soap

I was born into a Catholic family but as these people were not going to need a priest I did not become a priest I installed a perfectly good machine it gave satisfaction to many

When trains arrived the soiled passengers received appointments for fun in the bathroom they did not guess

It was a very big bathroom for two thousand people it awaited arrival and they arrived safely
There would be an orchestra of merry widows not all the time much art

If they arrived at all they would be given a greeting card to send home taken care of with good jobs wishing you would come to our joke

Another improvement I made was I built the chambers for two thousand invitations at a time the naked votaries were disinfected with Zyklon B

Children of tender age were always invited by reason of their youth they were unable to work they were marked out for play
They were washed like the others and more than the others
Very frequently women would hide their children in the piles of clothing but of course when we came to find them we would send the children into the chamber to be bathed

How I often commanded and made improvements and sealed the door on top there were flowers the men came with crystals
I guaranteed always the crystal parlour
I guaranteed the chamber and it was sealed you could see through portholes

They waited for the shower it was not hot water that came through vents though efficient winds gave full satisfaction portholes showed this
The satisfied all ran together to the doors awaiting arrival it was guaranteed they made ends meet

How I could tell by their cries that love came to a full stop I found the ones I had made clean after about a half hour Jewish male inmates then worked up nice they had rubber boots in return for adequate food I could not guess their appetite
Those at the door were taken apart out of a fully stopped love for rubber male inmates strategic hair and teeth being used later for defence
Then the males removed all clean love rings and made away with happy gold

A big new firm promoted steel forks operating on a cylinder they got the contract and with faultless workmanship delivered very fast goods
How I commanded and made soap 12 pounds fat 10 quarts water 8 ounces to a pound of caustic soda but it was hard to find any fat

"For transporting the customers we suggest using light carts on wheels a drawing is submitted"
"We acknowledge four steady furnaces and an emergency guarantee"

“I am a big new commander operating on a cylinder I elevate the purified materials boil for 2 to 3 hours and then cool"
For putting them into a test fragrance I suggested an express elevator operated by the latest cylinder it was guaranteed

Their love was fully stopped by our perfected ovens but the love rings were salvaged
Thanks to the satisfaction of male inmates operating the heaters without need of compensation our guests were warmed

All the while I had obeyed perfectly
So I was hanged in a commanding position with a full view of the site plant and grounds
You smile at my career but you would do as I did if you knew yourself and dared
In my days we worked hard we saw what we did our self sacrifice was conscientious and complete our work was faultless and detailed

Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done


  1. Felicia from Glen Forbes
    Too close to my weeping heart. Yet needs to be said; lest we forget.

  2. May the six million never be forgotten.

    My thanks to Bapu, Thomas ,Phil, Dan, Abe, Martin & Elie for a lifetime of inspiration.


  3. Gut wrenchingly powerful. The last stanza brings it forward into what has happened and is happening in modern times. May we never forget this.

  4. Gut wrenching, haunting poem of remembrance and warning. The last stanza brings it all forward into what has been happening in recent years as well as today in Ukraine and Yemen. Will we never learn? I pray we never forget.

  5. A hauntingly gut-wrenching poem which will stick with me for awhile. The last stanza brings it forward into modern times and what is currently happening in Ukraine, Yemen, and Africa. Will we never learn? I pray we never forget!

  6. Nothing less than quintessential Merton at his core-- To praise Merton's words is best for me with a simple prayer: Thank you for your offering, that graces the world today and forever. May your eyes for truth awaken humanity~