My European Escapades
The entry about this day has taken me a few days to be ready to write, because no amount of words can really convey my experience this past Sunday. In the morning we rose and drove to Auschwitz, the center of Nazi concentration camps. We were given a tour through the camp which is now a Holocaust museum. The sign from this photo is the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" - a mocking 'work will set you free' slogan for the prisoners. I saw the spot where Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, stepped forward to offer his life in exchange for another man with family... and the starvation cell where he died. I saw the carving of the Sacred Heart of Jesus made in a prison cell wall by the fingernails of prisoners. I stood in a standing cell - where after a long day of work, victims would be forced to squeeze into a brick room the size of a closet and stand crammed all night with 4-5 other people. I saw hundreds of photos, taken in the early years of the camp to keep id's of prisoners... before the Nazis realized that their the victims soon became unrecognizable and pictures did not help them identify anymore. As I walked down the halls showing hundreds of faces, I felt as though I had to look at each one in order to respect the reality that each was likely a forgotten soul. One picture in particular broke me into tears - a young man in the typical uniform and with shaved head, whose eyes still glimmered with hope even in the midst of the great suffering he experienced. It was like he was looking at me trying to assure me that he'd survive, and there I was on the other side already knowing his fate. I have never cried like that for someone I'd never known. Later on the tour I saw the execution wall where prisoners were hung by their wrists with their hands behind them, and where they were shot. I saw the barrack where genetic and gynecological "experiments" were performed on women and children. In the museum halls I saw a display of 2 tons of human hair - hundreds of braids from hundreds of women who'd been stripped of their dignity. I saw a room full of over 30,000 pairs of shoes collected from prisoners when their luggage was confiscated at the transports. And I saw the crematorium where bodies were burned. The most touching thing there was seeing a group of students from Israel, patrolling proudly through the camp triumphantly waving their flag. It was an honor to see them there. It is hard to understand Auschwitz, even after visiting it in person, because the grass grows and there are trees now - it doesn't seem like the ugly, evil place it once was. Birkenau was the same way, but more untouched since it is without the museum displays. Birkenau was also much larger, built as an extension of Auschwitz as they began to need more room. The barracks are still as they were - with crammed slanted beds. The crematoriums at Birkenau were demolished by the Nazis in order to destroy evidence of their evil activity, but the piles of rubble and bricks still remain. At the end of the transport tracks, the students gathered with our chaplain Father Dave in order to pray together the chaplet of Divine Mercy, a devotion which began in Poland. Father asked me to lead the chaplet in song, and I have to say it was the most incredible experience I had in Poland. A concentration camp is the last place in the world I ever would have thought I would sing. I have never been more humbled than when I heard my own voice echoing "For the sake of His sorrowful passion have mercy on us and on the whole world" across the factory of death, and I was speechless at the triumph of the Cross. I was amazed at the possibility of looking what may be the most evil thing to happen in history without despairing. Even in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jesus triumphed and hope was not lost. This was reechoed in my heart as the bus drove away later that night, where not even 100 yards from the electrical fence surrounding the camp's perimeter, a father and son were enjoying the sunshine and fishing in a little pond. We had Mass at the Chapel of Victorious Love and then received a tour of the art exhibit that has taken up permanent residence in their basement. It is hard to explain how that art affected me, or even to explain to you the art itself... so I'll just recommend that you look up and read about Marian Kolodziej. If I'd walked into the gallery off the street without knowing what it was, I would've been REALLY disturbed, and the art is disturbing. But it fascinates me, touches me, and makes me want to change my life. In fact, that is the prayer I take away from the whole experience, as I am beginning to process in a new song: "When I come to Lord, with my heart aching sore, help me never forget those who have suffered more...".