Spring Break 2016 consisted of Easter in Rome, and a week long trip to Krakow, Poland. While I was there, I made the trip out to the Nazi Concentration Camp, Auschwitz, as most people do when they visit Krakow. Here are some of my reflections from the day, and the Divine Mercy Shrine which I visited immediately afterwards. To begin, it was an eye-opening, educational experience to be, but it was very difficult to stomach.
Before the start of World War II, there were 38,000 Jews in Kraków, Poland. By the end, there were 6,000. Most of these men, women and children were sent off to the infamous concentration camp: Auschwitz. We’ve all heard of Auschwitz in some capacity; whether from the movie Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank, or from various history lessons, museum exhibits, or word of mouth. It is the most infamous of all the camps, because it was the largest and the most deadly.
For me, well, I don’t remember when I first learned about this particular concentration camp. At least once every year in grade school, in some way, shape, or form, there would be a lesson on the Holocaust. Living in D.C., and from previous visits, I had been to the Holocaust Museum many times. I was no stranger to the history, the events and the suffering– so when I booked my trip to Kraków, I decided to go visit the place that I had learned about for years. It was fairly empty when I arrived in the morning, with the exception of a couple high school tour groups. Entrance to the camps/museum/memorial is free, so I picked up my entrance pass, went through security, and entered. When you come out of security, you walk into a large courtyard, clearly a meeting space for groups, the bathrooms located just around the corner. As you make your way to the end of the courtyard, signs point you to the one entrance, greeted by the infamous metal banner “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work will set you free”. You walk through that dirt path, right underneath the banner as so many people did not even 80 years ago, and you are officially inside of Auschwitz I.
There are technically many Auschwitz camps; The only two the public have access to is I and II, I being the work camp, and II being the death camp. I is where most of museum is, and most of the “things to see” are. Camp II is largely a pile of rubble, since the Germans burnt many of the gas chambers as they fled, once the war was officially lost.
In the beginning, it felt like the other Holocaust Museums I had been to. It may be a sign of how good the museums in the States are, but it may also be a sign of how hard it is to wrap your head around what happened here. There are many signs, in Polish, English, and Hebrew, to describe what everything was. Some of the buildings are opened, with exhibits inside. All of the buildings look the same: Long, brick, all numbered, all in a row, exactly like in the movies. There had to be about 40 buildings or so. Around the entire complex was barbed wire, complete with watch towers and spotlights, to ensure no escape. Even now, there is still a feeling of being trapped.
You weave in and out of the open buildings, looking at exhibits on how Hitler’s extermination plan came to be, how it was carried out, daily life within the camp, and then, how/how many people died. For example, one of the first buildings I went into was the “infirmary”, a fancy word for where they brought sick prisoners, either to leave them in the basement to suffocate, or to perform medical experiments on them. Sometimes, if they were feeling merciful, they were inject the prisoner with a type of poison, which would kill them immediately. The amount of artifacts they still have from the camps is astounding; they set up each room to look like it would have during operation.
You can see the beds, all bunked in a row, like we’ve all seen in pictures. You can see the doctors’ medical “tools”, their desks, their operating tables. All of it was left behind in panic, as the Germans attempted to flee. They’ve set up the wash rooms so that prisoner’s uniforms are lying in the sink, ready for a wash. It’s as if you just accidentally stumbled into the room, while everyone was away at lunch.
In this particularly “infirmary” building, there are a series of cells in the basement. I ventured down there only for a moment or so, since I was alone and you can’t really spend much time in a dimly lit, musty smelling basement of a concentration camp by yourself for very long. I knew there was something I wanted to see here; one of these cells was Saint Maximillion Kolbe’s. For those of you who have never heard the name before, Father Kolbe was a Catholic priest, one of the many priests (and Catholics in general) taken away to concentration camps. He was a Polish man, a Franciscan who worked and studied in Rome for a while, (I’ve had the privilege of seeing his office in Rome), who took another man’s place in Auschwitz. He saved his life, but was condemned to that dark, basement cell. It is where he starved to death. Father Kolbe is now a Catholic saint, and there is a small memorial to him within that cell, including a couple of candles, a sign explaining who he was, and a wreath. It was a beautiful light in darkness of that horrible place. It was a beautiful testimony.
There was an exhibit on all of the items stolen by the Naxis, as their prisoners entered the camps. There were piles, and piles, and piles of shoes, glasses, crutches, hairbrushes, bowls, etc. etc., all taken from each person and thrown into a closet, where they would remain until the Auschwitz memorial center collected them and put them behind glass, where you can see them today. Each building has lines and lines of picture frames hanging from the walls–prisoners’ mugshots after they were branded with a number and given that blue and white striped uniform.
Outside from the buildings, you can see a few gallows, where prisoners were hung in public, to be made examples of. You can see the “shooting wall”, where prisoners were lined up and shot, again to be made examples of, to be punished, or simply just because. After seeing all these things, there is really only one thing left in Auschwitz I, possibly the worst part: The crematorium and gas chamber. It’s a little cement bunker, slightly hidden as a grass mound. There are a pair of huge, iron doors, and then you entire into a plain, gray, cement room. The gas chamber. There is no way to even fathom what took place here–or that you are standing in the very room where thousands of people lost their lives. And even though you can’t wrap your head around what and why, you still can’t spend very long there. Something just feels wrong. So you follow the arrows and keep going. The next and final room is the crematorium itself, with the furnaces still intact, untouched, as if it was 1945. I looked at it all for a brief moment, then left the building, and walked out of the camp. You hit a certain point, and you cannot look anymore.
After Auschwitz I, the typical thing to do is to hop on the shuttle, and go to Auschwitz II, which is about 15 minutes down the road. The bus drives you right the gates, stopping on the train track lines. This train line carried people into the camps from all over Europe, and to and from Auschwitz I and II. If you were brought here, to the second camp, you were going to die. Again, the camp is surrounded by barbed wire. It is a series of wooden buildings, all used as dormitories, waiting spaces before they brought you to a gas chamber. The chambers were located just behind the buildings, but the only thing that survives today is a pile of bricks, with all of the chimneys remained standing. There isn’t much to “see” in Auschwitz II; its up to you to reflect and mediate on everything you’ve seen. The Germans tried to cover up their war crimes on their way out, as they fled Poland in fear of the Allies, who were on their way in. While they succeeded in burning the gas chambers, they left the survivors behind, and piles of bodies not yet buried, along with various files, equipment, and items that now are used in museums today. The Soviet Union was marching its way across Eastern Europe, in what would become the beginnings of the Cold War, but according to many sources, even they did not know what they were about to walk into. We know that the Allies knew the Germans were rounding up Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Catholics, and the physically and mentally handicapped. But, it was only in 1945, during the liberation, that they discovered the truth. In the end, Auschwitz was the cause of 1.1 million deaths.
All in all, I’m glad I went. I’m glad I got to learn more and see a piece of history with my own eyes. Don’t be mistaken, though; it was awful. It will stick with me, vividly, for a long time. It was so easy to leave there and feel powerless. It was easy to get stuck in the suffering and in the sorrow and ask the question: “Why?”
This is where the light comes in.
I had been told by many friends that I should visit the Divine Mercy Sanctuary in Krakow right after visiting Auschwitz, since I would be feeling pretty unsettled. I took their advice.
The Divine Mercy Sanctuary is Catholic pilgrimage site; It’s where Saint Faustina, a lived during her time as a sister, and where Christ appeared to her many times, particularly in the form of the Divine Mercy. It is where Christ told her to paint this image of him, the Divine Mercy of Christ and distribute it throughout the entire world. Saint Faustina did just that; It is an incredibly popular image of Christ for all Christians. Perhaps you have seen it before.
He taught her how to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet, a series of prayers that takes no more than 10 minutes, to pray for His mercy and forgiveness. Saint Faustina lived from 1905 to 1938, dying just before the war. Christ warned her that dark times were coming for the world, especially for Poland. He implored her to spread this image, these prayers, and to establish a Holy Day– A day of Divine Mercy– on the Sunday after Easter. In 2000, Pope John Paul II officially made the Sunday after Easter ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’. Pope John Paul II, being Polish and having been the Archbishop stationed in Kraków, had a very special devotion to Saint Faustina, her cause, and the Divine Mercy, encouraging all Catholics to do the same. He canonized her as a saint that same year. Saint Faustina wrote down all her experiences with Christ in her diary, which can be read today. (I’m in the process of reading it now–fascinating stuff.)
So that’s where I was headed. At the shrine you can view the original Divine Mercy painting of Christ, which is displayed in the chapel, just above Saint Faustina’s resting place. The chapel was packed, mostly with Polish men and women, but I heard some English thrown in there. The shrine and the chapel were getting ready for Divine Mercy Sunday–which is THIS Sunday!- so it was probably busier than usual, and nicely decorated.
The image was stunning. Not only was is very visually pleasing, but it brought such peace after such a difficult morning. The faithful were saying the Divine Mercy Chaplet all around, from children to the elderly. Masses were said, readings were read. I expected to spend about a half hour there. I spent hours.
(Above: The new, modern Basilica )
(Parts of the original convent)
Because Divine Mercy Sunday is this Sunday, and after mediating on the horrors of the Holocaust for so long, the image of the Divine Mercy, of Christ in His resurrected glory was a stark reminder of how temporary the suffering on this Earth it. It is easy to fall into despair, focusing on the evil. Even today, we live in a world that is consistently in fear. And why shouldn’t we be? The troubles in the Middle East that have now made their way to Europe, there is a terrorist group targeting Christians and Capitalists, and the amount of massacres and kidnappings in Africa is devastating. Even the American election is a cause of concern; What was once the leader of the free world has fallen into two deeply polarized sections, unable to think past their noses for the good of the country and the good of the world.
It is now more important than ever to recognize hope. And its not just any ol’ hope. It is the hope of Christ. It is the hope of His Divine Mercy. Time and time again, humans have been reminded that the hope of Christ is the only thing that we have. It is the only thing that matters. Poland, after surviving the Naxis and a communist regime, learned this first hand. I was astounded at how devote Poland was; Churches at every corner, with full congregations during daily mass, random statues of Mary in the middle of fields, little children who actually knew the responses to prayers, and big families who actually looked happy to be spending time together, heading to church. Poland gets it. You GO Poland.
At the end of the day, this world is temporary. This suffering is temporary. I read somewhere once that the phrase “Do Not Be Afraid” occurs 365 times in the Bible. 365 times, for every single day in a year. Whether or not that is true, I don’t know, but I believe it anyway–Because that phrase, “Do Not Be Afraid”, sums it all up.
Well, that was super deep. Thanks for hanging in their while I dump out all of my thoughts on the Internet. Food for thought!!
Have an awesome Divine Mercy Sunday. After all this, I know I will! 🙂