To understand God’s mercy, the very mercy that caused Jesus Christ to die on the cross and which forms the basis of the Christian, Catholic faith, it is helpful first to understand man’s fallen nature and our capacity for evil. And there is perhaps nowhere on Earth where man’s capacity for evil is more apparent than at Auschwitz. I visited this indescribably dark place the day after visiting Częstochowa. I can imagine no greater contrast. As the bus approached Częstochowa the day before, I felt as though I could sense the peace and transcendence of the place. As the bus approached Auschwitz I felt as though I could sense the darkness and evil of the place. Although most of us have seen pictures or video clips, it is a bone-chilling experience actually to walk under the gate with that revoltingly cynical message telling prisoners “Arbeit macht frei” (Work brings freedom).
Our group first went through Auschwitz I, a former Polish army barracks taken over by the SS shortly after capturing Poland. Exhibits within the barracks displayed the depth to which the SS sought to deprive Jews, and other prisoners, of their humanity. One room had displays on both sides stretching perhaps 50 feet with massive heaps of human hair from untold tens of thousands of human beings. The SS took the hair of prisoners and made it into fabrics or insulation for use by Nazi soldiers.
It was after going through these displays that we next came to the torture cells of Block 11, “the death barracks,” where among the victims of Nazi crimes was St. Maximillian Kolbe. He was a Franciscan priest taken to Auschwitz for sheltering refugees in his friary, including 2,000 Jews. While he was in Auschwitz, an escape prompted the SS commandant to select 10 other prisoners for execution as a deterrent to future escape attempts. One of the men pleaded for his life, crying “My wife! My children!” Kolbe volunteered to take his place, and spent two weeks without food or water in a cell in “the death barracks” before finally being executed. Outside the building, near the Execution Wall where so many prisoners were executed, sits the small window of Kolbe’s cell, with a small red candle resting in the well, presumably left by one of the faithful inspired by this saint. This little candle was like a flickering light of grace in the midst of the utter darkness of this terrible place.
Outside the cell where St. Maximillian Kolbe died.
At my hostel in Kraków, I had an encounter that helped to take my experience at Auschwitz even further beyond the abstract. My roommate there was an older gentleman named Ishai traveling on business from Haifa, Israel. He told me of how in 1932 his mother wanted to move from Antwerp, Belgium to Palestine. Her family pleaded with her not to go to Palestine where locals were committing violence against Jews but to stay in Antwerp “where it is safe for Jews.” In youthful rebellion, she disregarded her family’s wishes and moved anyway. I could not help but be moved by those words, replaying them in my mind as I thought back to the horrors I had seen with my own eyes earlier that day.
Even after I write all these words, I must acknowledge that no words can truly do that place justice, except perhaps that well-known motto, “Never forget.”
If one wants to understand why after World War II it was necessary to form the United Nations, and why the Church was, is, and must remain actively engaged in the work of the United Nations, a visit to this awful place might be a starting point.
St. Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us.