Because today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I decided to re-post my reflections on that dread place, and the hope I found in Poland in February 2009. I was still in the grips of my struggle with God, battling illness and depression and generally overwhelmed by darkness. But being in that place, seeing what I saw. . . it touched even my hardened heart. Here’s what 19-year-old me had to say.
Our descent into hell began in a snow-drifted parking lot outside of an imposing and sinister cement structure. The snow on the roof did little to make the slate grey and glass walled building any prettier. In fact, it just made the whole thing look even more unnatural.
”Welcome to Auschwitz,” a sign read. It seemed so eerily out of place that it made my skin crawl. This was not a place anyone should feel welcome.
As we entered the registration building to meet up with our tour guide, a wave of confusion and fear swept over me, not unlike the emotions those early Polish political prisoners must have felt as they were led to their former barracks. For the Nazis did not build this place. Not entirely. This was made with Polish hands, with Polish blood.
We moved from cell block to cell block with our guide, and each building we entered had new horrors to bestow. Here were photographs of prisoners, their hair shaved off, eyes still not deadened by the horrors of this place. Then there were the survivors. How different they were from these first pictures, the soul-starved children of Auschwitz, their skeletal bodies sickening and yet still beautifully,grotesquely human.
Here was the evidence room, with two tons of human hair bleached grey by the passing years, piles of suitcases and shoes. A room full of shoes. Another of bowls, pots, brushes, combs, and everything else so familiar to me yet so alien in this context. And they reeked of death, these rooms. The smell of this great evil hung in the air like a mournful ghost, pleading to be remembered.
But the worst part was the children’s room. Dolls, clothes, shoes. . . As I stared into the mass of footwear before me, I distinctly heard the voice of a little girl in my brain. No, no, I could see her in my mind’s eye, smiling up with her large dark eyes. “Mommy,” I heard her say, smiling, “Mommy, I want to wear my red shoes today.” That nearly brought me to my knees, and it matters not whether that was my imagination or some sort of vision. I was connected to the people who died there in that moment. And that was the start of my great conversion to adulthood.
No longer did my day previous seem so full of suffering. I saw true suffering at the killing wall, where men, women, and children were brutally executed. No longer did my romantic problems seem to matter. I saw the place where families were torn apart, and only the strongest were ever seen by the light of day again. No longer did I even see any of my discomforts as pain. I saw true pain in the standing cells, where four men were crammed together in a tiny hole all night without room to lie down or rest. Everything I had been through was nothing to this.
Where was God in all of this suffering? This question has been asked by many who visited Auschwitz. Our group was no exception. But we were to find the answer later. So with heavy hearts and souls, we boarded the buses and left hell to find our way once more among the stars.
We began to see the presence of God again in the evening, after Auschwitz. We stopped for dinner at St. Maximilian Kolbe Franciscan Church, where a group of consecrated women fed us and gave us a warm place to rest. I found myself brought nearly to tears by this simple act of kindness, so brutally juxtaposed against the horrors of the concentration camp.
After dinner, we toured the art exhibit of Marian Kolodziej, Auschwitz prisoner 432, a Polish survivor who had begun drawing his memories of the camp after a stroke. He had never spoken of what had happened to him, but suddenly he had a profound desire to be the voice for all those whose voices had been smothered in that great atrocity.
His drawings were terrifying, dark, twisted. Hundreds of thousands of humanoid figures — hollow-eyed, skull-like, alien –, great beasts of the apocalypse, gargantuan, obese Januses, and every image of hell Dante was too afraid to depict stared back at us as we wandered through a twisted labyrinth of wood and stone and broken glass.
And yet, within all of this horrible, terror-inspiring art was hope. For even the darkest drawings were touched by rays of light. How else could the artist have employed shading? Once I realized this, I began to be able to see the deeper meaning in the work. Suddenly, what I was staring at was not merely evil, ugly, hopeless. God was there. He was watching. And he cared.
This struck me the most when I found myself drawn to one wall in particular. The canvas was fractured, bodies and garbage, demons, and all the horrors of the rest of the exhibit were all piled on each other like a massive refuse heap. It was the worst of all the drawings, the only one that forced me to close my eyes because I couldn’t take any more. And yet, when I looked above it, there He was! Directly above this disgusting, evil drawing was hung a beautiful drawing of the all-seeing eye. God was watching. He saw everything. And he was merciful.
After that, I ran to all of my friends who were wandering through the exibit, their eyes downcast, faces pale, not wishing to see any more. One by one, I grabbed their arms, leading them to this drawing, trying to convey the message of this place. I’m not sure how many understood the light I found there. I think a few of them still think I have a rather sick taste in art. But it doesn’t really matter. I was purified in the fire of God’s watchful eye, and he healed me of all my fear. This was enough.
After shopping all afternoon, we boarded the bus and left for the Divine Mercy Shrine.
To be honest, the architecture of the main shrine is not at all to my taste. When I want to worship God, I really don’t want to do it in a spaceship or an airport terminal, which is exactly what the shrine reminded me of when I first saw it. I am severely prejudiced against the modern architectural movement. The church may be the bride of Christ, but she doesn’t really need curves. . .
At any rate, that’s not the important thing. The events surrounding our journey to the shrine are much, much more important.
When we got there, we were given about half an hour to shop before 3PM, when we would pray the chaplet in the convent chapel where St. Faustina’s relics were located. That’s when I realized that I had forgotten my rosary back in Gaming. Oh well. I needed a new one for travel anyway, because I was always worried about losing the expensive one.
I bought a very nice, inexpensive one from the sisters, and made it to the chapel just in time.
It was an incredible experience, being in that chapel, praying the prayer which had originated there. Words can’t even begin to describe the power of those precious moments. There was just so much goodness and light there. I thought my heart would burst from the joy of it.
After the chaplet, we were given an opportunity to come forward and reverence the bones of St. Faustina. I felt my heart leap in my chest when I knelt down and kissed her. It was probably one of the few moments in my life I will never be able to forget. I have been soaring on grace and joy ever since, in fact.
As I bent down and kissed her, I happened to touch her bones with my rosary. I suppose that makes it a Third-class relic now. . . Guess I won’t be able to sell it to anyone, then (It’s against church doctrine to sell relics or blessed objects of any kind). Not that I would. I love the idea of carrying a little bit of my beloved St. Faustina with me, praying with her. It will connect me to that sacred devotion forever.
After celebrating mass in the “Shrineterprise” (as my fellow architectural purists dubbed it. . . at least it beats “the Tuna Can”, or Christ the King Chapel at Steubenville to those not in the know. . .), we departed once more for our hotel.
In the morning, we celebrated mass at St. Stanislaus Basilica in Krakow, which was incredibly cool (and really, really pretty architecturally). I think halfway through the mass was when I realized that I was in love with Poland. I suddenly was really sad to leave it.