After we left Wadowice, we went for a little drive in the Polish countryside. As an aside, it’s obvious why so many Poles ended up settling in southwestern Pennsylvania. You really can’t tell the difference. That is, until you look off into the distance and see something on a hilltop – is that a castle? No, that’s just a church. They sure did know how to build them here.
But eventually our drive had to end, and we pulled up at a place that, very rightly, is synonymous with evil.
I’ve been thinking all day about what to write about it. I still don’t know that I can. It is just beyond comprehension. No one knows how many people died there – conservatively, 600,000, but some say as many as 3.5 million. 3,500,000 human beings were killed there.
Many areas of the camp were closed off to us today because of the sheer number of pilgrims, so we didn’t get to see everything, but we got to see enough. I had a chance to stop and pray outside of Block 17, where St. Maximilian Kolbe gave his life. If you’re unfamiliar with his story, look it up; but here’s an abbreviated version. Several prisoners had escaped, so in reprisal, the Nazis were going to kill an equal number of prisoners. Ten were selected at random. The tenth broke down and begged for his life; he had a wife and a young daughter. Kolbe stood up and offered to take his place. When the guard asked who he was, Kolbe simply responded, “I am a Catholic priest.” Reason enough to kill him. The ten were locked away; they were to be starved to death. The sentence should only have taken days to carry out; the camps were dreadful, and the prisoners malnourished. Kolbe lived for 14 days, spending it leading the other men in prayers and spiritual songs. Finally, he was killed by lethal injection. His body, like the others, was cremated.
We saw several areas were prisoners were executed publicly, either by hanging or firing squad. The thing of it is, those areas don’t look like killing grounds. The whole place has a feel like you’re walking around a small liberal arts college. The buildings are in neat rows, there are trees and grassy quads…and in many of them, people were killed.
When you first enter the camp, you walk under a big bronze arch that says, “Work will make you free.” That is a lie. The truth will set you free, and the truth is Jesus Christ.
Auschwitz was horrific. There were more horrors to come.
We got back on the bus and drove a short distance to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Auschwitz was where the Nazi’s first successfully tested mass executions with Zyklon-B gas. It worked, but the camp was too small for what the “Final Solution” required. So a much larger camp, a much larger camp, was constructed.
Perhaps you’ve seen HBO’s Band of Brothers – if you haven’t, it’s worth it. But there’s a scene there where the US soldiers discover a death camp. Even now, 70 years afterwards, it’s still jarring. You pass along a specially-built rail line, built to make the process more efficient. And then you pass the field where the people were sorted – those suitable to work for a time, and those that must be executed immediately. 75% of people fell into the latter category. We saw the burned out remains of the gas chambers and the crematoriums – in the last days, the SS tried to destroy the evidence. They also burned out the warehouses that held the personal possessions that people had brought with them.
We also saw the pond. And it is only a pond; it’s not that large at all. But that pond is now a grave to millions of people, because it is where the ashes were dumped following the cremations.
I’m shivering right now as I type that.
I’ve been trying to remind myself that, as unfathomable and unexplainable as the evil of that place is, so too is God’s love unfathomable and unexplainable. And what I received in the Eucharist this morning is greater than hate. And that Jesus Christ has shattered the chains of death in His own rising from the grave, but…but all those people are dead.
Today was tough.
One of the kids had a wonderful insight. She really has a beautiful soul, and I don’t know that I’ll do her justice, but… She said that she’s having a hard time understanding God’s mercy, because God’s mercy is unconditional, and that’s generally not how we show mercy to one another. But, she said, at the same time, it makes her feel good. Because if God can be merciful even towards the people that commit such atrocities, then God really can do anything. And if God still desires to love the people that worked in those camps, then God still desires to love her in her sinfulness. And God can redeem that.
And He will.