OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs an American born a few months after WWII ended, I have no frame of reference to war, the holocaust and Soviet occupation. I won’t pretend that I know what it was like, but as a human being I think I can understand feelings. There was a Soviet style grocery store down at the end of my street in Vsetín. It was the kind that you walk in and told the person behind the counter what you wanted and then it would be handed to you. The store hasn’t changed much since the Russians left except for the various choices of foods and dish washing liquids available. I was told a story about this particular store and how it operated during the Communist era. Around Christmas time the store would get a shipment of bananas and only 2 kilos per customer were permitted until they ran out. Well, the Czechs being a creative people would have members of the same family line up outside the store before dawn so each of them could get their 2 kilos. The bigger the family, the more bananas. Bananas were a special annual “holiday” treat. I was told that that was the normal way to buy anything. When the store ran out of something, they ran out whether it was bread or toilet paper. Maybe that is why the older women of the town still shop at the bakery right next door so early in the morning when I was there. Old habits die hard. But for me, growing up in the U.S. the only thing I can compare this to would be the gas shortages of the 70’s, the “odd/even” days of filling up your car based on the last number of your car’s license plate. My mom used to tell stories about ration cards during the war and of course, the shortages during the Great Depression but, really, these didn’t affect me. These were just stories after all. Something that took place in the distant mists of history.

Walking toward the gas chambers
Walking toward the gas chambers

So too the stories that began to circulate with the publication a year after I was born of the diary of a young girl hiding out in Amsterdam, Anne Frank. It wasn’t until later that I began to study her era and especially the creativity, efficiency and utter matter-of-factness of the Nazi’s “final solution.” The systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews and “undesirables.” For years I taught high school students the facts of the holocaust not as an expert with first hand knowledge but as a student of history. The black and white photos of the camps and the detainees were etched in my mind. I had met survivors who came to talk at my school and told their stories and showed us their tattoos. Each story was both miraculous and horrifying. As an American, however, there was still a disconnect. I now could put a live face to the monstrosity of the camps, but I could not put a face on the camps themselves, that is until 14 June 2014 when I went to Poland. There is nothing scholarly I can add to what I saw. Many better and more informed people have written far more eloquently and in greater depth than what I can add here. (Read “Night” by Elie Wiesel) All I can do is be a witness way after the fact and recount what countless other visitors have seen and felt. I am not unique in this, only it was unique to me.

Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, OFM
Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, OFM

The first thing that hit me as Lance, Jana and myself arrived from the Czech Republic was how beautiful the trees were. We had arrived in late Spring so all the of lawns and trees were sparkly green. It was as if we arrived at a neatly kept housing project. No indication of the stories of terror which would lay behind the wire. We were separated into language groups, English, German, Russian, Japanese and so forth. Each of us had an earpiece so we could hear our guide. I have to tell you from the onset that the tour of Auschwitz was unrelenting. The stories our guide told as we moved from one building to another never let up. A room full (and I mean full) of suitcases, another full of human hair used to make uniforms, another with baby shoes and prisoner uniforms. We were led to cells below the ground where prisoners were starved to death in cells so small they had to stand. I stood outside the cell of St. Max Kolbe, OFM prisoner #16670 who traded his life for another prisoner who had a family. At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place. (Kolbe was born on the 8th of January which coincidentally is my birthday.) I stood there just thinking of the slow death from starvation that he, and the others experienced. The man who Kolbe exchanged his life for was at Kolbe’s canonization by John Paul II in Rome on 10 October 1982.

Hungarian Kids arriving at Birkenau
Hungarian Kids arriving at Birkenau

What kept going through my mind as we went from building to building was that this site was created by intelligent educated architects and engineers for efficiency, not by some street thugs who put things together slap-dash. Didn’t they know what they were building? Did they distance themselves from their feelings? Did they objectify the people who were going to be put to death and cremated so as to de-humanize them? Apparently so. The essential element of war and conflict is to objectify the “other” who is not us turning the “enemy” into a “them.” Bullies do this. It makes it far easier to kill them or hurt them because they are not “us.” Once we identify the “other” in a dispute like Republicans vs Democrats, blacks vs whites, West vs East, Christian vs Muslim, haves vs have-nots it becomes all the same. Vilify the “enemy” and give license to kill physically and/or virtually or spiritually. It all becomes antiseptic with “surgical strikes and collateral damage.” Lost in the fog are people, with families with hopes and dreams who share our common DNA as humans. It’s who is left standing in the carnage that claims the “victory.” As General Patton once said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” This does not naïvely mean there should not be a response to evil nor does it mean that wars sometimes are inevitable. What it means is that when we go to war, we go to war with other human beings, not just anonymous things. In war, sadly, people die. People die. So as I walked around the camp I remembered that people designed this place so other people would die. One of the pictures which brought tears to my eyes and made it hard to continue, although I had to continue, was the picture on this page of a mother and children walking down the path to their destruction the same path we walked down when I visited. The People.

Main Gate at Birkenau
Main Gate at Birkenau

In contrast to the relative smallness of Auschwitz is the immense Birkenau Camp or Auschwitz II only a short bus ride away from Auschwitz. Row after row after row of wooden barracks and what was left of the barracks the chimneys used to heat the barracks stretching toward the approaching angry storm clouds overhead. Standing in the spot where Mengele pointed left or right brought waves of sadness again. We walked down the same path that so many took years ago to the gas chambers and death. All that is left of those buildings is rubble after the retreating German army blew them up trying to cover their monstrosity of inhumanity. Many of the brick barracks are still standing and we took shelter when the heavens opened with two spectacular thunderstorms. Outside the dry earth turned into mud and with it came flashbacks to what it must have been like to live there, if you could call it living. Gypsies, political prisoners and Jews all lumped together to try and cling to whatever dignity and shred of humanity they had left. I had heard that the Soviets played down the aspect of genocide and taught the Poles that the camp was mostly for Polish patriots rounded up by the Nazi’s. This lie was perpetuated in Polish classrooms and became part of their collective history. It was only when the wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved that people began to hear the real truth behind the death camps.

I feel lucky to have visited and to have experienced the many waves of sad emotions that washed over me during our 4 hours there. Lucky because I was in the right place at the right time. I did not enjoy it one bit but walking away when the emotions got too strong would have fed into my own ignorance. It is very difficult to describe. My tolerance for Holocaust deniers has hit an all time low. How can anyone deny that this happen? How can they say it was all a myth. Come and see and educate yourselves. Yes this awful, systematic killing did take place and here, in a beautiful part of Poland by highly educated family men and women. Never again! I can only speak for myself and about what I have seen and heard. I am not the first and hopefully not the last to visit this hallowed ground. History needs to be the teacher so it never happens again. But just like in the classroom sometimes the students don’t listen and it does happen again and again and again.

If I can be presumptuous, I end this with a quote from Anne Frank’s essay “Give”. She came through Aushwitz on her way to  Bergen-Belsen where she eventually died.

Everyone is born equal; we all come into the world helpless and innocent. We all breathe the same air, and many of us believe in the same God. And yet…and yet, to many people this one small difference is a huge one! It’s huge because many people have never realized what the difference is, for if they had they would have discovered long ago that there’s actually no difference at all!