Friday, April 6, 2018

Presence of Absence and the Absence of Presence

The concept of the presence of absence and the absence of presence has been touched upon numerous times throughout the course Memory and Reconciliation: The Churches and the Holocaust. When pertaining to the Shoah, often people are aware that this devastation of a community occurred, but the discussion on how to move forward is lacking.

Ghetto Heroes Square in Krakow

The above photo was taken in Ghetto Heroes Square in Krakow. The Square contains an installation of thirty-three cast iron and bronze chairs. This memorial was resurrected in memory of the Polish Jews of Krakow that were imprisoned and murdered in the Krakow ghetto and German death camps during World War II. The chairs signify both the presence and absence of life. A standard, household object, typically filled with a living being stands empty for the rest of time. The Shoah took the lives of so many, leaving an emptiness in their place.

I found this memorial especially moving due to its location. The chairs were scattered out in the center of a busy market square. It has been over seventy years since the end of World War II, yet hundreds of people will pass this memorial every day and think for even just a moment about the weight of the lives lost. I believe this acknowledgement is an important factor in the recognition and prevention of such a tragedy never happening again.

Imagery seen such as Ghetto Heroes Square opens up an opportunity for dialogue on the topic. In a world where many may believe that since the Shoah ended, the time for discussion is over, memorials such as these go against this notion. To feel the presence of the absence of a community means that there are still emotions to be felt and words to be said on the subject. So, the absence of the presence of conversation is detrimental to the healing process.

In Poland, I had the privilege of meeting Fr. Manfred and listening to him lecture on different aspects of the Shoah. At the start of one of his lectures, he said “you cannot sit here and say you are for peace and do nothing” (Fr. Manfred, Center for Dialogue and Prayer). I believe this message should be shared in any situation where there are injustices occurring. It is so important to not become the bystander. Part of not being the bystander includes continuing the stream of dialogue. In order to end the absence of conversation, it is our responsibility to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves or join them in solidarity.

Fr. Manfred also taught us that “we need to trust one another, which is difficult when history proves otherwise. It can only happen through conversation” (Fr. Manfred, Center for Dialogue and Prayer). This statement reiterates the significance of the introduction and continuation of communication. History has revealed that silence only strengthens adversities, so only through trust, acknowledgement, and reflection can reconciliation begin.

The presence of absence and absence of presence indicates a broken cycle in society. The memorial of chairs in Ghetto Heroes Square is a step to heal that brokenness through acknowledgement of the lives lost in the Shoah. The installation and Fr. Manfred’s words taught me the importance of having a voice, and using its power to advocate.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Deception

This picture shows the inside of one of the many Gas Chambers that were used during the Shoah.

This picture was taken in Auschwitz I. The moment I walked into this room I felt very cold and got a distinctive smell. This smell and taste of the Gas Chamber followed me all day for the next three days of this trip. I felt nauseous as I continued to “taste” this smell. As I walked in this room, all I could think was of those who marched into this room without knowing it was their last day. Many of them did not know what this room really was. They thought it was to take a “shower”. There was so much deception used into tricking them to walk without a fight into their death.

After going to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, Birkenau, we had a lecture with Father Manfield. He mentioned how the first victims of the Gas Chambers were not the Jews, but Germans who had a mental illness or a physical disability. Prior to hearing this, I thought that the Nazi would only hurt everyone who was not a German. I was very shocked to hear that they hurt even those who were from their same country. I thought they would glorify every German. This just made me angrier than I already was. How could anyone do this? My major is Psychology, and I hope to help those who have mental and physical disabilities. After seeing the gas chambers, and then hearing about this made me very scared of the control and influence one person can have on others.

In addition, I also learned how the Red Cross was used as a deception symbol. There was a building in Auschwitz II, Birkenau called “Red Cross.” Many of the victims who were weak and sick were tricked into thinking that they would be taken to the hospital to feel better. There would be a Red Cross symbol on the cart they were going to make them feel at ease that they were going to the hospital, but that was all a deception. The Red Cross was used to make the victims feel calm, and actually, believe they were going to get help. In this building, about 800 people would be brought in at a time.

Dehumanization

A picture of how the bunkers looked in the wooden barracks.

This week has been a very emotional week for me as well as everyone in my team. We read several different texts to learn more about the Shoah, but there is so much that the readings could not cover. The picture above is a picture of one of the barracks that is located in Auschwitz II, Birkenau. When I first saw this barrack, my first thought was how similar it looks to a horse stable. The tour guide later mentioned that this, in fact, was a horse stable that was meant for 50 horses. However, the Nazi had about 400 to 500 men in just this barrack. I could not even begin to imagine how so many individuals would fit in such a small barrack.

In this picture, you can see that the “beds” they slept in were bunks of three. The stronger and healthier prisoners climb to the top bunk. Those who were weaker slept on the lower bunks. Being in the lower bunk made the weaker get even weaker. If anyone above them leaked any unwanted liquid (such as urine, throw up and so on), this would fall onto the person below them. In addition, you can see that there was no floor built. What you see is the ground level. When it rained or snow, the floor will be cover with water since there was no foundation. This only made the conditions in which they lived in, even worse. During the winter it was very cold, and during the summer it was too hot. Due to these conditions they lived in, diseases spread quickly. Moreover, there were 10 prisoners per bed. That means that each bunk of three had a total of 30 individuals.

In class and during our guided tours, we discussed how much weight the victims of the Shoah had lost due to lack of nutrient. Due to the drastic weight loss, the Nazis were able to fit so many victims into one bed. In the novel called The Holocaust Kingdom, Donat mentioned how low the calorie intake was. “Germans in Warsaw allotted 2,500 calories a day…The Jews ratio came to less than 200 calories a day” (Page 7). Only letting them eat such a low number of calories is inhuman. A healthy person should consume at least 2,500 calories which was what they let the Germans consume. Since they saw the Jews as animals, they made sure they barely ate anything.

This picture shows where you would tie the horse in this barrack.

The Nazi saw the Jews and all of their prisoners as animals. The picture above shows how this barrack was supposed to be used for horses. It has the ring where you would tie your horse to. Moreover, the Nazi only allowed them to shower once a month and go to the bathroom twice a day. By doing this, it continued to take away the prisoners' humanity, treating them like animals. For Nazi, it was as if they were taking their “pet” to the bathroom. They did everything they could do to dehumanize them. This is just one of the many examples of how they dehumanize their victims.

In one of the lectures that we had with Father Manfred and Stan Ronell, we learned that those who were taken were not seen as humans. They were seen less than human. They were given numbers rather than names. Their heads were shaved. The goal of the Nazi was to dehumanize and strip them of their identity in every possible way. Their reasoning for this was that they wanted to blame someone for their failure, and who else to blame but the group who does not have a home of their own, the Jews. Their ideology for doing this was to “Make Germany, Great Again.” They “knew it was hard, but it has to be done.” If someone questioned doing such acts for women and children, they were told that if they did not do it, it would be their own family who would suffer.” That this was done to save their own family and Germany.”

From Judaism To Catholicism And Back Again

Friday morning, March 16, we traveled to Kraków to visit the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) of Kraków. It was there that we met Olga, who told us a little about herself and her Jewish ancestry. She also gave us information about the JCC itself, which is a Jewish cultural and educational centre that opened in 2008 as the result of an initiative by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. The JCC is the de facto Jewish visitors center for Kraków, Poland and provides social, educational, and community oriented services to the Jewish community of Kraków. After hearing from Olga, we got a chance to meet with a Jewish woman who survived World War II and she was kind enough to share her story with us. Although she herself had not been confined to a concentration camp, her father did perish at Auschwitz. She and her mother were forced to move to a new town after being blackmailed twice and it was there that she was baptized as a Catholic to hide her Jewish roots. After the war ended she eventually converted back to Judaism and went on to further her education, studying law and becoming a professor. Today she is an active member of the JCC in Kraków and was present for Shabbat dinner Friday evening at the JCC, a dinner in which we were also in attendance for.

Throughout this semester I have heard the personal stories of a few survivors of the Shoah but this story was the first in which the survivor converted to Catholicism in order to survive. Prior to meeting the survivor at the JCC, I had only encountered such a situation in Alexander Donat’s The Holocaust Kingdom: the author and his wife had decided to smuggle their son Wlodek out of the ghetto and sent him to the home of Stefan and Maria Magenheim, friends of the family. Before doing so, however, Wlodek’s parents had to prepare him for life on the Aryan side where he could no longer be Jewish: “Lena had, in the interim, been teaching Wlodek the Catholic prayers. ‘Now remember’, she told him, ‘you have never lived in the Ghetto and you must never use the word Ghetto. You’re not a Jew. You’re a Polish Catholic...We were bitterly aware of the tragic spectacle of a mother teaching her only child to disavow his parents, his people, his former life…” (Donat, 114-115).

A few weeks after Wlodek’s arrival at the Magenheim home, they were betrayed by one of their neighbors. With the help of Magdalena Rusinek, a seventeen-year-old member of the Polish Underground who collected, cared for and escorted Jewish children to their places of refuge with Polish families or in convents, Wlodek was brought to an orphanage near Otwock, Poland, where he remained for two years. During that period, Maria would come to the orphanage whenever she could, bringing Wlodek cakes and other delicacies. Although Wlodek was safe by being away from his parents and denouncing his Jewish heritage, during his time away he was brainwashed by the nuns at the orphanage. In his own words, Wlodek explains in The Holocaust Kingdom that “Miss Krysia told me that Jews were very bad. They drank the blood of Catholics on their holidays. They kill a young boy or girl, suck out their blood and put it in jars…she said if Auntie Maria tried to take me back to my Mommy, I should run away to the woods. I prayed that my parents would not come back for me. I believed in Jesus very much.” (Donat, 302). To think that a nun would say these things to a child is unimaginable but it occurred and wasn’t uncommon.

Wlodek 's parents both survived the Shoah and were reunited with their son and although the reunion was rocky at first, with Wlodek’s mind full of anti-Semitic thoughts, he eventually returned to the religion of his family. Although Wlodek and the survivor we heard speak at the JCC had different stories, both accounts had one thing in common, which is the title of this blog: from Judaism to Catholicism and back again. This is what it took to survive the horrors of the Shoah but this approach did not always work. Luckily for Wlodek and the JCC survivor, however, it did and we were lucky enough to hear their stories.

Pictured here is the JCC survivor (green sweater) sitting next to Olga.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, But Words…

Advertisement of “Der Ewige Jude” (The Eternal Jew), a 1940 antisemitic German Nazi propaganda film. This film was disguised as a documentary.
It has been one week since I last stepped on the grounds of Auschwitz I. Since my return from Poland, I have found myself especially sensitive to the use of words and phrases in everyday conversation, political discussion, and broadcast outlets. This stems from my shock at the absolute power of words- in forming an ideology, swaying a culture, and facilitating the genocide of millions of people.

In writing this, an old saying comes to mind: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” I can recall hearing this phrase throughout my childhood. Though it may have proved true in playground interactions, this phrase could not be further from the truth when one considers the impact of words, especially propaganda-fueled, in furthering the harm of the Jews and other groups.

In considering the power of words, one should start with the impetus of the Third Reich and Nazi Party- Adolf Hitler. Hitler was unabashed in his hatred for the Jewish people; in his first written comment on the “Jewish Question,” he asserts that the presence of Jews in any community was a “race-tuberculosis of the peoples.” (Source: US Holocaust Museum) His initial comments, released in 1919, are emulated in his further written and oral statements. In 1933, Hitler produced his first speech broadcasted live on all German radio stations. In this broadcast, he proposes a resolution to the “Jewish problem”- total annihilation of all European Jews, through a world war. (Source: BBC)
Propaganda poster labeling the Jew as “a people of contagion!” This poster mirrors the content of Hitler’s 1919 written comments.
Throughout our visits to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, our tour guide Lidia further stressed the impact of words on disseminating Nazi ideology. She brought to our attention the establishment of Hitler Youth in indoctrinating German children, the use of propaganda by Joseph Goebbels and other prominent figures within the Third Reich.

Before we embarked on our journey to Poland, our group visited the United States Holocaust Museum in Manhattan, New York City. Here, we encountered a variety of propaganda pieces used to spread anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish sentiment. Most notable were a row of posters depicting the Jewish people as disgusting, leering, and money-hungry monsters. These images cemented in the minds of German society the notion that Jews were nothing more than parasites and a stain on the face of Aryan purity.
Antisemitic propaganda released in Poland in 1941. This poster depicts the Jew as a parasite, likened to that of typhus.
The influence of propaganda, and words as a whole, was made evident in the words and behavior of Nazi officers and even German civilians. Alexander Donat’s memoir The Holocaust Kingdom makes tangible the power of words, as he recounts the usage and power of words in promoting hatred and harm.

In the initial liquidations of the Warsaw ghetto, Donat recalls the phrasing that Ukranian guards and German troops used to force people from their apartments: “Alles runter!” – In English, “Everything downstairs!” Donat notes that “the tone was bad enough, but the humiliating impersonality of that ‘everything’ where normal speech called for ‘everyone’ was even more shocking.” (The Holocaust Kingdom 56) This shift in language illustrates the shift in thought of Germans and Ukranians towards their fellow humans, and the dehumanization of Jews.

Other insults hurled at Jews included: “Schweinehund [pig dog],” “Dreckjude [shitty Jew],” “whore,” and “Judenschmarotzer [Jew parasite].” Donat emphasized that “obscenities were used so abundantly at Majdanek that often you did not hear a decent word for hours on end.” (173)
And what resulted from these words? In my eyes, these words ushered in a disregard for human life that did not fit the “Aryan mold." German officers treated Jewish prisoners like their insults, and in reducing them to “parasites,” viewed their lives “as essentially worthless; in fact, contemptible.” (Donat 176) The SS soldiers delighted in ousting these “subhuman” Jews, inventing new methods of torture and indulging in the “fear and the death agonies of the victims.” (Donat 173) Beyond the torture and death of millions of Jews, the words of the Third Reich held the German people in an “iron grip; they followed orders and kept their mouths shut, they submitted…” (Donat 233) With overwhelming control and sadism, the Nazis destroyed the lives of many, even as the Third Reich began to collapse. How devastating words were, in facilitating the breaking of spirits and bones of so many innocent lives.

Just yesterday, it was announced that a Holocaust denier will be the GOP’s nominee in a Chicago congressional district after running in a primary election. Candidate Arthur Jones is an outspoken Holocaust denier; his candidacy website contains pages of documentation “disproving” the Holocaust and dismissing the death of millions of Jews. Phrases from his website are eerily similar to the aforementioned propaganda of the Third Reich:

"The ‘Holocaust’ is quite a racket. Millions of dollars are made each year by the Jews telling this tall tale
Elie Wiesel [Holocaust survivor] is simply a skillful liar
[Survivor accounts of the Holocaust are] propaganda, whose purpose is designed to bleed, blackmail, extort and terrorize, the enemies of organized world Jewry
Their ‘Holocaust’ [is] just an extortion racket. "
I have been made furious to learn of this news and to read these documents, and have thought- What can I do now, with what I know? How can I, and others like me, best combat this utterly false information?

As mentioned previously, words can be used to generate destructive power. I recognize that my words need to be used to generate informative, educational, and defense of those who have suffered. This is certainly, in many ways, a power worth reckoning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hope

A rose left on the bunk of a wooden barrack at Auschwitz Birkenau.
A calligraphy/hand-lettered piece on Hope.
“Despite everything, I still believe people are good at heart.” - Anne Frank

Similar to my last blog post, I begin with an Anne Frank quote. In contrast, this post is about hope, as opposed to hopelessness. To me, this quote displays hope in humanity, regardless of how horrifically Frank’s family and other Jewish families were treated throughout the Shoah.

This week has taught me so much about history. On top of that, it has taught me a lot about myself, especially the way I process things. Whether positive or negative, exciting or boring, I like to reflect on life experiences through calligraphy and hand-lettering. Calligraphy, which has been around for thousands of years, has evolved on social media to “hand-lettering” by millennials. Hand-lettering is a way of creating various fonts, alongside calligraphy to express words. Over the last decade, I have found myself taking profound concepts and minimizing them to handwritten fonts to express myself. It is therapeutic for me and can make for great gifts and cards!

I decided to center the entire piece around hope. Before creating it, I read through “Celebrating and Deepening the New Christian-Jewish Relationship”. The natural optimist in me loved this, as hope is a common theme throughout it all. This statement was sent out for the Golden Jubilee of the Second Vatican Council Declaration, Noestra Aetate. Within the introduction, there is a positive undertone that guided my thought process. “Like people dreaming of what were once unimaginable possibilities (Psalm 126:1) we look forward to a future full of hope” (pp. 44). Written by the ICCJ for a conference in Rome in 2015, this statement reviews the new, positive dialogue between Christians and Jews since the Shoah. It begins with the distance made from the awful starting point that allowed millions of Jewish people to be persecuted and killed. Christianity played a role in allowing this to happen, through the Teaching of Contempt. Jewish people were made out to be “Christ-killers” by many Christians in the early 1900s and this negative connotation brought about indifference, which led to the genocide. The council states that today “we have been learning to speak to each one another as friends and companions…for the first time in history Jews and Christians can work and study together in a sustained way, thereby enriching each other’s covenantal lives” (pp. 45). I was able to see this first hand multiple times, and I am thankful I was able to express this in hand lettering.

First, (the top left corner reads) “Saint Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us”. I added this when I saw it left in the room he was kept in during his starvation period. He was an example of hope for me this week because he gave of his life for another, which is the greatest form of love. Amongst hate, I was reminded that people are also good.

Second, (the top right quote) says, “life makes sense as long as you save people”. This quote, by Oscar Schindler was painted on the wall of Schindler’s Factory, which we visited in Krakow on Wednesday. Schindler saved over 2,000 Jewish people by hiring them in his factory so they would not be sent away to ghettos and concentration camps. He was courageous, and the face of hope in a very tense time.

Third, (the words directly below) that read “Shabbat Shalom”, and were said during the Shabbat dinner we ate on Friday night with the Jewish community in Krakow. The entire community brought me so much hope for peace in the world today, because they invited people of all ages, backgrounds, and religions into their center to enjoy a meal with them. Their hospitality, despite barely knowing us, brought me encouragement and taught me the significance of recognizing dignity in all people.

Fourth, (to the left of the prior quote) is from Simon Peereboom. “We still believed it would all be alright”. This quote was on the wall in one of the blocks at Auschwitz I. It stood out to me when we returned Thursday, because Peereboom displayed so much hope in his future, regardless of how anxious the present seemed.

Fifth, (to the left of Peereboom’s) is a John Lennon quote from his song “Imagine”. Written on a stone outside Auschwitz Birkenau, it says, “imagine all the people, living in peace”. Although I had known this song before coming to Poland, it struck a chord with me before entering the “Gate of Death” because it was a display of hope for a more peaceful future in the world, but left by an anonymous stranger. It left me with the comforting thought that our group was not alone in being advocates of peace, that there are many others out there, too.

Sixth, (above Lennon’s quote) is a verse. “And in your book they all will be written” (Psalm 139:16). This was written in front of the Book of Names at Auschwitz I, which documented the names of the victims of the Shoah. As I walked around the largest book I’d ever seen in my life, I felt hopeless. But, when I saw this verse I felt comfort and hope that this memorial was summarized with a verse that reflected back on a Creator, one who is loving and keeps the names of His people, even if humans replace those names with numbers.

Finally, I end with the quote that started this blog. “Despite everything, I still believe people are good at heart” (Anne Frank). After hearing this quote, I eagerly picked up her book in one of the bookstores and I began it. Although I am only 40 pages in so far, I can see how she displayed humor and an uplifting outlook, even though her world was rapidly declining.

This theme of hope will stick with me forever when I recount this trip to others. I am confident that I will be able to reference all of these quotes, as well my Catholic faith through documents like Nostra Aetate and the more recent ones to remain hopeful in humanity and be a voice for the voiceless.

Monday, March 19, 2018

16670

Religion in Auschwitz is a topic I never thought about before coming to Poland. I always figured the victims were always more concerned with getting from one day to the next rather than if they would be able to practice their religion. However, its important to be able to practice because any detail you can do to maybe make the experience even a little less painful is very important, and practicing religion could be one of those things. The main victim was of course the Jews. 6 million is a number we should all be familiar with. However, what we don’t hear about often is the Christians that were also prisoners in the camp. One of the most famous is Maximilian Kolbe. He is a Polish Christian Monk who was imprisoned as Polish Intelligencia his Prisoner number was 16670. One day while he was in Auschwitz a prisoner escaped, when Prisoners escape there is collective responsibilities in the camp and 10 people are chosen to die at random for each escaped prisoner. When the ten people were chosen to die one man in the line up yelled out about his wife and child. this is when Maximillian Kolbe decided to step forward and offer his life for the man with the family. The Nazi guards accepted the exchange and chose Kolbe. The death would be by starvation in a starvation cell. The in mates would be placed in the cell for 2 weeks with no food or water. the other 9 men perished, Maximilian lived. When the Nazis entered and Kolbe was still alive they lethally injected him and he died immediately. He is remembered for his extraordinary acts that day and was Beatified on October 17th 1971 by Pope Paul VI. His nick name is the Saint of Auschwitz. This story was told in Auschwitz by our first guide but also in a special lecture that took place in a renovated Barrack in Auschwitz. The lecture was titles Clergy in Auschwitz and explained not only the incredible story of Maximilian Kolbe but also other information about the practice of religion in Auschwitz. It is said that only 6 mass services took place in 5 years at the camp because it was so dangerous if the prisoners were caught. There was also 464 Priests and 35 nuns 70% of which died. 3 Popes have visited Auschwitz since the museum has opened, the first was Pope John Paul II who had visited many times before as a bishop, the second is Pope benedict XVI, and the third is Pope Francis. Each of them left a memorial for inmate 16670 Saint Maximillian Kolbe in the cell in which he starved for two weeks. The lecture on Clergy in Auschwitz was very important because it was on a topic that is very important which I had never thought about previously. The ongoing participation of religion inside the walls of evil is an important lesson. It also was good to help realize that while of course the Jews suffered far grater losses there were also other victims within the walls of Auschwitz.
Picture description: a drawing done by Holocaust survivor Marian Kolodziej Inmate number 432. Who drew many pictures of Maximillian Kolbe. Kolodziej survived the entirety of the holocaust and has an art exhibition in the basement of a monastery in Harmeze.

THE JUXTAPOSITION OF AUSCHWITZ

Before my trip to Poland, I had many preconceptions and ideas of what I thought I was going to see and what my experiences would consist of. Although I had seen pictures, learned about the history, and heard stories from various people, nothing could have prepared me for stepping foot onto one of the largest mass graveyards in history. The experiences I have had during my time in Poland have truly opened my eyes into the cruel torment of people and dehumanization that existed only seventy-five years ago.
A view from underneath the sign at the entrance of Auschwitz I. This sign was often one the first sights that prisoners and victims would see before entering the concentration camp.
As I walked out of the gate of Auschwitz I today for I can confidently say will most likely be the last time, I couldn’t help but take a moment and pray for those who never had the opportunity to. The juxtaposition of the sign at the gate still haunts me. The sign reads “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which is translated to “Work Will Set You Free.” Unfortunately, for those who were forced to walk under the sign, they would soon realize it was a lie.

I stood for what felt like hours staring at the atrocity of the history that lie directly beneath my feet. I couldn’t help but take notice of the vast number of people with melancholy expressions and the sound of shuffling feet, it was almost if I closed my eyes I could be a witness to the first inmates of Auschwitz I. This experience reminded me of Alexander Donat’s memoir, The Holocaust Kingdom where he recounts the sounds and sights of his deportation to one of the camps. “When I reached the corner of the building, I understood the terror I had seen in everyone’s eyes. On both sides of us stood SS guards with grenades in their belts and submachine guns at the ready, holding barking police dogs straining at the leach. Never had I seen a collection of such murderous, degenerate human faces.” (pp. 140)

Throughout my time in Poland, I am constantly reminded of the importance of relationships between people. I find it difficult some days, with our busy schedule and the time difference to find time to talk to my mom, dad and brother, which are the most important relationships in my life. During one of our lectures with Fr. Manfred, (a German, Catholic priest who has devoted his life to studying and teaching German-Polish Reconciliation and Christian-Jewish Dialogue) he talked about the importance of our responsibility in relationships. One quote he said that stood out to me was “Relationships died at Auschwitz.” The horrific torture of the people brought to the Auschwitz camps was not only cruel but dehumanizing.

After spending what could have been weeks in cramped cattle cars, the inmates of the camps were stripped of all their possessions and separated from their families. As if this wasn’t cruel enough, they were subjected to brutal shavings and inhumane conditions. “We were told to strip; male barbers shaved our heads and the rest of our bodies with clippers. A girl rubbed each of us under the arms and between the legs with a rag dipped in disinfectant....as new arrivals went up to them in turn, they made adroit pricks in the skin with a tattoo needle on the left forearm.” (pp. 260)
Suitcases belonging to those who were brought to Auschwitz. In order not to panic the masses of people, SS guards allowed people to pack items they thought they would need, only to have it be collected upon entrance to Auschwitz, yet another juxtaposition.
As I look back so far on my experiences in Poland, I cannot help but think about the future that lies ahead. I think about explaining each and every picture that was taken in detail in order to spread the knowledge of what I have learned and to be a voice for the 6 million people that are now voiceless due to the Shoah. In the Nostra Aetate, written in 1965, there are many questions that come forth regarding what we can do now that the Shoah has ended. “Whence do we come, and where are we going.” (pp. 4) Moving forward from our experiences in Poland, I hope that my knowledge and improved language allow me to advocate for those who suffered and were senselessly killed.
Some of the innocent victims who were stripped of their identity and forced to work in Auschwitz during the Shoah.

Where Was God?

The “Wall of Death”, located at Block 11. This courtyard outside of Block 11 and the block itself were mainly used as direct killing sites.
Just the other day, I was walking through Auschwitz I… which is a sentence I never thought I would say. Doing so, millions of thoughts raced through my mind. As a devout Christian, I can’t help but think about why God would let such a cruel thing happen. If God is so loving and so forgiving, then where was He at a time like this? Especially coming across the Wall pictured above was one particular moment in which I really could not fathom how people did such a thing to other people. And if God works through us, why did his workings include mass murder?

Luckily, in his second lecture, Father Manfred addressed this topic directly. He made some very compelling points that have allowed me to be less confused with the question, “Where was God?” He began by talking about who God really is, in the perspective of the Jewish faith. He mentioned the importance of the covenant that is shared between God and his people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that this is the foundation of Jewish identity. The most admirable thing about the Jewish people was that they did not lose their faith no matter what was happening to them. In the words of Anne Frank, “Despite it all, I still believe that every human being is good at heart.” As the last line in her famous diary, this is a perfect representation of her unshakeable faith, and that of other Jewish people at the time.

Father Manfred assured us that though you may not understand why God let this happen, it does not mean He does not exist. We are not God, and we do not know more than He does; He is all-knowing and all-powerful. Answering this difficult question is not a matter of understanding God, but rather trusting Him. And in the same way that God was present in the suffering and death of Jesus, He was present during the Shoah. Though God is ever-present, what made the Shoah seem as if that is not true was simply Nazi anti-Semitism. This is explained further in “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”, which was written by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in 1998 and is a part of the teaching of respect:

“…At the level of theological reflection, we cannot ignore the fact that not a few in the Nazi party not only showed aversion to that idea of divine Providence at work in human affairs, but gave proof of a definite hatred directed at God himself. Logically, such an attitude also led to a rejection of Christianity, and a desire to see the Church destroyed or at least subjected to the interests of the Nazi state.” (We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, pg. 9-10).

To conclude, I think it only makes sense to mention one person in particular who truly portrayed God’s presence at Auschwitz—Maximilian Kolbe. His noble act of taking the place of a prisoner sent to die is one of pure love. He loved until the very end of his life, and Father Manfred even said that they Nazis may have killed him, but they could not kill his love. I cannot help but be reminded of the verse from 1 John which reads, “Beloved, let’s love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves has been born of God, and knows God. He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love.” Those last three words are definitely something to reflect on, especially when pondering the presence of God during the Shoah. If God did happen to be present at all at Auschwitz, which I believe He was, then it was most certainly evident through the selfless love of Kolbe and other martyrs of the Shoah.
The cell of Maximilian Kolbe, with candles in remembrance of him placed there by Saint Pope John Paul II. As the place where Kolbe was killed by lethal injection after living without food or water for two weeks (because of his faith in God) is truly a sacred place, especially for Christians.

The Power of Kinship in the Camps

This blog post references The Holocaust Kingdom, a memoir written by Alexander Donat. This work was originally written in 1963; all quotes are from the 1999 edition.
"“Kinship is…being one with the other.” "– Fr. Gregory Boyle, Tattoo on the Heart
Holocaust survivors displaying their numbered tattoos as assigned at concentration camps.
During my time in Poland, I have gained a wealth of knowledge and insight with regards to the experience of prisoners within concentration camps, specifically Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. From my readings of survivor accounts and interaction with tour guides and information at the camps themselves, I have learned that imprisonment within these camps was the epitome of ostracization. Prisoners endured maltreatment, hatred, and were blatantly dehumanized by Nazi actions and speech. They were torn from their families, rendered identity-less, and endured abuse at every moment.

Death and defeat always loomed, and fellow prisoners died in great numbers; while visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, our group was informed that as many as 6,000 Jews were gassed by the S.S. per day (Source: our wonderful tour guide, Lidia). S.S. soldiers and block leaders within the camps were quick to remind prisoners of the inevitability of death. In his memoir The Holocaust Kingdom, Alexander Donat notes the motto of a previous Barrack Elder during his time at Majdanek: “Don’t forget, you must die so that I may live” (161).

In considering this, I found myself asking the following question: How could prisoners survive in such a volatile, horrific environment?

Shortly after walking the grounds of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, our group went to an art exhibition entitled “Photographic Plates of Memory. Labyrinths” by Marian Kolodziej, a former prisoner of Auschwitz. This exhibition, which is permanently installed in the lower level of Our Lady Immaculate Church in Harmęże, gave deeper insight into the ostracization and loneliness faced by prisoners. As our guide, Fr. Florio, led us through the exhibition, I felt deflated. Was there no way to navigate the hell of Auschwitz? Was there any hope to be found?

As Fr. Florio beckoned towards images of prisoners huddled together, he addressed their agonized unity in remarking, “kinship was crucial to surviving.” It was at this moment that I found a sense of resolve to my inner questions, and saw the truth in this statement illuminated. The concept of kinship as that which sustains another resonated with me; as a person of faith, I have found the idea of kinship echoed in various theological sources. Fr. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, alludes to the importance of kinship in his work Tattoos on the Heart. He notes that kinship brings us “closer to creating a community,” where we can “stand…with those whose dignity has been denied.” It is important to note that Boyle is speaking from his experience as a rehabilitator and advocate of gang members in Southern California. Despite this, his assertions hold validity in considering how kinship fueled prisoners in their plight to survive.

We see the power of kinship in Alexander Donat’s The Holocaust Kingdom. Kinship, in word and in deed, emerges as a conduit to survival throughout Donat’s oppression. Though there are examples of kinship between Donat and other individuals in the Warsaw Ghetto, for purposes of this post, I will refer to scenes of kinship in the camps.
Display mimicking the march of prisoners within the Polish block, at the Auschwitz I Memorial / Concentration Camp in Oświęcim.
One scene of kinship is captured in the interactions between Donat and Horowitz, a Czech Jew assigned as the Lagerschrieber of Field Three in Majdanek. Donat appeals to him, begging for help in survival: “I felt [as a journalist] I had a duty to survive tell the world about the murder of the Jewish people. I appealed to him to help me survive” (164). Moved by the similarity of their prior professions, Horowitz works to find Donat a lenient job, eventually securing him a well-fed job at the Fahrbereitschaft (the motor pool of Majdanek). Though Donat’s time at the motor pool is short-lived, Horowitz’s kinship sustains him and enabled him to gather “physical and moral strength” (Donat 172). Surely if Horowitz had not been aided, Donat could have faced a worse fate.

Donat’s interactions with the Jews after being transferred to the Radom labor camp further illustrate the power of kinship in the camps. Here, Donat and his peers received nourishment, medical attention, and compassion from the other inhabitants at Radom. He emphasizes that despite the food received from the Jews of Radom, “the cordiality shown us was even more precious than the food.” (187)

Other less-detailed but still relevant examples of kinship exist throughout the text; Donat mentions that upon fainting during a roll call, his neighbors came to his aid and propped him up. A particularly touching scene is when Szulc, a former restauranteur, would describe dishes he had prepared in his restaurant to induce a relieved appetite for surrounding prisoners. (Donat 168) How minute this seems, at first glance, yet how important these and other gestures were to Donat and his peers during his stay at Majdanek. Boyle emphasizes that “the self cannot survive without love.” In considering the kinship among Donat and other individuals in the Ghetto and camps, one sees the validity of this claim and the power that is inherent in kinship. The accounts of kinship between Alexander Donat and other prisoners moved me in a profound way, and caused me to think more deeply about the impact of human relationship in surviving one of the worst acts in human history.