Saturday, April 29, 2017

Love Conquers Hatred: A reflection on what I've learned

“Forgiveness demonstrates the presence in the world of the love 
which is more powerful than sin.” 
- Pope John Paul II

This is just one of the quotes I wrote down from the Pope John Paul II museum, but I think it’s so powerful. We’ve now been back for a little over a month, and with the stress of the end of the semester between finals and papers due, our trip to Oswiecim seems so far away. However, I still think about what we learned in that short time away. One of the main things I realized is that there were so many things surrounding WWII and the Shoah that I will never be able to understand, and I definitely struggled with that realization for a while, even for a good few weeks after we were back. However, what we’ve learned and continue to learn has shown me that love and forgiveness overpowers the hatred that continues to exist in our world.
Fr. Manfred, one of the lecturers we were lucky enough to have at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer, spoke to us about love and about how God is manifested through love. He told us that it was through love that God was present during the Shoah – that it was through love that God was present in the camps. He made it easier for me to understand that though love isn’t always clear and isn’t present in every story from that dark time, some stories allow us to see it in action and in this way, to see how God was present during the Shoah.
He shared a few stories of his encounters with survivors who had different perspectives on this idea of love and of God’s presence. One survivor that he knew had survived Auschwitz II-Birkenau, but his job was to throw corpses into the burning fields every day. Because of this, he never felt God’s presence; he didn’t understand why they had to die, or why he had to burn them, and he would hope that people would come to help their situation. He would wonder where God was and continue to ask why; he couldn’t see God through the destruction or in the people that surrounded him. I found the next perspective interesting as well because of what Fr. Manfred had to say about it. This woman worked in the women’s camp in Birkenau and saw people go to the gas chambers; she asked Fr. Manfred what he meant by God, and she told him that because of what she saw there, she is unable to believe in God. She did say, though, that she believes in love. Fr. Manfred said to us something like, “who am I?” to tell her that it’s the same thing – that when you believe in love, “that is what I am talking about when I speak of God.” I found this powerful, as it is in alignment with the teaching of respect for all beliefs.
The next story is yet a different outlook: this man was also a survivor of Auschwitz-II Birkenau, and he was not religious when he was there. However, he said that his experience during the Shoah made him realize that it means something to be Jewish. He began to study and learn and found that whenever people helped one another, when they were good to one another, when they did something for another that costed more than it helped them, that that was God in action. When you do something out of love that costs more than you gain, this is God — and it just amazes me that he took this understanding away from his own experience at Birkenau.
I’ve decided that while it is true that I will most likely never understand many of aspects of the Shoah, I know now that understanding everything is not the point. The point is standing witness to the tragedies of the past as well as to the progress we’ve made as a human race. The point is the greater understanding of love and respect for one another as humans that has come out of this experience for me and for our class, and hopefully, for the world as a whole. I’ve realized that in my memories of our time in Auschwitz, I’m starting to see the love more than the hate. Of course it’s easier to see the love when you aren’t standing in the middle of where it all happened, where the hate allowed for the worst crimes against humanity to be committed, but the understanding of how far we’ve come along with the realization of how much further we need to go is something I’m lucky to have acquired from this once in a lifetime experience.
The Prayer of St. Francis, displayed in the Center for Dialogue and Prayer

Hope in the Horror

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was enormous. Looking out from the guard’s watch tower at the main entrance, before even entering the camp, was an incredible experience. Just seeing the size of the camp was overwhelming. I was unable to stop myself from trying to imagine what it was like not even a century ago, when there were still all of the barracks and still people everywhere and still trains running through the middle of the grounds, delivering more innocent people to their deaths. We walked through one of the eight original barracks, we saw the makeshift beds that four or more prisoners would sleep on for so little time each night, and we walked along the tracks of the train that used to unload more and more people who would soon be sent to the gas chambers. We walked to the ruins of the gas chambers – the two huge gas chambers that SS guards blew up in an attempt to destroy the evidence of the crimes they were committing, because they knew that they were committing crimes – and we saw the two smaller gas chambers, one of which stood in front of fields where bodies were thrown into and burned. We witnessed the remains of the horrors of Auschwitz-II Birkenau. 
Items found during renovations of the barracks in 1960.
We also went back to Auschwitz I and had the opportunity to walk around freely without a tour guide. I liked it because we were allowed to wander in silence and take our time viewing the exhibits we wanted to spend extra time in. One amazing thing that I saw was this exhibit of items found in the barracks when they were being renovated. The caption explained: “They must have been hidden by a prisoner who was planning an escape.” Among the items were three pairs of shoes – men’s, women’s, and a very small pair for a child. I think this is kind of a symbol of hope – a sign that some prisoners still had hope. A family was trying so hard to stay together – their will to survive wasn’t defeated.

I think I expected this visit to the camp to be a little easier since we had already been there, but visiting Maximilian Kolbe’s cell for the second time was not easier. That one small space seemed to somehow embody all of the horrors of the camp and the atrocities that it stands to remind us of. Maximilian Kolbe is recognized as a Catholic saint and a martyr because when ten prisoners from his barrack were selected to die as a result of an escape made by another prisoner in their unit, one of the men cried, “My wife! My children!” This man was Franciszek Gajoqniczek, and he was saved by Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in his place. Along with the other nine selected prisoners, he was starved in cell 18, the starvation cell, though he didn’t ultimately die of starvation. He was prisoner 16670, but he was known as so much more than that number. He was known and continues to be known for this greatest act of love: the Gospel of John expresses that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another, and that is what Maximilian Kolbe did. For me, this is the greatest example of love in the camps. His action itself was amazing, but one thing about it that was specifically brought to my attention was the immediacy with which he volunteered his life. He stepped forward right away – there was no time to think. He didn’t have to think twice about what he was doing to know it was the right thing to do. I find it a miracle that we are lucky enough to have an example of a fellow human that possessed that type of love for humanity.


Walking Their Path

When we went to Aushwitz-Birkenau, it was a very different experience than it had been at Auschwitz. I was prepared for it only so much; I had imagined it would be easier after the initial shock of the first camp.

Registration Building at Auschwitz-Birkenau
This was not true, in part because of the major difference between these two sites. One had been transformed into a museum, something modern despite our moving through buildings that had been used during the Shoah. The latter was left as it was, with only bunkers rebuilt to show what it would have looked like. It was complete emptiness and huge expanse that I hadn’t been prepared for. It’s impossible to imagine the real size of the camp before you are there.

What struck me hard during this day was our walk through the registration building. We walked on elevated glass platforms that prevented our feet from touching the true ground of the building; I am grateful as it felt like it might have been too much to have our feet on that same ground. Walking outside was different; inside became a specific place, a specific event. We followed through their fearful progress.

Furnaces for burning clothing and belongings

First, women would enter this building and be stripped of their clothes. The day we walked through felt cold to me and it was higher than the typical temperature in Poland. I had a coat on. We followed down the hallway, and along the way you could see the different rooms. At a certain point in the war, the women would have known one of their possible fates and been terrified as they believed they were walking to the gas chambers. At the end of the hall they would be shaved, and then they would get into a real shower and discover that this was not their fate.

While this was happening, all of their belongings would be being burned. This was in part sanitation, but it had the effect of eliminating even more of them off the world. The women would be cold and wet now, and stand in another hall being registered and awaiting clothes, potentially for hours.

Walking through the building made each of these moments more vivid than they ever could have been otherwise. We walked their path, quite literally, in those moments, and cold myself and somewhat on edge, I did not get shaved or stand frozen and wet. It made the image of that experience much more vivid.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Struggling To Be A Witness

If asked how I felt about leaving Poland, I would have to answer: bittersweet. Despite having only spent a week out of the country, I must admit that I was eager to return to America. We accomplished a great deal during our short stay, and the exhaustion from constantly trying to absorb every ounce of information being presented to us was catching up to me. I needed time to just sit and reflect on the trip – to piece together everything that I had learned. That being said, I was also anxious about returning home. Going to Poland and studying the Holocaust at its epicenter, meant that I was no longer just an average student, rather, I had become a witness. As soon as I walked through the gates at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my eyes fell on to the malevolence responsible for the deaths of millions. As a result, it was now my duty to ensure that the tragedy I observed never be forgotten – a responsibility that I was not sure I could handle.  
"Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts" Located at Plaszów Concentration Camp
During our time in Poland, the class had been warned on numerous occasions about the potential difficulties we may face in regards to answering the questions many were sure to ask us once we returned. What we learned, saw, and experienced was incredibly complicated. To describe it to someone during a passing conversation, a casual “How was Poland?” shouted from across campus, was simply not possible. I knew that it would only be a matter of time before I began to be asked these questions, and I wanted to make sure that I could answer such inquiries in a way that did this experience justice. However, nothing could have prepared me for the most difficult question I have been asked so far: “How were the Nazis able to hurt the Jews?”
            While this question is complex (in the sense that there are a multitude of reasons as to why and how the Nazi party was able to murder 6 million Jews), it was the person asking me this question that made it all the more difficult to answer. This was no peer, no professor – rather, my 11-year-old brother. Now, at this point in my studies of the Holocaust, I was prepared to provide a lengthy explanation as to why the Nazis acted the way they had, as well as what had allowed their endeavors to be so successful. However, just as I finished gathering my thoughts, I realized who I was speaking to – a child. Taken aback, I found myself struggling to reword what I had been about to say, simplifying it in a way that ignored the harsh specifics and focused more on general facts. Despite having answered my brother’s question, I could not help but to feel a twinge of guilt, for I had done so in a manner than excluded details essential to one’s Holocaust education, and feared that such an answer would not have the desired impact. Thus, I began to question my integrity as a witness.
"International Monument" Located at Auschwitz II-Birkenau 
            Prior to this experience with my younger sibling, I had only ever discussed the Holocaust with other students, professors, and various scholars. As a result, I was able to speak freely, allow my thoughts to be heard, and not have to worry about being too gruesome. In other words, I never had to sensor myself before. This all changed when I realized that my audience was not always going to be comprised of individuals my age and/or above. It was at this time that I entered a sort of inner struggle. I knew that it was possible to simplify the events that took place during the Holocaust so as to not traumatize children when discussing such tragedies – as that is exactly what happens when many students are first introduced to the subject. However, I also knew that this watered down curriculum greatly inhibited one’s understanding of the Holocaust. To dismiss the specifics and speak only of the facts, meant that essential events and ideas regarding the Holocaust could, and most likely would, be overlooked. It is through this process of picking and choosing what to say and what to teach that the impact of this education has the potential to be greatly diminished. As a result, I found myself uncertain as to how exactly I should go about discussing the Holocaust with a younger audience – for I knew that to simply not answer their questions would be an injustice to the victims I act as a witness to, but at the same time, I also knew that by answering their questions they may not entirely understand due to the complexity of the material, or that I could potentially traumatize them.
Rose Left Behind in Honor of Those Who Lost Their Lives at Auschwitz II-Birkenau

            All this being said, however, throughout the process of writing this blog and speaking more with the professors in charge of this course, I have come to a realization, and as a result, an easement to the uncertainty I felt regarding my integrity as a witness. While it is my responsibility as a witness to share what I have learned through my time studying the Holocaust thus far, that does not mean I have to regurgitate every ounce of knowledge I have obtained. Rather, it means that as long as I discuss my experience – whether it be in a complex, fully detailed manner, or a simplified, more factual kind of structure – I am fulfilling my duty, and thus encouraging the continued remembrance of the Holocaust.