Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Different Perspectives (By: Shadeyka Warren)

As I prepared to travel to Poland, I knew that it would be an intense trip. However, I didn't know how intense it would be for me. My experience was much more than an educational lesson about the Holocaust. It was a very personal, spiritual, and emotional journey which challenged me to search deep within myself for answers to questions that had been pondering my mind for a while. I believe that it was God's strategic plan for me to be in Poland, at that specific time, and with that particular group of amazing individuals. I feel that my experience was less about the Holocaust, and more about my own personal growth and development. At the beginning of the trip, Father Manfred said to the group, "Your experience here will be connected to and affected by your background," and by the end of the trip, I was beginning to understand what he meant by this. As I went on tours, participated in activities, made new friends, and enhanced my knowledge, I could not help but to think about how each and every one of these experiences was personally affecting me. I realized myself becoming more open-minded, considering different perspectives, and doing a lot of religious reflection. Most importantly, I left Poland feeling more confident in my faith and my relationship with God.

As a secondary witness to the Shoah, I now feel a greater sense of respect for victims of tragedy. To know that people could go through such horrific experiences and still remain true to their faith, religious beliefs, and confidence in God's grace amazed me. Poland is an extremely religious country, and witnessing how religion is such an important part of everyday life surprised me. Although there are also many faithful Christians in America, including myself, it is very rarely that I see the degree of religious unity in America that I witnessed in Poland. I remember watching a video in class before the trip, in which a survivor recalled that during Passover, she and other prisoners hid in the washroom to sing and pray before beginning their work shifts for the day. While I found this very moving during class, it was not until my trip to Poland that her experience became "real" to me. Despite the fact that the prisoners knew they would be immediately murdered if they were caught praying, they did it anyways. Maintaining loyalty and faithfulness to their religion was more important than their own lives. There are many churches ans synagogues in Poland, and we visited quite a few of them. The one thing that I noticed, was that no church or synagogue was empty - they were always filled with people praying.

Church in Wadowice, Poland
Statue of Pope John Paul
Church in Wadowice, Poland

As I reflect on my spiritual growth and religious journey since returning from Poland, I recall the first night at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer... In preparation for our experience at Auschwitz, Sister Mary shared with the group the four dimensions of dialogue: 1) Listen to the voice of the Earth (know the facts), 2) Listen to the voice of your heart, 3) Listen to the voice of the others, 4) Listen to the voice of God. She ended by asserting, "Encounter the place, the memory, the victims, and yourself. Discover why you are here." I never forgot her words. By the end of the trip, I knew why I was there. Poland was not just about the Holocaust for me. It was about growth, understanding, truth, and knowledge. I would not have wanted to spend my Spring break anywhere else. I feel stronger. I feel fulfilled. I feel accomplished.  

Photos of Holocaust victims

Jewish cemetery behind synagogue

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Becoming a Witness: Clarity and Closure

Entrance gate to Auschwitz I, view from exiting the camp

Last night a few of us were sitting in the lobby, preparing to turn in for the night. It was then that a young man came up to us, and hesitantly asked if he could take a seat and speak with us. The mans name was Frank, a German soldier visiting the center along with a tour group from his home city. His English was wonderful and he asked us who we were, and what had brought us to Poland. He was very curious, and asked us questions in regards to our faith. He then asked us what we felt about Germans visiting The concentration camps. The answer was easy. I turned to him and said that I felt it was wonderful that his people came to these places. 

This is a part of their history as much as the rest of ours. And they deserve the opportunity to learn about their ancestors. How they feel about what they see? Well that's a different story. Frank said that growing up, he never had a doubt about the Holocaust. He knew that it had happened. A viewpoint that was not shared by many of his peers. However, the truth dos not hit home with him until he visited the art exhibit underneath the Franciscan Church. After driving through the night from Hamburg, Frank's tour group arrived on Oswiecim and headed straight to the exhibit. From the exhibit to the camps. An emotional day to say the least. It was then that he told us that, as a soldier. He was very proud to be German and of the constitution they wrote after the Second World War. It was then that something shocking happened, something that may seem small to others. 

Photo Remembrance wall of life before the war, Auschwitz II Birkenau

But I know I will carry it with me always. Frank was speaking of how he felt as he walked through the art exhibition. "Seeing these horrors of what was done to these people. It makes it real for me. I never doubted the holocaust. But now it has become reality." He then broke down and began to cry. The moment was both sad and beautiful within itself. Here is a stranger, someone I have never met. And yet we had such a raw and open conversation. We may have only spoken for a few minutes. But I feel as if he has made a lasting handprint on my life and soul. And I couldn't imagine a more beautiful way to end this experience. This is not 1940. This is not a time for hate. This is 2016, a time for love. And while the world is not perfect. And evil still resides. It is moments like this that give me hope.

Group photo, Krakow

1 Month Later

It has now officially been one month since we touched back down on American soil. During this time, I have not been able to truly express my experiences to anyone outside of those who accompanied me. Whenever posed with the questions of "How was Poland?" or "Did you have fun?" I came up with a near scripted response. "I had a very nice time, thank you" I felt as though most of those asking me were just expecting a one or two sentence answer, and there was absolutely no way that I could condense such an experience into that small a statement, it would be an injustice. Only know have I been able to express myself to others. The other day I was sitting with one of my best friends, and he asked about my trip to Poland and how I was feeling. Without even thinking about it, it was as if a heavy gate opened up and I broke down. I talked for what felt like forever, finally being able to express the inner turmoil and confusion that I had been feeling over the things I had seen. 

When I finished my story, my friend just looked at me in disbelief, and it was then that I realized how insurmountably important what I had just done was. This was the leap forward I took to truly become a witness, the final step that will go with me as long as I live. I educated someone, I left them thinking, questioning. That was why I went to Poland, why I took this course. For that look on my friends face after I answered his question. Since then I have been able to talk to a few others, speaking about what I saw does not get easier with each retelling. But each time I share this knowledge, I am reaffirmed in why God put me in this place. With each word, each sharing of stories, I not only continue to be a witness, but I make others witnesses as well. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

How? -I Don't Understand. (By: Krissy Bucchi)

As if yesterday wasn’t difficult, today wouldn’t be easier, or would it be? I hoped it would, but how could it? Today we were going to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The bus pulled up to the camp and we unloaded in front of the main entrance. When Anna, our tour guide, gathered with our group we began walking away from the camp down a muddy path towards railroad tracks that had the remaining cattle cars.

They were wooden, a tiny barred window in the top right side of the car, they were small and about 60-70 people were jammed inside. Innocent people died in the cars, they were suffocated; babies, children, mothers, men, elders. I don’t understand.

I tended to stay in the back of the group, not because I wanted to wait to take a perfect picture or get a good angle with my video camera, but because I needed to be alone. I needed the gap from the group. Anna would gather us to talk and I stood silent in the back; lips trembling, legs shaking, eyes watering, not because it was chilly and slightly windy but because my heart was breaking.

So we walked through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The large arch beneath the Nazi’s watchtower, the railroad track that split off in three different directions, the barracks, the rubble from destroyed buildings and gas chambers, it was all there.

It was real. This was real. I was actually witnessing history with my own two eyes. The barracks where prisoners slept, the cracks in the floor and on the bottom of the walls where snow came in during the winter, where rodents found there way inside and called it their home too. I don’t understand.

I walked into another barrack. A piece of cement about three feet off the ground with holes in it, the latrines, toilets. 4-6 people to a toilet at a time, and you could only use it twice a day. A cold, skinny, boney, bottom sitting on cement to relieve yourself. I don’t understand.

Block #25, the death block where prisoners were selected and kept to wait inside before sent to the gas chambers. The cries from inside these walls that were heard from the other barracks were haunting. I heard them too.

It was dark inside the barrack. The beds were made of wooden planks that wrapped around the inside walls. There were three levels; the top, the middle, and the ground. The strongest prisoners slept at the top, the weakest on the bottom. The windows were barred shut, there was no escape. I don’t understand.

Another barrack was the washroom. A long narrow sink that extended to either end of the barrack in the middle with a sink on two sides. With a washroom so small for so many people, how could anyone actually feel clean after leaving? With an infestation of head lice in the camps, could a washroom really help? I don’t understand.

We walked further down into the depths of the camp. Anna stopped our group by a picture with some words to talk about it. I felt my mind drifting away and starring at the middle railway track. The track where prisoners were separated from loved ones and sorted into workers or sent to the gas chambers.

My eyes kept staring, my mind kept thinking. I walked away from my group and onto the track. My heart was pounding with each step I took getting closer, but I had to. I had to experience what it felt like to be on the tracks. I bent down and knelt, but it wasn’t enough. My right hand extended out to touch the cold metal track. The track that the cattle cars unloaded millions of prisoners from, I was touching it with my own living flesh. This is where my heart broke.

As my eyes fell several tears and my left arm clenched at my chest, I slowly picked up my head and in the distance saw the Nazi watchtower and the long railway tracks extending towards the outside of the camp. With a lump in my throat, I wiped my face and stood up to join back with my group.

There was a memorial area where one of the gas chambers was destroyed. People left flowers around the memorial, it seemed peaceful in this area.

As I walked around there was another gas chamber that was destroyed. There were steps before it and my group sat down. There was something special about this area of the camp. My classmates got emotional and hid their faces. Instead, I stood up and walked down the stairs towards the barbwire fence.

The air was misty and tall narrow green trees were in the distance. In this moment my mind shifted from listening to the questions and comments in my head, to the nature that surrounded me. I was so consumed with the thoughts in my head that I forgot to listen. But here in the back of the camp, I felt like I could listen again.

It was the sound of the birds. Think of waking up early in the mornings of April to the birds chirping outside your window, that’s what I heard. It was beautiful. It was hope. This is exactly what I needed to hear, it was closure. It warmed my broken heart and it no longer felt heavy to walk the rest of the camp. I cried as I looked between the barbed wire fences to see the birds flying high in the trees. It made me smile for the first time today. That was God.

The remainder of the day spent walking the camps was full of jotting down notes, taking pictures, listening to Anna, and creating memories with my group of classmates. After leaving the camp today I felt light, hopeful, at peace, comforted, and more positive. However, the one question and statement that still is unclear to me: How? –I don’t understand.

How could something like this actually happen? How was any of this allowed to happen? How could someone think this was all acceptable? Even though I have been studying this history, and I knew all of the ‘technical’ answers and understood, I just couldn’t help but still not understand, if that makes sense. I mean, none of this actually makes sense, does it? More questions, that’s enough for today.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Where IS God? (By: Shadeyka Warren)

It has been almost a month since our return from Poland... It has been very difficult to fully comprehend and fathom the intense emotional experience that took place at Auschwitz. Throughout the entire trip, I kept relating the Holocaust to my own personal experiences and those of my classmates. As the trip progressed, emotions prevailed, and each member of the group opened up to share their personal endeavors; one thing became very clear to me - God was, is, and will always be present in the lives of His people. Sometimes it is very difficult to remember this during times of pain, cruelness, and horror, such as what took place during the Shoah.

"The Book of Names" - Known names of Holocaust victims

As I walked throughout Aucshwitz-Birkenau, I witnessed some of the most horrific displays of inhumane cruelty that I had ever seen in my life. I walked through each exhibit in the museum, completely in awe at the artifacts of personal belongings and human remains, including hair! My heart sank to my chest and my eyes filled up with tears as I imagined how a group of people could endure such pain and embarrassment, all because of who they were. The question which seemed to be pondering the group was, how could these people not lose their faith? What gave them hope to continue on with life despite the immense adversities against them? I could not imagine how painful it must have been to watch your friends being shipped away to gas chambers every day... each and every day; millions of deaths, and nothing but the smell of burned bodies as a "memory" of the people you once knew. It is extremely devastating. Where was God? Why did He not help His people during such a time of crisis? By the end of the week, these seemed to be the central questions pondering in all of our minds. I reflected on other events such as natural disasters, sickness, unexpected death, and many other catastrophes which cause people to question where is God and why is He not helping? I began to wonder if He is even here, and if I were a victim of the Shoah, would I have kept my faith until the very end... Probably not.

Auschwitz 1

Belongings of Holocaust victims - Shoes

Sleeping quarters

These questions and thoughts did not begin to come together and make sense to me until March 24, 2016 - Day 6 in Poland. As I sat down for our final lecture with Father Manfred Deselaers, I had no idea that I would be walking out of that lecture with a newfound understanding and appreciation for God's role in the life of His people. Father Manfred began the lecture by recalling an encounter that he had with a survivor, in which the survivor was asked how he did he remain faithful to God during his years imprisoned at Auschwitz. The survivor responded, "Do you believe in God, or do you believe in Love?" My heart sank. Father Manfred continued the lecture by asserting, "If God made a Covenant with His people, why did He not protect and help them?" The traditional answer to this, as he explained, was that it is not because God is bad; it is because the people on earth are bad. Many believe that suffering on earth is God's punishment to man for not following His laws and being unfaithful to Covenant. Pain and suffering should serve as a reminded to return to the Covenant. However, how can this be true in the context of the Shoah? Jewish people were innocent victims, forced out of their homes and robbed of their freedom and livelihoods, not for breaking the Covenant with God, but for simply being born Jewish. They suffered at the hands of millions of perpetrators and bystanders, simply for being who they were naturally born. Thus, the idea that Jewish suffering was a result of breaking the Covenant simply does not make sense in the context of the Shoah. This is especially true because the Jews were known to be among the most faithful and religious people in Europe.

As the lecture progressed, we began to uncover the reasons why God may seem that He is turning His face away from us during times of suffering. As Father Manfred explained, it is not because God does not care. He weeps and cries when he sees the suffering of His people. God is upset when He witnesses how cruelly humans have used the free will and responsibility given to us. So it is not that God isn't present - He sees our suffering and weeps with us. So why does God not want us to see that He is also crying? It is because we are already sad. When the people see that God also cries, they will be even more sad. In hindsight, to "turn" His face is an act of love. It is not that God does not care...

After Father Manfred completed this lecture, everyone was left speechless. I think that many of us never considered this perspective regarding God's love for His people - At least, I never did. My thoughts began to unravel, and slowly the answers to my questions were coming together in a way that made sense to me. I left Poland the next day knowing that God was, is, and will always be here.

"When there's hope there's life..." - Anne Frank

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Unforgettable Experience

           It has taken me quit some time to write my final blog, I have done a lot of reflecting on my experience in Poland and finally have gathered all my thoughts. Traveling to Poland for a spring break is not what you usually hear, you usually hear about college students going to sunny paradises like Cancun or Punta Cana. However, contrary to popular belief I would not have wanted to be in any other place for spring break but Poland. My experience of visiting the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau are never going to be forgotten. Seeing the barracks, the exhibits, the monuments, the ruins of gas chambers and the overall camps are unforgettable moments due to their historical importance. It was an honor being able to travel to these locations and I will always hold it dear to my heart. Kind of a strange thing to say? I know right, but after learning things you’ve never known about the Holocaust and then being able to travel to this location of devastation you too would at first be at a lost of words and then greatly appreciate your own existence.
            It is insane that six million people were killed but we cannot forget about their individual personalities or identities since each person had their own life and loved ones prior to this genocide. I was astonished with the number six million, but then through each exhibit I saw their individual photographs, saw their belongings and heard their individual stories. Each person was different from one another but all sadly shared the same faith. 

Just a few children that were lost due to this tragic event.

           I related this to our last discussion with Father Manfred when he told us how important it was not to categorize people, not to be like Hitler or his followers who categorized the Jews and persecuted them. This may seem like an impossible task since many people, including myself usually do categorize people, we make stereotypes, we say hurtful things to one another or we never give a person the benefit of the doubt. This brings us to another important lesson that I learned from Father Manfred, he discussed human dignity with us. He said many people ask where was God during the Shoah, but he argues the real question is where was human dignity during the Shoah? Where was the respect for human life? He continued this discussion by highlighting how every person was made from God, how every person has good as well as evil in them. However, its up to us whether we want to be a good or bad person. Its difficult to understand this concept and took me a while to reflect on my own personality and past actions. But I came to the result that I want to better myself by being that good person, by being a good son, brother, friend and student. I want to surround myself with others who have this goal of being the best that they can be and I’m glad I was surrounded by my Poland classmates since I consider them all genuine people.

            I leave these horrific places with a better understanding, not about why or how it all happened since its impossible to know exactly why all this occurred. However, I leave with hope, hope that nothing like this ever occurs, hope in every single being, hope in God and hope in myself. I also leave with the commitment of not being a bystander to unfair treatment of others and with the responsibility of educating others that are not familiar with the Holocaust. Prior to this experience, I was a student and now I am a witness. I reread my first blog post and am glad to say that I have accomplished all of Sister Mary’s four dimensions. It was a difficult week of seeing the ruins of the Holocaust but I walked away with a whole new perspective of life and human dignity. I was educated on such a tragic time in history, I grew close to classmates and learned a lot about myself. I would not have traded this experience with anything else, thank you to my incredible classmates and my two wonderful professors that were there every step of the way on this unforgettable journey.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Interpreting the Events at Auschwitz II-Birkenau

The railroad inside Auschwitz II-Birkenau
I did not purchase any type of phone plan or data plan for this trip so when we returned back from our excursion on Tuesday morning, we were all in disbelief when we heard of the terrorist attack on Brussels, Belgium, not too far away from Poland.

On this same morning, we visited Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where we were able to see approximately 400 acres of the Nazi camp from the watchtower at the entrance of the camp. More than 300 barracks for living, washing, and working were visible from the tower. Many of the buildings in sight were still intact, but a good number of buildings were dilapidated or destroyed over time.

One of the most striking sites in the camp begins outside the 12 km of fencing that encloses the area: the railroad. About a mile outside the camp, our tour guide gave us the opportunity to see an original cattle car that was used for the transportation of the Jewish people into Bikenau. The cattle car rests on an abandoned rail that was utilized at the time of the Nazi regime. In remembrance, visitors of the car have placed stones on the rail, in accordance with Jewish customs. 

The railway outside of the camp was extended inside the gates of the camp during the later years of the war in order to transport Jewish people of Hungarian descent inside the camp. The people on the cattle cars, unaware of the conditions that they would face once they left the stifling conditions of the cars, were forced onto the platforms. From there, people were forced to leave their clothes and belongings, the things that they carried with them in order to begin a new life (or so they thought). People were then forced into two lines: one for men and one for women and children. These lines were then evaluated by Nazi doctors who looked at each person and pointed to the one direction for a registration line, and the other direction to send that person into a line leading to the gas chambers. Walking along the railway and on that same platform in the camp, I looked around to imagine what the last moments of a person’s life would have been as they were pointed to the direction of the gas chambers.
A drawing by Marian Kołodziej
The next day, we had the opportunity to visit an artistic exhibition created by a holocaust survivor. The title of the exhibition was “Negative of a memory: Labyrinth” by professor Marian Kołodziej, a KL Auschwitz survivor. This artist was one of the first prisoners in Auschwitz holding identification number 432. In this exhibition, he displayed gaunt imagery of what were intended to be human figures. The reason it was difficult to ascertain that these images were human was not because he was a poor artist. The inability to recognize human features was due to the fact that the images appeared emaciated and it was difficult to understand that these were his fellow prisoners in Auschwitz, all depicted with their identification numbers.

One of his images depicted the two lines of people, paying homage to the events that occurred in Birkenau by the railway and platform. His drawing displays one line of people who look exhausted and beaten, and another side of people with expressions of pain and defeat. Visiting Birkenau and seeing the physical site of these wrongdoings was one thing, but attaching the facial expressions of people with these physical structures allowed for a deeper connection with the events that occurred in Birkenau, and the memory of the people who were murdered there.

In connection with the events that took place in Brussels the same morning we visited Birkenau and after visiting the exhibition, I became more aware of how blind we are as bystanders to certain atrocities. It made me question my own thoughts about attacks and other recent events that have taken place with the intention of killing innocent people. These two events provided me with an opportunity to engage in solidarity and change my perception of events that are distant from myself.