It’s been well over a week since we were in Auschwitz. I’ve needed time to process and couldn’t write about what I saw there until now.
This was my second visit. This time, green grass and tour buses seemed incongruous with death. But once we stepped out of our shuttle, we could sense the spirit of evil that still pervades the geography that is Auschwitz.
The last time I came here, in winter in the early 1990s, the starkness was appropriately tangible. The season of the year and the season in Poland’s recovery from Communist oppression had added up to few visitors. There had been no signs asking people to be respectfully quiet; yet silence had wrapped us in its black cloak as we walked under the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” sign.
Approximately 1.2 million people entered the dual death and concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau; one million did not leave. The few survivors endured unspeakable, inhuman torture. We saw piles of eyeglasses, hair, children’s clothes. Hardest for me to view were the photographs taken of prisoners as they entered. Their haunting eyes pierced and convicted. When liberated, those eyes had become apathetic, sunken in the bodies of skeletons.
During this trip, Steve and I have also visited several synagogues and Jewish ghettos. It seems that every city in Europe has an ugly history of hatred towards Jews. At the end of World War II, thousands of Jewish bodies were found in the streets of the Budapest ghetto. In Krakow, every one of the 68,000 Jews were deported or killed. In Prague, the 1,000-year-old Jewish cemetery houses 20,000 graves, 12 layers deep. Human beings, created in the image of God, treated far worse than animals.
And yet, even in that hell called the Holocaust, there were a few faint lights. Oskar Shindler in Krakow and Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest saved thousands from murder. Priest Maximilian Kolbe asked to die in the place of a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz. After liberation, the Jewish prayer to the “God of all mercy” was recited over bodies finally receiving their burial in Poland. I believe with all my soul that God is merciful and yet I understand if those people who endured the Holocaust stopped believing.
When I asked our guide at Auschwitz how he was able emotionally to see this every day, he said his life mission is to tell people the truth so this horror will never happen again. We must never ever forget.