Sunday, 8 March 2009

Auschwitz - a brief encounter (Auschwitz I)

This has been a long time in coming -I've finally got the time I need to sit down and tell you a little about my trip to Auschwitz. In many ways Auschwitz is not a place that needs explanation or introduction. I think I have spent so long getting round to writing this post because I did not want to write something that was just emotive or generic - that simplified the meaning of that place. I think it is worth starting by saying what a complex place it is- on a physical and emotional level. On the one hand it encapsulates every horror and evil it is possible for human beings to commit; degradation, mass murder (including the gassing of small children), experimentation, forced labour, starvation, forced prostitution - and honestly that is naming just a few. On the other it is a place that celebrates human life and makes known, with more clarity then any place I have ever been, what a terrible sin it is to waste a single drop of human blood. It makes clear that loss will always be felt - that you can't erase human beings without trace -no matter how hard you try, even by incinerating the bodies of those you wish to destroy. In both camps one feels that the earth itself is resounding with a kind of silent shock and horror. This place is testament to the value of human life and what we can survive.

(Left, the courtyard where prisoners assembled for role call)

Of course atAuschwitz I (seen in top photo)- the smaller of the two camps- Maximilian Kolbe acts as a part of the testament to the value of life. I have loved his story and had always imagined it a certain way; the courtyard where he offered his life, the cell, the people- obviously, reality is somewhat different. In many ways the camp looked more pleasant than I imagined, as did his cell- in reality what happened there was much worse than anything most of us could comprehend. As it happens Block 11 (seen below) where Fr Kolbe was starved to death is a place of notoriety for a multitude of reasons. When the allies arrived there to liberate it they found a stack of bodies where vile experiments had been carried out on the upper floors and that was after Nazis had tried to destroy the evidence. In the basement of the same building is the cell, bigger than I thought it would be but no less dingy and miserable. Perhaps one of the most confusing things is that from the outside it looks like a respectable red brick building no different from one you might pass in any part of Europe. There is a peace close to that cell that doesn't lie anywhere else in Auschwitz I. It is simple and stark yet somehow triumphant in the midst of misery. Above ground, just to the left of where the cell lies is the place where prisoners, often women were shot. The Building to the far left with blacked out windows is where women were sterilized and experimented on by Josef Mengler (this area can be seen in the photograph below- if you look to the bottom right hand corner you can see the ventilation shafts which belong to the starvation cells - Kolbe's is second from the end)

I tell you this not to sensationalise or just for horrors sake but because in my opinion anyone who could find LOVE and God in this most awful of human deserts is more deserving of sainthood than any other I could think of. I now realise that Kolbe did not just sacrifice his life - he sacrificed it HERE. In this place where human nobility and hope was a distant, untouchable memory for most and to me that makes his triumph over evil all the greater. He was staring evil in the face, he was surrounded by it, by inhumanity, yet his love and humanity were so active here that they allowed him to lay down his life. No matter what people say this is true faith - only real faith could make that possible. There were many acts of love and bravery in those camps - whether Jew, Jehovah's Witness or political prisoner - these people are some of the most impressive to have existed. To find courage and hope anywhere can be difficult - to find it in this place- that is nothing short of a miracle.

(Left, the cell in which Fr Kolbe died-video below)
In Auschwitz I the birds sing now and the watchtowers look out over a small camp compared to Birkenau. Auschwitz I has become something of a museum and here you see the clothes and shoes that the prisoners in Birkenau were forced to part with. This was, in its own way, a deeply spiritual experience - connecting with the forsaken and forgotten of this world. Looking at summer shoes, red party shoes and children's shoes that remain as a testament to those who wore them - deeply personal and yet abandoned without reference . The hair, the cases, the hairbrushes - in many ways it was overwhelming to be confronted with so much. Yet I felt it important to take the time to recognise it. With the babies clothing I could not even bare to take a photograph - it seemed too invasive. It is certain that no children survived Auschwitz. Even so one does not leave this place feeling all humanity is full of worthless evil- instead one leaves feeling united to the individuality of every human life. You can pile up shoes in a room yet each will be different in size, colour and pattern and while it shows you the scale of mass murder it also tells you that each of those murdered had their own unique being, they can never be repeated and this makes their loss awful but it also speaks of their unknown value- a value that transcends this world.

In the next post I will write about te main camp - Auschwitz II or Auschwitz Birkenau where the main gas chambers were - in this place many more were murdered than in Auschwitz I. It is very different and very powerful

This is a pretty awaful video in terms of clarity( I had to make what I could of space and time but hopefully it will give you a sense of Fr Kolbe's cell.)


Sarah (JOT) said...

Absolutely moving.
I have never been - maybe one day, God willing.
I went to the National Holocaust Museum in D.C. last summer and it was - powerful enough. We were all absolutely stunned into silence. I can only imagine seeing the places where these monstrous things happened. Still - I have to remind myself that those very monstrous things are happening in the hearts of many today with their accent to abortion and euthanasia. God have mercy on us all.

Anonymous said...

The world says, "Never again!"; but how quickly the world forgets.

Thanks for that beautiful post.

Tracy said...

wow, what a wonderful post, thank you for sharing with us!!

SQUELLY said...

Yes how quickly we forget. I thought a lot about our own modern day holocuasts of the world's most vulnerable people. Thank you all so much for your comments it was a strange experience to try and express in words. Thank you for your encouragement

Monica @ Monkey Musings said...

Glad you're safe -- I really did pray for your safety. I'm sure your experience will stay with you forever. Thanks, also, for checking out our blog! A friend of mine has a blog named The Pondering Catholic that I think you'd enjoy. God Bless!

Monica @ Monkey Musings said...

Glad you're safe -- I really did pray for your safety. I'm sure your experience will stay with you forever. Thanks, also, for checking out our blog! A friend of mine has a blog named The Pondering Catholic that I think you'd enjoy.

Esther said...

Squelly, this was so well written! I am going to share this one with friends and family. Thank you!

SQUELLY said...

Thank you so much Monica and Esther! I really did feel everyones' prayers - I hate flying but in this case I was not phased at all. I love reading your blog Monica - you write so well and give so much hope. Also thanks for the tip off - will certainly check out your friends blog

Esther - I feel honoured that you would share this with your friends and family - that really means a lot

The Pondering Catholic said...

Squelley, I am so glad you stopped on over at my blog. This is an amazing post. Like others, I do think we have forgotten already. I think we have short term memory loss. Too many babies are dying, and we have returned to these days. I have been to Dachau, and often feel as though our abortion mills are nothing less than that. We have forgotten alright. Great blog! I look forward to reading it some more! (Thanks Monica, for hooking us up!)

Laura said...

Thank you.
I am all at once inspired, saddened and moved.

SQUELLY said...

Laura - thank you!

Pondering Catholic - it is great to meet you (thanks Monica!) I agree- short term memory loss is a good way to describe it. The way we go about it is even quite similar - clinical, closed windows and shutters pulled down. When will we learn?


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