Countless articles have been written about Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps and the countless social justice connections the Holocaust has to our society in the 21st century.
I encountered a spiritual experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It had an impact on my formation as I prepare for diaconate ordination this fall and priesthood ordination in 2016.
Many have had life changing experiences. Experiences that have come through various trips, pilgrimages, job opportunities or perhaps even unexpected life changing events that occurred during one's typical day. From June 14 to June 25, I had the opportunity to participate in a fellowship experience that has in dramatic ways impacted my formation as I journey toward the priesthood.
After applying for a second time, I was accepted to participate in a program titled "Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics." The fellowship experience was comprised of a dozen seminary fellows from various Christian denominations, as well as fellows from Jewish and Muslim faith practices. Joining the seminary students were 14 medical fellows. All 26 fellows came from all throughout the United States to study the Holocaust and its link with contemporary ethical issues. Joining the fellows were seven FASPE faculty members and directors.
When the Holocaust is talked about we often hear the phrase "Never again." "Never again," should mean just that. However, the phrase that will stick with me for the rest of my life comes from Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor. His quote is printed on an exhibit at Auschwitz where he was a prisoner. The inscription reads, "It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say."
An event like the Holocaust is unimaginable if it is only read in the history books or viewed on television through an anniversary special. When walking the paths of the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Holocaust became for me, imaginable. It became real. While I stood inside a women's barrack at Birkenau where women were starved before being taken to the gas chambers, I realized I could never experience or understand the fear they experienced, but I certainly see it, because within the camp walls, the evil of the Holocaust is still very much present.
Human beings walked into a door, were stripped of their possessions, clothing, hair and family. After various procedural items, they were stripped completely of their human dignity as they exited the building by way of another door. Some were paraded directly to the gas chambers thinking they were going to be given a shower and some food; while others were directed into forced labor; worked until death or when it was their own turn for a "shower."
Those who liberated the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau would have had every right I believe to destroy every bit of the camps, erasing this part of human history, but as I stood outside cell 18 at Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe gave his life for another to live, I realized the buildings could have been erased, but the events never could.
Just outside barrack 11, which was used as a prison within the prison and a place where countless prisoners lost their lives by way of starvation, firing squad or torture, I stood starring at the camp's wall, past multiple barbed wire fences, thinking, the only work that led to freedom was the work that led to one's death. As I walked the path just behind a row of barracks, I approached what was perhaps the most poetic depiction of what occurred within those camp walls.
In the barbed wire there lay a rose, dried up, brown and very fragile. That rose depicted the death that occurred within the human person the moment they became a number at Auschwitz-Birkenau, completely losing their human dignity. I'm not sure I will ever forget the image of the dried up, dead, frail rose hanging on that barbed wire fence, a true symbol of the death and evil which occurred by the hands of human-beings on other human beings.
As the seminary fellows walked through both camps on a guided tour, not much was said, not much had to be said. Each part of the camps we visited carried with it something new, something more difficult to try and understand.
One fellow seminarian made the comment that inside the camp walls the air was different, it was heavier. I agree, as in many ways even when the sun was shining and the air was a bit cooler, it still seemed unbreathable.
In a session following our visit to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau I made the comment that I wasn't sure I would ever come back. Indeed I do not think I will visit another camp in my lifetime, the thought that the impact may not be the same the next time after this visit worries me. If I had the opportunity, would I? Perhaps, but something about visiting a place multiple times, where those who previously traveled there only went once and thousands never left, it would not seem right. This was the second time I visited a camp, previously having visited Dachau, but Auschwitz-Birkenau seemed different.
The experience of the camps has certainly contributed to my priestly formation. My views on social justice issues, and care for my fellow brothers and sisters in humanity have certainly changed. Staring at the belongings taken from children just before they were gassed will do that to any person.
Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-45, the Nazis deported over 1 million Jews. Of the 1,300,000 people who were sent to Auschwitz, 1,100,000 of them died within its walls. Whether Jew, Polish, Roma or other, they died; human-beings treated as something far less than human, whose lives were taken away for no other reason than Nazi authorities thinking they had a "right" to do so.
This fall I hope to share a picture presentation of my FASPE experience at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, where perhaps I can better touch upon my experience through the images, which while not giving justice to the experience, can at least begin to paint the experience's picture. "It happened, therefore it can happen again."
The world in the 20th century never believed that the events of the Holocaust were taking place until the unimaginable was realized. We in the 21st century must realize there is nothing too unimaginable when it comes to the evil, which is possible by human hands; and we must counter it with advocacy, prayer and action.
Czeslaw Wrzos, prisoner number 20414, a Polish seminarian who died Feb. 5, 1942, and Kazimiera Rostawicka, prisoner number 15682, a Polish woman whose identification picture showed her keeping her chin high and holding onto her dignity (which I believe the Nazis failed to take from her until the very end), who died Jan. 9, 1943, pray for us now that we may respond to Primo Levi by saying, "Never again."
For more information on FASPE visit www.mjhnyc.org/faspe/index.html.