AUSCHWITZ, A PLACE OF “UNPRECEDENTED MASS CRIMES COMMITTED AGAINST GOD AND MAN,” A PLACE OF “DREAD SILENCE – A SILENCE WHICH IS ITSELF A HEARTFELT CRY TO GOD: WHY, LORD, DID YOU REMAIN SILENT? HOW COULD YOU TOLERATE ALL THIS?”

The Vatican today released Pope Francis’ Message for Lent 2015. Entitled “Make your hearts firm.” it was signed in the Vatican on October 4, 2014, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

While a papal Message is always important, I am dedicating this column today to the celebrations in Italy and elsewhere of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  I covered Pope Benedict’s historic visit to this camp when he traveled to Poland in May 2006, his first foreign trip as Pope (not counting his trip in August to Cologne for World Youth Day, a place and time chosen by his predecessor, St. John Paul). Benedict chose Poland to honor his predecessor who had died 13 months earlier after a pontificate of nearly 27 years

I spent a day at Auschwitz, a day I will never forget as long as I live. I wrote about that visit on my May 31, 2006 “Joan’s Rome.”  I just re-read that column – probably the longest I ever wrote – and am breathless – once again!  So that none of us ever forget the Holocaust, I offer that column today, accompanied by some of the many photos I took.

(Not to slight Pope Francis, here is a link to his Lenten message: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/lent/documents/papa-francesco_20141004_messaggio-quaresima2015.html)

Every year on January 27, Italy marks Holocaust Remembrance Day but this year it is a bigger – and more poignant – commemoration because today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland. With events scheduled in schools, churches, Rome’s synagogue and in Parliament, Italy is remembering the day when Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1.1 million prisoners were put to death, was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945.

In fact, Pope Francis marked this anniversary with this tweet: Auschwitz cries out with the pain of immense suffering and pleads for a future of respect, peace and encounter among peoples.

AUSCHWITZ, A PLACE OF “UNPRECEDENTED MASS CRIMES COMMITTED AGAINST GOD AND MAN,” A PLACE OF “DREAD SILENCE – A SILENCE WHICH IS ITSELF A HEARTFELT CRY TO GOD: WHY, LORD, DID YOU REMAIN SILENT? HOW COULD YOU TOLERATE ALL THIS?”

I know to the core of my being that I will never forget May 28, 2006.

The day I visited Auschwitz.

The day a German-born Pope visited “this abyss of terror” where over 60 years ago other Germans killed 1.5 million people, overwhelmingly Jewish, in gas chambers and crematoriums, by working them to death or shooting them, or through atrocious, horrifying medical experiments.

The day that survivors of Auschwitz were embraced by a German Pope who, shortly afterward, in his talk in Italian – not in Polish, not in his native German, but in his adopted Italian, with sensitivity and deference to his listeners – said: “In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the loving God never to let this happen again.”

The day began, as it would end, with a series of unforeseen events. The first happened when I left my hotel – just yards away from Blonie Park where the papal Mass was to start at 9:45 – to go to the press section, a ten- or fifteen-minute walk at a fast pace as the park is enormous, capable of holding one and a half million people. Every street in sight was closed. As far as the eye could see there were metal barriers, uniformed guards of all types, police cars and wagons and ambulances – and (as we later would discover) one million people, who flowed into Blonie like a rushing cascade of humanity. I not only had to show ID to get into the park, I had to show it to leave the hotel grounds.

Journalists wore plasticized ID cards with name, rank, news organization, photo and a few other details. Behind that main identification badge were slightly smaller plastic cards with the specific name and date of a specific venue, allowing access (or not allowing it if you were without the proper ID) to that event. I showed all the proper identification to the guards, was allowed through the myriad gates, and proceeded to walk in the direction that a uniformed guard told me was the spot for journalists.

The policeman’s minimal English and my minimal Polish should have alerted me to the distinct possibility that I was being pointed in the wrong direction. And, after 15 minutes of making my way through the biggest crowd I ever recall being part of – past food and drink vendors (all sales of alcohol were banned from 6 p.m. Friday to midnight Sunday, throughout the entire city: the keys on a cash register that indicate liquor sales were locked down until midnight Sunday), and countless men in uniform, of whom I asked directions to the press section. After 15 minutes I knew instinctively I was just as far from the press section as when I started out because I could now see the papal altar and to one side was the press section. However, it was across the park from where I had been directed.

So I sprinted back to the starting gate, so to speak, spoke to several policeman and told them I had to get to May 3 Street (I did learn something in all of this!) to get to the press section. No, I was told after 10 minutes of waiting as police used their walkie-talkies. The press section had been closed much earlier (earlier by 30 minutes than it was supposed to have closed). No one was allowed in. I was incommunicado with my colleagues because cell phone calls were being jumbled for security reasons. Mass had started by now and I had no choice but to go to the Press Center since I could not get to the press section, nor could I work in the hotel (as you know from my previous blog).

But even the Press Center was not looking like an alternative. Every road within sight was closed. No cars, taxis or busses in or out of our area. I asked one friendly policeman who spoke a little English what he could suggest. I said I must work. Did he have any ideas? He said: “You. Wait. Here.” I saw him speak to colleagues, then get on a walkie-talkie and all of a sudden, I was whisked off to the Press Center with a police escort!

Only the sun coming out could have warmed my heart more. The fun part was arriving at the Center where many colleagues were milling about outside, surprised looks on their faces, wondering why I arrived in a police car. It later dawned on me that a lot of people at the park who saw me leave in a police car probably wondered what on earth I had done!

There was little time at the center for real work because the busses for Auschwitz were due to leave at 11:30. In fact, that created a huge problem for people attending the Pope Benedict’s Mass – which would not be over by the time the busses left. And that is one of the problems in covering such events – and it was far worse for those on the papal flight. It is usually physically impossible to cover all the events – getting bussed to one event, staying while the Pope is present in order to get your story and then, with breakneck speed, trying to get to the next papal event – if there is a bus, if it hasn’t already left, a lot of “ifs” involved. Even a private car does not help that much. Another problem is that once you are in a venue, you are usually not allowed to leave before the Pope does. So you are back at square one.

It is worse for those on the papal flight because when they arrive at a venue, they have precious little time as a rule to see the site, watch the event or interview people, because, not long after the Pope arrives, they have to depart for the next venue. Auschwitz upset most of the correspondents on the papal plane because they were told to leave for their busses to go to the airport 15 minutes after Pope Benedict’s arrival. The most historic moment of the entire apostolic trip and they could not witness it in its entirety.

The visit to Auschwitz was overshadowed by an attack, the previous day, on Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, 50, on a Warsaw street when a young man yelled “Poland for the Poles” and sprayed the rabbi’s face with what appeared to be pepper spray, when he questioned the man about what he said. Poland’s interior ministry issued a statement calling the attack “a provocation aimed at creating an image of Poland as an anti-Semitic country.” The Israeli embassy also had its say.

The rabbi minimized the attack when he spoke to the press. Focusing instead on Benedict’s visit Sunday to Auschwitz where the two would meet, Rabbi Schudrich said the visit “will not be easy for Benedict XVI, and perhaps even unpleasant, but I think he feels it is his duty to go there. I respect his decision. The fact he is here has great significance.” He told the Polish news service that, “anyone who ever visits Auschwitz, in which the greatest genocide in the world was committed, will never be the same.”

Before World War II, Jews numbered about 4 million in Poland, about ten percent of the entire population. After the war, they numbered only a few thousand and today still are relatively small in number. The anti-Semitism that had been prevalent before the war, then diminished somewhat, returned in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s but, with the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall in 1989, the new government – and successive governments – attempted to improve relations with the Jews and with Israel. However, one of the parties within the coalition of the current government, ruling together with the Law and Justice Party, is the League of Polish Families, considered to be on the far right, with a strain of anti-Semitism, say observers. This, add the observers, impairs efforts to improve relations with Jews and with Israel.

On Sunday, the media was brought by bus to Oswiecim, Poland, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp site where a media center had been erected just a few hundred yards from the area of the camp where Pope Benedict and other religious leaders would participate in an inter-religious, multi-lingual ceremony commemorating the victims of Nazism.

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To reach the media tent we drove around the perimeter of Auschwitz-Birkenau (known as Auschwitz II) – about one and a half miles from the camp known as Auschwitz I, which the Pope visited privately. My companion on the bus to Auschwitz, Natalia Reiker, a knowledgeable and articulate Polish girl working for Reuters in Warsaw, told me that to truly sense and understand what had happened on these now quiet grounds and grassy knolls, the camps should be visited on a normal day, when there are no tents for the media, no stage for a musical ensemble, no outdoor tables for sandwiches and beverages for the media, no satellite dishes punctuating the landscape, no platform with chairs for several thousand guests.

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She is right, of course. But I was nonetheless speechless at what I saw: the tall guard towers, the miles, it seemed, of barbed wire fences, the row upon row upon row – as far as the eye could see – of sad brick barracks which housed those who were allowed to survive the gas chambers in order to labor.

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Sunday everything seemed so peaceful, almost bucolic. No emaciated prisoners toiling in the fields or kitchens or crematoriums. No trains arriving with their huddled, frightened masses. No screams being heard from laboratories where excruciatingly horrifying experiments were carried out on defenseless human beings. Just the stillness of an empty compound, the breath of the forest with its swaying trees, the patter of rain that fell intermittently.

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And yet the silence spoke to me. It helped me be with my own thoughts. It helped me imagine what had happened here, conjuring up images from movies I had seen that tried to portray man’s inhumanity to man. And that was the phrase that stuck with me all day: man’s inhumanity to man.

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In the media center tent, we watched images of Pope Benedict as he and his entourage arrived at Auschwitz I, after a triumphant leave-taking of Krakow.

This solitary figure in white entered Auschwitz alone and on foot, looking pensively ahead as he walked 300 meters to the yard of Block 11. The metal gate at the entrance (the only entrance to the camp) through which the Pope walked, was made by Polish prisoners and shipped to this camp in the summer of 1940. The sign above the gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes you Free) was made by a group of prisoners who were locksmiths. The letter “B” in the first word “arbeit (work)” was purposefully turned upside down by the men as they made the sign, as an act of disobedience.

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After the camp was liberated by Soviet soldiers, they wanted to ship the inscription part of the gate off to the U.S.S.R. but former inmates bribed a sentry, removed the original inscription, substituted it with a new one, and hid the original in the town hall. The original inscription was brought back and is the one seen today.

Pope Benedict walked through the gate because he had been told that the German soldiers entered by car but prisoners had to enter on foot. And so he chose to walk into Auschwitz.

The Pope prayed and lit a memorial candle, handed to him by former inmates, at the execution wall. He then greeted 32 former inmates, one of whom, a woman, Salomea Kanikula, was a survivor of atrocious medical experiments. He visited and prayed in the death cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe and lit a candle left there by John Paul II in 1979. After signing the commemorative book, the Holy Father went to the Center for Dialogue and Prayer, met the staff, volunteers and Carmelite sisters who live in a nearby convent, signed another commemorative book and blessed the activity of the center.

Benedict’s arrival at Birkenau was scheduled for about 5:45 but he was about 30 minutes behind schedule at this point. This former concentration camp was the site of the gas chambers used to exterminate the prisoners: They were blown up or set on fire by Germans as they left the camp in 1945.

In the pouring rain of a cloudburst, the Pope and a small entourage arrived at Birkenau where, under the cover of a large, white umbrella, he greeted people and then walked slowly past the row of 22 tablets, each written in a different language, that commemorated the more than 1.5 million people who perished at Birkenau. Candles inside blue glass holders were placed at each plaque by young boys and girls of various nationalities.

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About 1,500 guests were in what was called the “O Zone,” the area nearest the Pope, including 200 former inmates, representatives of Jewish communities in Poland and around the world, and members of movements and organizations actively involved in promoting Christian-Jewish dialogue and Polish-German dialogue. Also present was Polish President Lech Kaczynski, members of the diplomatic corps, senior members of the Vatican and the Church in Poland, and the ambassadors of Israel to Poland and the Vatican.

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Outside the “O Zone,” but still close to the Pope, were several thousand invited guests, mostly faithful from the diocese where Auschwitz is located, and members of the media.

I did a live stand-up for EWTN at 5 p.m. and, to better view the entire ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau, I remained on the TV platform afterwards. As I climbed the stairs to the platform for the stand-up, I found I had an excellent vantage point for all the ceremonies but as I got to the Position Three camera, my heart stopped.

Not 30 feet away were the tracks for the trains that had brought 1.5 million prisoners to this camp, the overwhelming majority of whom were murdered in the gas chambers, just yards away. I just stood and stared. Beyond the tracks was the vast space of barbed wire and barracks and guard towers and thick forests. And then I saw it: The tracks simply ended. They went nowhere. They ended. As did the lives of all who entered Birkenau.

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We had seen train tracks off to our right on the road we used to enter Birkenau. They went through the main building and gate – but we couldn’t see where they ended until we actually arrived at the commemorative area. Pope Benedict was seated perhaps 50 yards away from where the tracks dead-ended.

As I turned to face the camera – with the train tracks behind me – I again had my breath taken away. In front of me now, not 100 feet away, was a gas chamber, or the ruins of one. It had been blown up by the Nazis as they left the camp in the hopes of leaving no signs of their barbaric acts – yet it was there, its remnants a stark reminder, once again, of man’s inhumanity to man. Later, as I returned to the media tent, I saw the black floor of another chamber and the vents through which gas had been pumped into the chambers.

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I tried to think of the individual victims, to do what Pope Benedict suggested in his talk at Birkenau, when he spoke of the inscriptions on the tablets. “They would stir our hearts profoundly,” he said, “if we remembered the victims not merely in general but rather saw the faces of the individual persons who ended up here in this abyss of terror.” These were people, with names, faces, families, feelings. Not a statistic. Not “one and a half million people” – but one person. And another. And yet another. All individuals.

I could only do that if I closed my eyes. But I did try. I try to imagine the faces of friends, to imagine that people I knew were plucked off the street or torn from their homes, crammed into a train and brought to what the Pope called “this place of horror,” simply because they were Jewish or gypsy, or whatever their “crime” was. People stripped of their human dignity and worth. People treated as “material objects,” not “as persons embodying the image of God.” People seen as “part of the refuse of world history in an ideology which valued only the empirically useful.” People whose “life (was) unworthy to be lived.

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In the midst of the pain of remembrance, of the Kaddish, the Jewish song for the deceased, of the reciting of Psalm 22 and prayers in six languages, including Roma, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, English and German (recited by Pope Benedict), the most astonishing thing happened.

An immensely beautiful rainbow appeared in the sky! An awesome, unforgettable magical moment in the midst of remembering godless evil.

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Was this not the hand of God, answering the Pope’s question: “Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?” Was it God telling us: “I was there, but no one let me speak. They tried to kill Me too. I am here now, and I’m speaking.”

The magic and yet mystery of the rainbow as it swept away the black rain clouds was lost on no one. Someone tapped Pope Benedict on the shoulder to tell him to turn around and look at this phenomenal sign. The rainbow stayed in the sky for what seemed like a long time. Rainbows can be so ephemeral, but it appeared that this one had a message, a message uniting all of us, irrespective of language, nationality or religion.

What is at the end of a rainbow? Hope? Joy? Peace? Reconciliation? A better tomorrow in a better world? Perhaps even man’s humanity towards man?

As the rainbow graced the sky, Pope Benedict began his address: “To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible – and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany,” said Benedict XVI.

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“In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence that is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did You remain silent? How could You tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.”

He recalled the 1979 visit by John Paul II, who “came here as a son of that people which, along with the Jewish people, suffered most in this place and, in general, throughout the war. ‘Six million Poles lost their lives during the Second World War: a fifth of the nation,’ he reminded us. Here too he solemnly called for respect for human rights and the rights of nations.”

“John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here. I had to come. It is a duty before the truth, and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of John Paul II and as a son of the German people – a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power.”

“How many questions arise in this place!” he exclaimed. “Constantly the question comes up: Where was God in those days? … How could He permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil? The words of Psalm 44 come to mind, … This cry of anguish, which Israel raised to God in its suffering, at moments of deep distress, is also the cry for help raised by all those who in every age … suffer for the love of God, for the love of truth and goodness.”

“We cannot peer into God’s mysterious plan – we see only piecemeal, and we would be wrong to set ourselves up as judges of God and history. Then we would not be defending man, but only contributing to his downfall. No, when all is said and done, we must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: … Do not forget mankind, Your creature!”

“Let us cry out to God, with all our hearts, at the present hour, when new misfortunes befall us, when all the forces of darkness seem to issue anew from human hearts: whether it is the abuse of God’s name as a means of justifying senseless violence against innocent persons, or the cynicism which refuses to acknowledge God and ridicules faith in Him.”

“The place where we are standing is a place of memory, it is the place of the Shoah. The past is never simply the past. It always has something to say to us; it tells us the paths to take and the paths not to take. … Some [of the] inscriptions [here] are pointed reminders. There is one in Hebrew. The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. … If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God Who spoke to humanity and took us to Himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone – to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world.”

“Then there is the inscription in Polish. First and foremost they wanted to eliminate the cultural elite, thus erasing the Polish people as an autonomous historical subject and reducing it, to the extent that it continued to exist, to slavery. Another inscription offering a pointed reminder is the one written in the language of the Sinti and Roma people. Here too, the plan was to wipe out a whole people. … There is also the inscription in Russian, which commemorates the tremendous loss of life endured by the Russian soldiers who combated the Nazi reign of terror; but this inscription also reminds us that their mission had a tragic twofold aim: by setting people free from one dictatorship, they were to submit them to another, that of Stalin and the communist system.” The inscription in German serves as a reminder that “the Germans who had been brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau and met their death here were considered as … the refuse of the nation.”

“Yes, behind these inscriptions is hidden the fate of countless human beings. They jar our memory, they touch our hearts. They have no desire to instill hatred in us: instead, they show us the terrifying effect of hatred. Their desire is to help our reason to see evil as evil and to reject it; their desire is to enkindle in us the courage to do good and to resist evil.”

As I read, then listened to Benedict’s words, I could only imagine his pain as he wrote them. I imagined a sting of tears as he thought of the atrocities performed by one human being on another, of the senselessness and destructive force of violence and hatred, of the apparent absence of God at the darkest moment, when mankind most needed God’s light.

May 28, 2006.

The day I went to Auschwitz.

The day that Benedict XVI ended his visit to Poland with a dramatic visit to the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, where he spoke about his native land, about Nazism, mass crimes, terror and intimidation, about the horrors that German soldiers perpetrated on Jews in the Shoah, and their attempt to silence or kill God. But, in this place of remembrance, he also spoke of “the purification of memory demanded by this place of horror,” of reconciliation, conversion, peace and God’s love.

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