Third day. Big day. This post is a doozie, so buckle up!
Early morning of a 5:45am call to be on the bus for a very necessary trip to see the heinous death camps, Auschwitz and Auschwitz II/Birkenau.
The chilling reminder that the products of fear and political persuasion can create dehumanization then, today, and in our future. Even now as we listen to politicians label populations of people as a whole as good or bad, approved or disproved for our national system and viewing lens, we have the conscious choice to be the voice for mercy- to risk our own reputations for the chance of others being treated equally and fairly, first and foremost as people.
These camps today showed the initial purpose of Auschwitz as a work camp for prisoners turned death camp. We saw how back breaking work and brutal indescribable medical experiments were forced on these victims and how the value of life was judged on the person's ability to provide physical value. As soon as they failed a doctor's inspection, they were shot point blank via firing squad and carried away by their own peers to be thrown away...literally. Eventually, the first gas chamber was created and the evil became ever more present as life was more and more efficiently taken away at the whims of the Nazi SS.
Auschwitz, as stated in my first post this week, was also the site of Saint Maximilian Kolbe's martyrdom, giving his own life for the sake of another in the Nazi starvation bunker and providing last rites to other inmates starving and dying with him. The courage and devotion to faith is just incredible.
From an aesthetics standpoint, Auschwitz is eerily calm, but you can still feel the attrocities that happened there. Small trees line the paths, which we know weren't there when the camp was in use. Birds call in the air, but it's not a song. The breeze blows the smell of aged wood and dirt. The entire place is silent but you can almost hear the people and it is something we won't ever forget.
Auschwitz II/Birkenau was overwhelming in scale. After realizing the rate at which they could exterminate prisoners, they had trains coming in full of people daily, filling barracks of people across grids of buildings as far as the eye can see when you're on site. The train tracks run right down the middle, straight to the four gas chambers built at the end. Eventually people were no longer processed with a prisoner number but were sent straight to the gas chambers, led to believe they were taking a shower and being told they would get their belongings back afterwards. Photos show smiling people getting off the train and talking amongst themselves- either in complete denial or lack of knowledge that they were in serious danger.
Fields of burnt barracks buildings dominate the landscape with maybe 20% still remaining. The four gas chambers were burned and exploded with TNT, all of this by the German military to hide the atrocities as the war turned in the favor of the allies.
We walked away from these death camps today and left in a tour bus with bagged lunches. We almost felt guilty about it, but very good discussions on what we saw began happening. Over a million people were murdered here out of politicized fear and inflamed hate and eventual dehumanization. It is inconceivable how human life can be granted so little value. This however, proves the possibilities, and there are many other attributes of today's society that allows the culture of death to pervade. It's up to us to make sure this never happens again.
Fast forward an hour. Brightened up the day with a trip to St. John Paul II's hometown of Wadowice, Poland! Beautiful buildings, his church, and even his home! There are vendors everywhere selling 'Pope cake' which he apparently recommended in one interview in his papacy. He used to go with his friends and buy it after final exams in high school and evidently still had the sweet tooth!
Next, we went and had mass at the Shrine of Mercy, overlooking the hills of Krakow. There must have been thousands of people at this service. We overflowed and sat on the floor in the main center aisle. Very very cool.
We closed the super long day with a massive invasion of a local periogi shop, trying all the different flavors and going for gelato afterwards...again :-) The streets are crazy now.. Different nationalities of Catholic youth everywhere, chanting national anthems and cultural songs, trading flags with other nations, and encouraging enthusiasm and excitement. I know this is a Christian gathering, but I gotta say that the only thing I can properly relate it to is the atmosphere described in Harry Potter before the Quidditch World Cup!
Finally, we honed in our plans for our performances with Richmond Catholic Theatre having a rehearsal in our hotel's restaurant after hours :-)We just found out that for the cultural performances for the whole festival, we are going to be one of only two choices for all of the English speaking population. This could pose for some pretty exciting audience numbers!
We are very glad to be here with the rest of the world. Certainly a lot to soak up and please keep praying for our safety and experience. Polish guard is out in force in the streets and helicopters are flying around with eyes in the sky for the first sign of trouble. They're all very nice to us and we do feel very safe.