Auschwitz-Birkenau, nearby Krakow, Poland, where Pope Francis is on a visit for World Youth Day. The Pope went today to these places of horror, where 1.5 million people met death; to pay homage to Saint Maximillian Kolbe and meet with 12 survivors of the Holocaust and 22 “Righteous among the Nations”. Pope Francis took time for recollection and prayer at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
One enters Auschwitz with the head held high, under the written tetra Arbeit macht fre, thinking that deep down one is ready to live a culturally interesting experience, which adds a block to one’s own historical knowledge. One leaves, however, with the head held low, with a lump in one’s throat, it being difficult to believe that that, which now is a heap of stones dust and brick buildings, was the abyss that swallowed the life of one and a half million people.
The sensation is reflected on the contrite faces of the more than 200,000 young people that in these WYDs transit in the Nazi lager. For safeguarding reasons their visit to the camp is limited to the outside of the historical buildings. That is, it is not possible to visit the enormous pavilions in which 100 individuals were crowded, 3-4 to a bed, all with only one stove, in cold, hunger and darkness. Closed also to the public are several blocks, such as number 21, which has the writing Haftl- Krankenbau. Chirurgiche, the place in which “the angel of death,” the infamous Doctor Mengele, carried out horrible experiments on pregnant women and children, especially twins. Access is also prohibited to Block 10, which housed Primo Levi and where Saint Maximilian Kolbe met death, “the Polish Franciscan friar who died voluntarily to save the life of another prisoner,” as one reads on a giant picture outside the building.
However, there are plaques, photos, serigraphs displayed along the way together with meticulous captions, recounting that horror. And there is the barbed wire that surrounds the whole camp to recall the dimension of oppression that those people lived, mocked by false promises of freedom. Walking one sees little details, such as a now withered rose placed on the panel that portrays the faces of 19 Polish prisoners hanged publicly in the so-called “Square of Appeal,” an area now covered in green, but in the past red from the blood shed by prisoners punished by firing.
A red rose is also embedded between the chains of the “Door of Death,” the gate that appears on the old rails of Birkenau. It is there that a fist punches the stomach directly: if Auschwitz has been reconstructed with the semblance of an open air museum, Birkenau, Auschwiuitz 2, has remained naked and crude as it was – as when, that is, it received more than 100,000 people – not only Jews, but also Poles, Soviet prisoners and gypsies – to lead them to the end, which happened through the cruel inventions that were the gas chambers, where in about 30 minutes hundreds of individuals arriving in trains and considered unable to work, were poisoned by inhalations of Zyklon B. It was the so-called “final solution,” which was consummated in 1944-45.
Only rubbish remains of all this: of the crematory ovens there is only the skeleton of the structure and the victims’ ashes are kept in an urn or under marble headstones paying homage with stones. Crematorium IV strikes one particularly, the only oven blown up not by the Nazis, who wanted to hide the proofs of their crimes, but rather by the Jews of the Sonderkommando, a special section deputed to empty the chambers of gassed bodies. On October 7, 1944, in a surge of courage, the prisoners organized the only armed uprising that Birkenau records, setting the structure on fire and making it explode. 450 of them were killed for this “bravado.”
Every stone of this camp that, if it wasn’t for the barbed wire, would seem to be an old factory as so many scattered in Poland, hides, therefore, the story of a brutally broken life. All these are narrated in the Museum, the last stage of the lager, where at present the image of the smiling Pope stands out – the only smile seen in the eight kilometers of the lager.
It is here that Pope Francis will arrive tomorrow morning at 9:30 to commemorate the victims. He will pause in the Museum in front of the marble slabs that bear their names, written in the 23 languages used in the camp, and he will meet 22 “Righteous among the Nations,” all the non-Jews who put their life at risk to save that of others. Among these will be Sister Janina Kierstan, Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family, the Order that saved more than 500 little Jews thanks to the work of the then Provincial, Sister Matylda Getter, described for this as the “mother” of the children of the Warsaw ghetto.
In the background, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, will sing Psalm 130 in Hebrew, known in the Catholic tradition as De Profundis. The same Psalm will be read shortly after in Polish by Father Stanislaw Ruszala, Pastor of the parish of Markowa, province of the present region of Podkarpackie, which at the time of the German occupation had 4,500 souls.
The Ulma family lived in that village: Jozef and Wiktoria and their seven children, counting the last one also, which the woman was carrying in her womb — all of them were exterminated by the Nazis for the “offense” of having saved Jews. Despite their extreme poverty and the risks, the Ulma in fact gave refuge in their home to eight Jews of the border area. They were denounced by Wlodzimierz Les, an officer of the navy of Lancur. On Marcy 24, 1944 at dawn, five German gendarmes and several policemen arrived in front of the Ulma’s home, led by Liutenant Eilert Dieken. First they shot the Jews and then Jozef and Wiktoria, who at the moment of the execution was about to give birth to her child. Shortly after, Dieken decided to also exterminate the couple’s children. In a few minutes, 17 persons lost their life. In 1995 the Ulma were recognized as “Righteous,” and in 2003 the process for their cause of Beatification got underway in the dioceses of Przemysl, still underway in the Vatican.
A story of sacrifice is that of Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan who chose to die in place of a father of a family. On the day of the 70th anniversary of his sentence, the Successor of Peter will pray in the Auschwitz bunker where the friar perished.
Again at Auschwitz, the Pontiff will embrace 12 survivors awaiting him on the Square of the executions. Outstanding among them is the name of Helena Dunicz Niwinska, a lady that boasts 101 years and that has made her home available to host pilgrims of this World Youth Day. Marked with the number 64118, Helena, a former violinist, was deported in ’44 together with her mother who died two months later. In the camp, she was a member of the Orchestra, an experience that she narrates in her book One of the Girls in the Band, published in 2013.
Beside her will be Alojzy Fros, arrested as conspirator, as well as Waclaw Dlugoborski of Warsaw, who was able to flee during an evacuation and who is now Curator of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Zbigniew Kaczkowski , arrested in ’43 under the false name of Kaczanowski and imprisoned in Block II,was also able to flee; then Stefan Lesiak, liberated at Buchenwald in ’45, and Valentina Nikodem, deported to Auschwitz with her mother because her father killed a Gestapo at Lodz. In the camp, Valentina worked in the packages sector, helping numerous women to give birth to their children, so much so as to be named “godmother” of numerous children. And also Marian Majerowicz, the only survivor of his family, liberated during the “death march,” who today is President of the Association of Jewish Veterans and Victims of World War II at Warsaw.
One of the survivors will give the Pope a lamp, symbol of that flame of the memory that must never be extinguished. Finally, Francis will leave a message in the Book of Honor: these will be the only words of a visit wholly conducted in the most total silence, a silence, however, that speaks in a loud voice.
[by Envoy at Krakow] [Translated from Italian]