Good evening, readers! This has been the most heart wrenching day of the trip so far. Today, we toured Auschwitz I. I have some pictures that I will share with you, but I am so tired that they will have to wait until later when I have the chance to upload them, so I apologize. For the moment, I will simply share some important parts of our day.
On the bus ride this morning, we had the privilege of hearing a little more from Eva about her story, and particularly her views on forgiveness, which I will reflect upon more with a later post.
We entered Auschwitz I and immediately saw the sign over the entrance, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which means, “Work will make you free” and pondered the irony and chilling meaning of that statement as we entered the camp. We then walked through and were taken to the sight of Eva’s liberation. There is a famous picture of children being liberated from Auschwitz, and she and her twin are in the very front of the picture. We “relived” the liberation with her as she walked through the barbed wires once more and told her story. Later, we saw the picture in one of the exhibitions and we took turns getting our pictures taken with her. She then stayed there throughout the day to speak to tour groups that came through there, which I’m sure meant a lot. We were told that Eva is the only survivor that has been there to tell her story and point out her picture, willing to tell her story to groups. A particularly touching moment was when a high school group approached her and she offered her arm to show them her tattoo.
After lunch, we each had guides who gave us tours through Auschwitz. There was so much to see and it was overwhelming the amount of horror that took place there. There were many things I heard and saw today that I had never heard or read about before, and many things I had heard about, but never actually thought about how it would impact me to actually see it or stand in the place where it occurred. Here are some moments that will probably stay with me forever:
Entering the gas chamber. This was probably one of the saddest things I have ever experienced. The dark, the cold, the gray- seeing the hole in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was dropped through, seeing scratch marks on the wall, imagining the panic and horror of those that entered through the doors, never to come back out. Right next to the gas chamber room were the ovens where bodies were burned. We were only in the gas chamber for a few minutes, and upon exiting, I noticed that many of us were in tears. I thought I was holding it together pretty well until we started walking away, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I think I actually needed a moment to wrap my mind around what I had just seen. It was unbelievable. I then had a few moments where I was angry at humanity itself. How can people be so cruel? How could this have happened? How could anyone possibly forgive what the Nazis had done? This dichotomy of anger and then remembering Eva’s message of forgiveness is something that I will being wrestling with for quite some time. The anger I experienced today upon standing in the gas chamber is still with me and something I will have to work through. The tears came and left, but the anger remains. Lord, in your mercy….
Before the gas chamber, we had walked through other exhibitions that consisted of images that will remain with me:
Human hair- we walked through a room that contained 2 tons (yes, you read that right) of women’s hair. Take a moment to let that sink in.
We walked through a room with 2 sides full of 80,000 shoes behind glass. That was only a portion of what was found upon liberation.
There was a display of prayer shawls that were confiscated.
We also saw thousands of eye glasses, tooth brushes, shaving brushes, pots and pans, baby clothes, and items taken from the handicapped (artificial legs, crutches, etc) as they were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Nothing was wasted.
A display of empty canisters of Zyklon B (the substance used in the gas chambers) was also hard to take in.
We visited the “death chambers” where prisoners were tortured and sentenced to death by shooting at the execution wall, where we also visited. On Thursday, we will return there to have a remembrance ceremony with a candle lighting.
We had the opportunity to see a new exhibit that opened just 2 weeks ago that contained media and visual images of Jewish families, art work, film from the Third Reich, a room containing drawings from children in the camps, and a book that literally filled an entire room which contained the names of those who died at the camps (of course, there were probably many also that were not recorded).
Needless to say, it was a very emotional day. I am still taking in everything in we saw and processing what it all means. Many of us felt that today was more emotional than visiting Birkenau the previous day. I think that is because today put more faces to the horrors of Auschwitz than the Birkenau tour experience did. Auschwitz I contains more photos, more information about what actually happened there, etc, while Birkenau is more open ended and speaks for itself. That’s how I felt about it anyway. There is so much more to see at both locations, which is why I am grateful that we will be going back on Thursday to have more personal reflection time and to visit the places where we would like to reflect and have more time. I will be thinking about where I would like to visit again.
I find myself wanting to reflect more about how this is affecting my faith, my vocation as a pastor, and my relationship with God and others. It has been a whirlwind few days without too much time for such reflection. I look forward to writing more about these issues once I have more time. I hope to add pictures to this post soon, so please check back.