Plaszow Camp, Schindler Factory, Jewish Quarter

ladies lunch plaszowToday was definitely a lighter day as far as the content and atmosphere of the day compared with yesterday.  We still had a few things that were hard to hear, but over all, there was more laughter and more “normal” life for us today.

We started the morning with visiting a camp that was actually right here in Krakow, Poland during the Nazi occupation.  There was not much to see at the camp, but there were several memorial stones and a really touching memorial tribute to the victims of the camp on the grounds (in the picture.)  The people in the memorial have the gap in their bodies that symbolize that even before they were executed, their hearts where no longer there, as tragically their human dignity had already been taken away.  It was so strange to think of the horrors that took place at this camp that was right in the heart of Krakow, and now you can look across the street and see a Polish Ikea and a few gas stations.  Life goes on, etc.  It was a strange feeling.  A crazy fact about the Holocaust in Poland is that Krakow alone had 68,000 Jewish people before the war.  When the Nazis invaded, they were rounded up and sent to the “Jewish residential area” (Jewish ghetto) and eventually to concentration camps and in many cases, straight to gas chambers at death camps.  Only 2,000 Jews survived the Holocaust, and now, only 150 currently live in Krakow.  Unbelievable!  We later toured the Jewish quarter, which is a location that has been restored and built up with Jewish restaurants, shops, and is the location of Jewish music festivals and where many people enjoying hanging out, eating, and shopping the open markets.  We were told that the government is trying to send a message that the Jewish community is welcome and safe in Krakow.  Will it work?  Who knows.  There have been many people wondering about anti-semitism here, and we’ve kind of gotten mixed messages about it, but the overall message has been that there are no huge issues around it.  I’ll admit there is a little skepticism amongst us in the group.

We also toured the Schindler factory today, which I’ll admit was not the most exciting part of the trip.  It was really a museum about the history of Poland in the war.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if my back did not hurt so much- a doctor’s appointment about my lower back pain might be in my future…

We ended our day with a nice meal at a Polish restaurant.  It’s been another great day of conversation with new friends and taking in a lot of information.  Tomorrow we will go back to Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau for further visits and reflections, as well as a candle lighting ceremony at the execution wall.  I look forward to sharing more reflections with you all.  I also plan to do a post soon to talk more about Eva’s ideas and experiences with forgiveness and my own reflections on that as a pastor.  So stay tuned!

Again, thanks for reading- I am privileged to share my journey with you!

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Heart Wrenching Auschwitz I

Eva with her liberation photo

Eva with her liberation photo

Shoes

Shoes

execution wall

Eva's liberation path

Eva’s liberation path

walking into the gas chamber

walking into the gas chamber

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.

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Birkenau/Auschwitz II- Where the Will to Live is Everything

Watch tower at entrance to Birkenau

Watch tower at entrance to Birkenau

Roommate, Jill, and I at the end of the tracks

Roommate, Jill, and I at the end of the tracks

Picture exhibit- what could their lives have been like?

Picture exhibit- what could their lives have been like?

Remnant of gas chamber

Remnant of gas chamber

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Eva telling her story at the cattle car and sorting platform

Eva telling her story at the cattle car and sorting platform

Needless to say, it has been an overwhelming day as we toured Auschwitz II/Birkenau.  It seemed appropriate that we were walking in the rain most of the day since Birkenau is one of the most depressing places you will ever see.  We arrived and all received headsets so we could hear Eva from wherever she was as she told her story, but most of us stuck close enough to be near her as she shared her experience.  We walked into the camp from the main entrance, through the gates, which we were told were closed, never to be opened again once prisoners were inside.  We immediately looked around and saw the remains of hundreds of barracks, some were still in tact, many were not and only the foundations and chimneys remained.  We followed the 3 train tracks to a cattle car where Eva stood and told her story of getting out of the cattle car with her mother and twin sister and was separated from her father and other sister, never to be seen again.  It was an emotional scene as she shared that she never got to say goodbye to her mother.  She described the screaming and the tears on the scene, and the smell of smoke and decay as soon as they got off the cattle car.  After telling the Nazis that they were twins, they were taken to the barracks to be stripped, heads shaved, disinfected, and received their tattoos.

After the cattle car, we continued to follow the train tracks into the camp and made our way to one of the gas chambers that had been destroyed by the Nazis in attempt to conceal evidence of their crimes.  We also saw gas chambers that are still standing.  Large areas were obvious in the ground where the people had been- the gas chambers were below ground, with the crematorium on top of the gas chamber, and Dr. Mengele’s lab was on the top floor of one of the crematoriums.  We were all amazed at just how large the area was where the gas chamber had been.  Some ashes still remained.

We then toured several barracks where people lived while in Auschwitz.  Some had their own latrines, and others did not.  We saw the bunks, where 700 people would be crammed into one building, with anywhere from 5-7 people per bunk.  Just the thought of it was unimaginable.  All of the buildings we saw were built by the prisoners themselves.  The materials came from homes and buildings of the village when the Nazis invaded and took over the area.

We toured the main latrine, where 3,000 people a day would be allowed the use it only twice, and we heard the horror of people fighting just to use the restroom in some attempt at a humane way, but of course disease was rampant and you can just imagine how awful it would have been.

Later, we went to the building where Eva experienced some experimentation, mainly where she had blood drawn and had testing done.  This was the first time she had actually been in the building since her time at the camp, since it was being restored so people could go inside.  We also saw the remains of the barracks where she lived with the rest of the twins.

After lunch, we went to the very back corner of the camp, where we saw the sorting and prep rooms for the prisoners that were not immediately sent to the gas chambers.  We saw the rooms where they were disinfected, their items taken from them, their heads shaved, and where they received their tattoos.  (Eva was in a different part of the camp, so was not at this particular location).  For some reason, this part of the tour had the most eerie effect on me.  I walked into one of the large rooms where we were told that the prisoners would stand, sometimes for hours, cold, naked, starved, and literally stripped of their humanity and dignity.

We then looked at a photo exhibit, which was really awesome, but emotional to see.  There were walls of old pictures that were found at the camp after liberation- pictures of families, children, weddings, happy times of those who had perished in the camp.  It was a beautiful honoring of those who had died, but very very sad.  They looked just like any of us.

Since it was a very overwhelming day, I am still processing a lot of emotion and what we experienced, so for now, I will leave you with some comments and quotes from Eva that struck me today as we experienced Birkenau.

“Realize that this soil we are walking on is soaked with the blood, sweat, and tears of millions of people.”

“How is it possible that green grass grows here now?  It was always gray with ashes.  Green is a sign of life.  There was no life here.”

“It was absurd that the Nazis tried to eliminate evidence of the camp.”

“The smell hit us when we stepped out of the cattle car.”

“The air was never clear in Birkenau.  It still isn’t.”

“I never let go of the image of being liberated.”

“The will to live is everything.”

“Luck plus the unbelievable will to live- these are the ingredients for survival.”

“I thought the whole world was a concentration camp experiencing what I was experiencing.”

“It’s kind of spooky that some things look new when I remember how they looked then.” (Commenting on the restoration of some barracks)

“I still feel triumphant that I beat the odds.”

“What would human beings do in order to live just one more day?”

And a quote by Desmund Tutu that she said, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

And finally, some initial thoughts about today’s experience:

The camp still has that shadow of death hanging over it, and an eerie feeling.  When you walk in, it feels empty, desolate, frightening.  It is cold and gray- it seems strange to think about there ever really being sunshine there.  In Auschwitz, thousands of people died per day, millions over the time it was in operation.  We were standing on the graves of millions of people.  That is a life draining experience.

Eva’s strength, courage, sassiness, sense of humor, and her self confidence are amazing and life giving to be around.  Just hearing her story, listening to her, and being around her, it’s obvious how she was able to survive Auschwitz.

It was awesome to be a part of a group touring the camp with a survivor. There are 82 people in our group, but there were other groups around the camp today.  Word spread quickly that a survivor was giving a tour and sharing her story.  We had several people who “adopted” our group, including a 17 year old Canadian girl who couldn’t help but run up to Eva and introduce herself, saying that it has been her dream to tour Auschwitz and meet as many survivors as possible.  Eva was an inspiration everywhere she went.  Her presence was definitely made known.

We’ve had many great conversations throughout the day amongst ourselves and what our experiences have been, and we are all processing what we have seen and will continue to see.  Tomorrow we will spend the day at Auschwitz I.  I hope to post after that and continue to share with all of you.

Thanks for reading.

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Salt Mines and Krakow

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Wieliczka Salt Mine

It’s been a long, but wonderful day!  My morning started with breakfast where I sat and chatted with Eva for awhile along with a few others.  We had a fascinating conversation about forgiveness, reconciliation, and genocide (the Holocaust and other areas of the world, such as Rwanda, etc.)  I had a chance to ask Eva about her faith.  I asked her simply if she practiced her Jewish faith, and she said that she fully supported the temple and Jewish community in Terre Haute, but has never really considered herself a religious person.  Growing up, her father made she and her family say the Jewish prayers in Hebrew over and over again, and it seems that she was kind of “soured” by that early childhood experience and therefore didn’t really connect with her faith, or faith in God for that matter.  It’s interesting to me (and a lot of people!) that she doesn’t see or find it necessary for faith and forgiveness to be connected.  For Eva, forgiveness is about self-empowerment- something you do for yourself for inner peace, and it allows you to live a life that opens more doors than anything else you can do for yourself.  It’s really about the will of the mind and emotions of the heart- that’s where forgiveness comes from and that’s what it’s for.

We also discussed the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is sometimes one sided- meaning that YOU can forgive someone even if someone doesn’t forgive you in return or repent for their actions.  It’s about YOUR inner peace and strength.  Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a working of both parties to work toward forgiveness in order to reach a balanced goal of forgiveness- not necessarily getting along, but working for peace coming from both sides of an issue.

Eva’s “theology” (for lack of a better word) of forgiveness is something that takes awhile to understand, and not everyone agrees with her on it.  I feel like the more I hear her speak about it, the more I learn.  And forgiveness is always a process, especially for someone who has been through something traumatic such as Eva has.  She told me this morning that this year on the sorting platform at Auschwitz, she plans to read a letter of forgiveness that she wrote for her parents, who both perished there.  Her father was the one in the family who refused to leave their hometown upon hearing that the Nazis where going to come for even just one family- hers.  The fact that he refused to leave the country is a source of hurt and pain for her, since her family was indeed captured, and you know the rest of the story.  It will surely be an emotional day for her as she reads the letter, and it will be touching for all of us who will be there to hear it.

So…faith and forgiveness…are they connected?  Do they have to be or not?  Does it matter that they are (or not)?  This is something that I would like to explore more on this trip, and I plan to share my findings/feelings on this with all of you.

So the rest of the day was spent touring- we first went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and did the 2.5 hour tour through there where we went through 3 levels of the mine with a guide and learned about the history, etc.

The rest of the day was spent touring historic Krakow.  We went to several of the churches and cathedrals, and we were on our own for lunch, so I went with several of my new friends to a cafe where we ate outside in the wonderful weather and enjoyed all of the life taking place in the Krakow square while eating pierogies- a traditional Polish dumpling usually filled with potatoes, cheese, meat or spinach (Corey, are you jealous?!) and getting acquainted with one another.  There was SO much to see in the square and on the tour.  We learned a lot about the history of Poland and Krakow, and saw many beautiful things, the most beautiful being the altar in the Church of Mary (unfortunately we could not take pictures inside).

We ended the day with a nice dinner on the square in town, and even some piano singing at the end of it!  I spent dinner talking with my new friend, Dina, and Patrick (who is a news anchor in Terre Haute), who shared stories about the news world, as well as what his plans are for this trip.  It was fascinating to hear about his trip with Eva to Israel where she was going to speak with other Mengele twins, who at first, refused to talk with her.  I will be interested to see what the news crew will do with this trip.

Tomorrow we will journey to Birkenau/Auschwitz II.  A lot of us are anxious about what we will feel and experience there.  I will be sure to take plenty of notes and share with you what we are experiencing.  Until then, thanks for reading, and good night!

Here are some pics from the day:

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Church of Mary, Krakow

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What would Krakow be without the grim reaper outside of the church? 😉

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Finally Here!

Friends, it has been a LOOONG day.  It all started when I drove to Terre Haute this morning to catch a bus to Chicago with some members of our group.  What was supposed to be a 3.5 hour drive ended up being 6 hours as we hit terrible traffic.  We would have missed our flight if it wasn’t for our plane being delayed because of the storms around Chicago earlier in the afternoon.  On the bus ride through downtown Chicago trying to escape interstate traffic, Eva was telling us stories of how she and her husband met, and how funny it was when she first came to the United States.  She also made a comment about how even though our travel experiences had been annoying thus far, that it was nothing compared to the cattle cars of Auschwitz.  Believe it or not, she said that lightheartedly.

So here we are in Krakow getting used to the money, the time change, and the strange ways of turning lights off and on in the hotel rooms…that’s another story.  We are all exhausted and about to crash.  The salt mines and historic Krakow are on the itinerary for tomorrow.  Until then, good night!

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Why Auschwitz?

Why in the world would someone WANT to go to Auschwitz?  Well, here is my story.

Many of you know that I was Jewish before I became a Christian (and a pastor!).  I spent a lot of time in Jewish youth group, made many friends, and took on some leadership roles in my temple back in Knoxville, TN.  I loved it.  In fact, many of the things I got to do in temple helped shape my early thinking about some kind of spiritual leadership, and here I am today, a minister, which is another very long story!

However, I had a lot of opportunity during my time within the Jewish community to become familiar with how important it is to remember the Holocaust, to educate people about it, and hear stories and build relationships with survivors.  When I was in middle school, our youth group put on the play, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” which is about children in the Holocaust.  When I was a freshman in high school, I took part in an amazing Holocaust Remembrance program which was part of an event at the Knoxville Museum of Art.  A group from my high school choir teamed up with another high school in the area, and we learned amazingly beautiful music from the Holocaust to sing.  We also put together a small dance group, which I was a part of, and we added a dance portion to the program as well.  I remember one of our pieces included us running around packing suitcases as if we were being forced out of homes.  We also learned some traditional Jewish dances.  I also was privileged to sing “Jerusalem of Gold” as a solo (in Hebrew).

In college, I took a class on Literature of the Holocaust, which deepened my interest in Holocaust studies, art, stories of survival, and history.  Even though my personal faith journey had led me to Christianity, I wanted to continue to learn about and honor my Jewish roots, which included taking part in Holocaust remembrance and opportunities to learn.

When I moved to Terre Haute after seminary to serve a church there, I learned about the CANDLES museum and felt drawn to it right away.  When I met Eva and heard her story, I wanted to learn more.  It seems that there have been many opportunities throughout my life to learn about the Holocaust in deep and meaningful ways, and so I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.  I felt drawn to this journey to Auschwitz as soon as I heard about it, and I look forward to the experiences we will have there.

As a pastor (and former Jew), I also want to go to see and hear firsthand about Eva’s understanding of forgiveness.  I want to understand where her faith is now, or if she has any at all.  I want chances to come back and share my experiences and her story with others, that they might understand the deep forgiveness of God and our capacity to forgive.  Above all, I want to journey to Auschwitz to learn, to listen, to build relationships, to honor the millions who perished, and to understand how we can work to overcome evil in this world.

The sign for the CANDLES museum has this phrase in Hebrew: “tikkun olam,” which means, “Healing the world.”  Each of us is charged with that task.  I hope that this journey will continue to plant seeds in my own life, that as a minister I can pass on to others.

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Preparing for the Journey

Hello, dear readers!  This blog will be for me to share my experiences and reflections while on a once in a lifetime trip to tour Auschwitz with Holocaust survivor, Eva Kor.  I hope to blog each day in order to keep track of everything we are seeing and experiencing in Poland, and what we are learning each day.

How does one prepare to go to Auschwitz?  Honestly, I’m not really sure.  I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve read Eva’s story, I’ve watched her film, I’ve learned some about Polish history, language, and culture, but emotionally, I’m not sure that anyone can ever really prepare to go to Auschwitz.  I’ve known about this trip for several years, and as soon as I heard about it, I knew that I wanted to go.  Unfortunately, things just didn’t work out until now.  And even then, I had to back out of being in a friend’s wedding in order to go, but I felt that I just couldn’t put it off any longer, and that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I am traveling to Poland with a group from the CANDLES museum in Terre Haute, IN.  I served a church in Terre Haute for 4 years, and during that time, became familiar with the museum and Eva Kor.  When I heard she takes groups over to Auschwitz, I knew I wanted to go.  Ever since, I have kept up with the museum and the trips, and here I am, just a few weeks from the trip.  We leave June 21.

Check back often- I look forward to sharing my journey with each of you.

Kor
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