It’s been two weeks since I visited Auschwitz. I am still haunted by its stillness. The mountains of shoes, suitcases, and human hair stick in my memory as do those horrible hooked spires of concrete, spiked with porcelain and strung with barbed wire. Seeing the reconstructed gas chamber and ovens was bad enough; seeing the barracks where prisoners wasted away was somehow worse–perhaps because they were more “authentic” in some vague way. All of it was ghastly. I often tried to imagine what it was like to sleep in such places or to be herded through the Sauna or to work as a member of the Sonderkommando. I couldn’t do it, though not because of a failure of imagination, but because of an unwillingness to imagine it at all: my mind’s eye recoiled from looking too deeply into such things. That I did this despite my efforts to imagine what it was like seems natural if not proper to me; like how we snap our hands back quickly from a hot iron, so the mind buffets the will when it tries to imagine hell.
While the story of Auschwitz is long and awful, the story the death camp itself tells is dreadfully simple. Every site of interest has a small sign explaining what you are looking at, and almost all of them say, “Jews were murdered here” (sometime it was Polish or Soviet prisoners). It’s like a drum beat. The same assertion over and over without variation. Sometimes questions present themselves such as “How?” and “When?” but the interest in answers to those questions tends to diminish.
There is one sign, however, that tells a different story. In response to an escape, the SS selected 10 others die by starvation. One of them, a Polish army sergeant named Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry, “My wife! My children!” At this a Polish priest named Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to take his place. While starving, the priest sang hymns and lead prisoners in prayer. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive; the Nazis finished him off with a lethal injection. This had a profoundly positive effect on the prisoners of the camp and inspired much hope in a very dark place. Amazingly, Gajowniczek survived and was a guest at the Vatican when John Paul II canonized Kolbe in 1982. Kolbe’s prison cell is now a shrine to which many Catholics make pilgrimage every year. To be sure, there were other heroic acts of humanity at Auschwitz which I read about later. But this is the only one I saw written out in full on the understated signage at the camp.
Seeing Kolbe’s cell was the highlight for me; it made me think of the line from the Psalms several times afterwards: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”