Visiting Birkenau and Auschwitz is not something you do on vacation for fun. You do it to bear witness to the millions who died there for no other reason than believing in the wrong god, having the wrong skin color, or loving the wrong person. Wrong, in this context, was defined by the people in power and had nothing to do with any real ethical or moral standards.
It is hard to walk through these death camps and not feel the terror that seems to permeate the very stones of the ground. It is virtually impossible to stand at the point of disembarkation from the trains and not hear echoes of screams and cries as children are separated from their parents, husbands from their wives, some to live a hell that made death a welcome companion and others to die immediately.
But there is another part of this experience that lifts up the human heart. It shows that despite the depths to which humanity can sink, the heights it can reach under the most horrendous of circumstances is more inspiring than any depravity one human can inflict on another.
Those are the stories that struck me and gave me hope in a place that left so many hopeless. There was the man who was killed for trying to sneak a piece of bread to a prisoner who had been condemned to starve to death; or the Franciscan monk who asked to take the place of a condemned man because that man had a family. He was volunteering to be starved to death as an act of kindness in a world that must have seemed devoid of it to those imprisoned there. Everywhere you turn in these hellish camps, you find another story like that.
There was a barracks where children stayed who looked enough like the blond haired, blue-eyed master race Hitler was attempting to create that they were kept alive to be adopted out to families who would raise them as “true Germans”. Women who worked all day at hard labor with little food, water or warmth managed to paint pictures on the walls for the children to see – little pictures that told stories that would amuse the children and perhaps divert them for a moment from the fact that they would never see their mothers or fathers again. These children had no idea what their future might hold. Would they be lucky and get adopted? Or would they become part of the ashes from the crematoriums used on local fields to grow food for the camps.
As we walked around the camp we found people emerging from one busload after another, many clearly Jews. The men had shawls wrapped tightly around them with the Star of David prominently displayed. In one part of the compound, a group of students stood together as they were led in prayer. Another man sat on the rails that once carried the cars full of Jews to be exterminated and seemed unable to do much more than touch his head to the rails in an attitude of grief that was so private it was clear the world around him had disappeared. He only heard those trains rumbling into the checkpoint where some would be chosen to live and some to die. Perhaps he mourned for his people in general. Or perhaps he mourned on a much more personal level for members of his family who were sent to the death line.
The group I was with left the death camp in silence. The one time I tried to speak to someone about those small, individual moments of grace that had happened in these walls of evil, I realized I could not speak without crying. I could not walk through this camp without feeling the presence of those for whom this would be their last walk.
But deep down in my heart I knew that these atrocities had, in the end, not crushed the spirit of the people they were meant to eliminate or the humanity of those who found quiet moments of stunning grace and love even in a living hell.
Humanity may often times sink so low that we cannot imagine any god forgiving us for what we do to each other. But humanity also rises to the greatest heights of love, valor and compassion at times when it seems as though all the gods have abandoned us.
We are entering into a season in which multiple religions celebrate a time of renewal, rebirth and hope. Given the greatness to which our spirits can rise under the most hellish of circumstances, I’d say we have good reason to hope for the future.