Updated: Oct 19, 2020
I went to Poland in the summer of ‘16 and got to see Auschwitz toward the end of that trip. I was struck by how normal everything seemed just outside of the place. The sky was blue; crystal clear. Not a cloud up there. It was warm, but not unbearable. And here I was in this place that always had clouds and thunderclaps in the way that I imagined it. Now I was faced with the reality of the place and I was disappointed with how I felt. How little I felt. Should I be more sad?
We were there as a part of the world youth day pilgrimage. Because of larger than normal crowds, we were not permitted to enter the buildings of Auschwitz. As I walked the gravel road and made my way through, I looked past the buildings and saw a fence—the same kind of fence that would have been there “back then” when they were meant to keep people in.
One of the guys who came with us on the trip walked up beside me and asked “what do you think?” I was too ashamed in the moment to admit that I wasn’t as moved by it all as I thought I should be. But I did have an observation. One that was starting to stir something inside me, so I let it come.
The fence was just there, not far from all these buildings. Just beyond that fence was a road. I imagined German soldiers driving alongside it in their kübelwagen, talking about their weekend and the latest news from the Eastern Front and updates from England and France. And I thought of the people on this side of the fence who from my vantage point, might have agonized over a freedom so close—it's just a fence—and yet so unattainable. The fence looked fragile, sickly and wholly surmountable. Like a pair of wire cutters would do the job. But it was the oppression of the place, and all of the forces and barriers not entirely visible to the eye that I understood were what really kept the people in.
I finally felt something terrible inside of myself. It was the feeling of being trapped. I could never in my lifetime know how that must have really felt to these people...the ones who daily walked the path I was now on, and I do not want to presume upon the real suffering and sorrow that occurred within those fences. But this moment was helping me to understand why it was important for this place to still be standing...for the gates to be opened to a guy like me. It is, I think, meant to serve as both a warning and a testimony. There were honest to goodness human beings who died in this place-despite their abject dehumanization—many of which went down with a blessing to God Almighty on their lips. There were enormous signs hung all around the place as evidence of this, featuring the great figures who came and sanctified the death camps. Two from Auschwitz were St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who gave his life for a fellow prisoner, and St. Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who died in the terrible gas chamber.
Auschwitz became, for me, a lesson in the bondage wrought by evil. In a kind of spiritual irony, I have learned that evil often builds light physical defenses. Like the front door of the home where a victim of domestic violence lives. It is unlocked; it can, in theory, be easily opened and walked through, but in reality there are other, more potent forces keeping the person there. These forces take the mind and the soul prisoner. They rule by fear, letting freedom taunt its victims “just there, beyond the fence”.
There are no places just like Auschwitz in the world today, thank God. But what happened there—evil, oppression, the dictatorship of fear—these things still persist in our world to this day.
The hope in it all is that evil never gets the last word. It tries to. But it can never win. The Soviet liberation of Auschwitz demonstrated the facile nature of evil, which, when cut through once and definitively, loses its strength almost entirely. What stories have come from these pages of history are effortlessly horrifying. But the tales of heroism in the face of total and abject dehumanization is the great feat of grace.
Charlie is a mid-thirties guy who resides in sunny Florida with his small (but growing!) family. Charlie holds a B.A. in Religion and Apologetics and works in the financial services industry by day, writing about recovery, the Catholic Faith and Taming the Wild places in the human heart in his spare time. His writing has been featured in places like the Catholic stand, SpiritualDirection.com, Catholic Exchange and in print at Shalom Tidings. Charlie serves as the Managing Editor for Taming the Wilds and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.