Note: I wrote this post back in December, but in light of today being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I am bringing it back out again. –Scott
In this series of posts, I am giving the highlights of a trip I took, hosted by Governor Mike Huckabee and funded by the American Renewal Project. You can go back and catch the introduction to the trip here, or read and see of the beauty of St. Mary’s Basilica here.
We awoke the next day expecting that we had a day of intense emotions awaiting us. We were right.
A 30-minute bus ride outside of Kraków brought us to the former Nazi concentration/death camp called Auschwitz.
There were actually three camps: Auschwitz I, II and III. The first camp was an abandoned Polish military barracks. It became one of the first places the Nazis sent people to — hundreds of Polish scholars and intellectuals they deemed to be dangerous and worthy of imprisonment or death. The second camp, also known as Birkenau, was built primarily for the more efficient murder of the hundreds and thousands of people–mostly Jews–who would arrive there daily after being rounded up from all over Nazi-occupied Europe.
To be honest, there is so much historical information about the camps, that I don’t know where to begin–or even if I should try. Is it right to “data dump” in 750-1000 words an explanation of what went on there?
Certainly you know the basic facts. The Nazis of Germany despised inferior races, the weak and the sick, the mentally and physically handicapped, homosexuals, gypsies, and most of all–Jews. The Nazis murdered people they had declared to be unworthy of life.
In the case of the Jews, the Nazi party came up with “the final solution” to the so-called problem of the Jews, the “mongrels living among us.” The problem was that there were so many people who, according to the Nazis, needed to be killed in order to cleanse the land. One bullet per person became too much cost to bear, especially when the corpse then needed to be buried. So they devised cheap poison gas and mass-crematoriums and began to murder thousands of people at a time.
Horrific. The entire account is horrific to read about and to ponder the reality of what it must have been like for the victims.
Governor Huckabee’s introduction to Auschwitz — “Be prepared for a gut punch.”
Here are a few of the photos I took that day. You can CLICK on each photo to see a larger version of it.
Walk through the gates with words of mockery, intended perhaps to give some initial sense of hope to those who entered. “Arbeit macht frei” means “Work makes you free”–though the only “freedom” coming within those gates happened upon death. Indeed, prisoners who showed up at the camp with physical strength were spared immediate execution in order to work, and would be worked to death.
Walk into an extremely long room, lined on both sides with glass, and see tons of shoes from victims.
Walk into another room and see a heaping pile of eyeglasses from the dead.
Walk outside into a courtyard and see a wall used as a backdrop to execute thousands with a firing squad.
One story that really impacted me was the story of the martyrdom of Polish priest Maximillian Kolbe:
…a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted …
As I stood in the doorway of the tiny basement cell where this man was killed by starvation–in the place of another–I felt true shame at self-centered thoughts I had wallowed in even that morning.
Take the few kilometer bus ride over to “Aushwitz-Birkenau” and sense the much larger operation of death which would have taken place on the immense grounds. “Barracks” built for horses would keep prisoners alive for awhile, but the main function for one’s being at Birkenau was to die.
The day we were there was bitter cold, and yet our tour guide actually said they weren’t having the true cold of their Polish winters yet. We were bundled up with modern coats and hats, yet cold. The prisoners at the camp wore rags and slept in these horse barns without heat.
The prisoners rolled into Birkenau on the trains, but never rolled out.
With the furnaces billowing out smoke and ashes night and day during those years, the ground all around that area will never cease from having human ash as a component part of the soil.
We concluded our time at Auschwitz-Birkenau when Governor Huckabee provided us with a stirring charge to not forget the lessons of that morning. He said:
“It’s not enough, unless it does something to the way we live the rest of our lives. This is not a time to say ‘I’ve been to Auschwitz’… Because when the day comes, when we are called upon to put at risk our lives, our families, our fortunes, we have to decide if we will march like lemmings to our death, or take whatever steps necessary to stop the kind of tyranny that results, ultimately, in what we’ve been able to see firsthand today.”
I saw firsthand the magnitude and depth of human evil the day I visited Auschwitz. I won’t forget it, even as I continue to ponder how the experience should change how I live my own life. Without a doubt, there is new resolve in my soul to speak up for the innocent and the helpless among us today.
You can access additional historical information about Auschwitz online:
- Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum site
- Auschwitz – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Auschwitz concentration camp (wikipedia)
Scott Lamb serves as the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and as the President of Reformation Press Publishers.