A Day of Contrasts

This was a day of contrasts.  It began with breakfast among friends who had shared so many good times during the past week, and ended with sober reflections on the difficulties of trying to come to grips with what transpired at Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945.

This morning, we ate a traditional Polish breakfast of bread, cheese, sliced meats, jams, and coffee and juice.  We packed and cleaned up after ourselves, and then loaded the cars and trailers for our trip to Oswiecim.  The trip was uneventful The day was overcast and colder than any on our trip so far, only in the mid-30s.  We met our tour guide and walked on to the grounds of Auschwitz I, and through the gate upon which is written a lie fabricated in iron, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” – “Word will set you free”.  Here we saw the “small” camp which held 30,000 concentration camp prisoners, where prisoners were punished in standing cells, hung by their hands behind their backs, executed after summary judgment, and where the first experiments on mass extermination with Xyclon B gas were carried out.  Pictures of prisoners in their thin prison garb were displayed all along the wall, listing their names and dates of entrance into the camp and death.  Few dates were separated by more than three months.  We saw room full of tons of human hair, textiles woven of human hair, eyeglasses, suitcases, prosthetic devices,  porcelain containers and anything else that could be taken from a human being if viewed as a commodity rather than as a person.

From there we went to Auschwitz II, Birkenau, a 350 acre camp designed specifically for what the Nazis called “The final solution of the Jewish question”.  It is estimated that the camp housed over 100,000 prisoners.  When brought through to the camp by train, “doctors” immediately sorted the people crammed inside into those deemed “fit for work”, and those marked for instant execution in the gas chambers.  The crematoria could dispose of 4,400 bodies per day, which was fewer than the number of people that could be killed in the gas chambers, so sometimes bodies were burned in an open field.  While Auschwitz I provides a personal glimpse into the life of the prisoners, Auschwitz II illustrates the massive scale of its dehumanizing forces.

When we had left Auschwitz I, Daniel, the pastor that we have been working with, discovered that his car had lost its power steering and battery.  He worked out a plan to get us to Krakow without him or his car, which (mostly) worked out.  Eric, one of his elders, left work (an hour away) to help transport us to Krakow with Mike (who has been helping us these last few days), while Daniel nursed his car home.  Unfortunately, Eric’s cell phone – which he was using for GPS – died before we got to our hotel, so we had a bit of an adventure finding our way home for the night. 

After settling in, we took an hour and a half to tour Krakow’s main square (two blocks from our hotel) and Wawel Cathedral and Castle (less than a mile further ).  After a wonderful sampling of Polish cuisine, we settled back into our hotel and began processing the day.  We will not be able to wrap our minds around what happened at Auschwitz in a short time, or perhaps ever.  Why do humans do such evil?  Where was God?  Why did the world look the other way?  And yet we also saw within the camp incredible acts of human kindness – starving men giving their one piece of bread to starving children, a priest offering to undergo execution by starvation in a standing cell to save another man’s life.  It is also a poignant reminder that, though the scale may be different, we still need to deal with such things today; North Korean prison camps, ethnic cleansing in Africa and the Balkans, torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and on, and on.  Dr. E. ended our discussion with prayer after reading Psalm 10.  If you would like to read this, here is a link:  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalm+10&version=NIV

While we look forward to a day of relaxed site seeing tomorrow, we will be processing this day for a long time to come.

Dr. E., for Ashley, Ashley, Ashton, Emily, Iris, Katelyn, Melissa, Morgan, Rachel, and Tiera

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