Sunday, April 8, 2018

Krakow Pilgrimage- Day Five- Auschwitz and a Lesson in Divine Mercy

Entrance to Birkenau where most were put to death.

Auschwitz and Divine Mercy, two opposing images, two polar opposites. Today I experienced both, unexpectedly, since I thought my trip to Auschwitz was tomorrow. As I was getting dressed this morning my phone rang, and the voice on the phone said, "your tour shuttle is here for Auschwitz." I intended to make it for Monday and had planned to go the Latin Mass at Wawel Cathedral today. This was not to be the case and just after 7AM I found myself on the shuttle to Auschwitz.

I had read about it, I had seen documentaries on the event and have even read some of the nonsensical articles who have denied the event ever happened. For me, it was a horrific atrocity that happened 5000 miles away in a distant past that should never have happened. After today this is no longer the case, the distance was no longer. Today I walked through both camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Although what I saw today pales in comparison with what the prisoners saw, and I cannot comprehend what actually happened to those who died and survived there, it nonetheless has made lasting impression on me. There were few smiles on anyone's faces the entire day as they traversed the grounds. Group after group passed the tons of human hair cut from the women who were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers, a look of bewilderment ran across everyone's face. It was not enough that the Nazis took their lives but they collected their hair for textiles! In allowing only limited possessions they made sure that everyone brought only their most precious belongings so they could steal them. Once they killed them, before incinerating their bodies, they dug the gold out of their teeth! Face after face shockingly passed the piles of kids shoes in the museum who were also sent to their deaths. Many of the children were used for medical experiments like rats! They were preferred by the "doctors" since they were more trusting and cooperative.

Cell block 10 where inhumane medical experiments were carried out.
Can we imagine a trainload of families being forced off the cars, men and women separated by guards, and then having a doctor choosing who lives and who dies on the spot? If you looked well enough to work maybe you lived, for awhile, until you starved or grew too weak to work, and then you were killed. What about the pregnant women who went off to the gas chambers with their kids at their side, holding their hands, thinking they were going to be relocated after getting a shower? I saw the cell in which Saint Maximilian Kolbe was starved and eventually lethally injected. At Birkenau I walked the very path that thousands, perhaps over a million people walked to their deaths at the back of the camp at the edge of the woods to the gas chambers. You can try and imagine what it was like, but its impossible. Those who lived in the camp existed in terrible living conditions. They had little food, little rest, and yet they struggled to live. They were stacked on boards with no pillows, four or five to a level. How can we comprehend such evil?

The barracks in which they laid four to a shelf for sleeping arrangements.

A priest once told me that men in some of their acts can be more malicious than those of the demons! I never really understood how that could be until today's visit. This mass murder, the worst ever recorded in human history attests to the fact that man, left to his own devices can commit such evil. I am not saying there was not diabolic influence, there obviously was. But, these men also had a freewill which God never removes. The fact is, none of us are immune to our sinful human nature, and even though hopefully we never descend into the darkness of what happened at these death camps, we all need to examine our lives, our own sins. We all need to root out the darkness in our own hearts.

The road to death. The last thing they saw as they approached the gas chambers. 

After I returned from Auschwitz today, I went over to the Franciscan Church to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet at 3PM in front of the Divine Mercy painting in one of the side chapels. In prayer and thinking about what I saw over and over in my head, I looked at the image and had a thought; there is only one answer to such evil, and that is Jesus Christ. It is the mercy He alone can offer, through the perfect Sacrifice of Himself on the cross. It occurred to me as I asked Our Lord how such evil could have taken so many lives; I thought, only He can atone for such evil. Further, Jesus would even offer forgiveness to those who participated in that atrocity, if their hearts were sincerely repentant. I thought about this more as I then went to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

I don't know about your first thoughts on those who devised and carried out these horrific acts, but I would have wanted to see all of them get their just deserts. I also think that it would have been a just punishment to put them to death. But the reality is, even death would not come close to redressing these horrific acts against humanity. It is a fact that only a few of the culprits were ever brought to justice. How many of these men truly repented? How many of them lived out their lives committed to their heinous deeds, we will never know. Those who died unrepentant will suffer for eternity in hell. I think now the important question to ask is, how sincere are we in repenting of our own sins? Do we hate sin and love God more than anything in this world? How sincere are we in loving our fellow man? How hard are we trying to root out the evil within ourselves? It is only us, the faithful in Christ that can stop more atrocities like the ones that happened in these death camps.

The small provisional gas chamber at Auschwitz I
Inside the chamber.
Today is Divine Mercy Sunday. Looking into the death cell of Saint Maximilian Kolbe today brought me face to face with divine mercy. He stood up to replace a man who had a family. He knew there was no chance of living, and worse, the way he was supposed to die was by starvation/dehydration. Yet he inspired the other nine walking dead who shared the same cell to pray the rosary, and to ask God for mercy on those who were committing these acts. Can you imagine being in that cell with him? Would it not have been tempting to have had a hatred for those who put you in there? Would it not have been a righteous anger to ask God's wrath on them? I don't have the answer. But Saint Kolbe brought those nine souls from possibly having hatred for these guards to asking for God's mercy on them! This act also seems incomprehensible, does it not? Is it not like Christ saying from the cross, "Forgive them for they know not what they do"? This act of St. Kolbe is as incomprehensible as the heinous acts being committed against him. What is the difference between the two? While the SS at Auschwitz in their fallen nature fueled by the diabolical could only kill the bodies of those poor prisoners, Saint Kolbe's act is of supernatural origin, and it makes reparation for the rest of time. It is an eternal act that effects the salvation of souls. It effects us today, inspiring those who read about his act of love and mercy.

Let me explain further. The evil committed in these death camps took the lives of countless men, women and children between the years of 1940 and 1945. We cannot bring them back and we cannot bring forth any more justice than has already been brought forth on this earth. Looking at Saint Kolbe we see an eternal event of Our Lord's Divine Mercy that can save souls, including those who died in those camps. It can save our souls and the souls of our loved ones. It can stop future evil and make atonement for past evil. This takes incomprehensible faith in God. This is not blind faith, or faith without reason, but a faith that reaches beyond reason. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Maximilian Kolbe 
It is true that God's justice and mercy cannot be separated. God will be the final judge of us all. But should we not pray for mercy for all while we can? We know that not all men will be saved, but since we don't know who is and who isn't, should we not take the route of Saint Kolbe? I don't think I will ever forget my visit to these death camps and the atmosphere of sadness and darkness that pervades them. All day I have thought about this visit and it is really too much to digest. I wish that these horrible murderous acts could have been stopped. We as faithful Catholics however can heal the past and change the future. We must realize that everyone's soul is at stake. Saint Faustina reminded us of something that has always been taught, but often forgotten, it is faith in God's mercy. We see this actually carried out in the heroic act of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. While we are still alive we can ask for this mercy. In this we can have confidence that no matter what sins we have committed we can ask for His forgiveness. No matter what has been done to us, we can also ask for mercy on those who have committed an injustice against us. More than the incomprehensible brutal acts of the Auschwitz death camps we have the unfathomable depth of the ocean of God's divine mercy. In my mind there was a reason why my trip to Auschwitz was today and not tomorrow. Let us pray the Divine Mercy chaplet with a renewed vigor and faith in God's love and mercy.
“The Lord said to me, ‘The loss of each soul plunges Me into mortal sadness.  You always console Me when you pray for sinners.  The prayer most pleasing to Me is prayer for the conversion of sinners.  Know, My daughter, that this prayer is always heard and answered.’” (Diary No. 1397)

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