“The words of our prayers are different, but our tears are the same.” —Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.
I wonder if the sun ever shines on Auschwitz. It certainly didn’t on the rainy Friday of our visit to the site of the Nazis’ sprawling death camp about an hour’s bus ride from Krakow.
Over a period of five years, more than a million people, about 90 percent of them Jews, died in this horrible place as part of Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish problem in Europe” before the camp was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945.
We retraced this history over a physically- and emotionally-demanding day, one of the most memorable of our exploration of history and national memory in Poland and Germany.
Before visiting the camp itself — actually a network of camps known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, we made a couple of stops in preparation for what we were about to see.
First, a visit to the little town of Oswiecim (pronounced “Oz-VIN-chum”), which the Nazis changed to Auschwitz when they marched into the city in the first week of September 1939. The town had nearly 15,000 residents, about half of them Jews who were “relocated” to the camps. When the war in Europe ended in 1945, only 77 of them came back. And Poland under Communism not being much more hospitable to Jews than Nazi-occupied Poland was, most soon emigrated to America, Australia or the new nation of Israel.
There are no Jews in Oswiecim today, but the town remains very aware of its past and tries to preserve it at a Jewish Center established in 2000 with the support of Jewish benefactors in the U.S.
You won’t find many references to the horrors of the camps here, and it’s almost a “rebranding” effort, seminar leader Benjamin Lorch said. The exhibits at the center, including an authentic recreation of a synagogue’s school, emphasize that Oswiecim the town is not Auschwitz the death camp. A video featuring former residents’ reminiscing about their childhood days in the town makes that point repeatedly. These people, now elderly and living outside Poland, describe a normal childhood in an ordinary town whose life was about to be shattered.
A lunch stop at the Center for Dialog and Prayer, located near the camp, gave us another perspective on what we were about to see. Father Manfred Deselears, a soft-spoken native German, is the head of education at the center, founded in 1998 to, in the words of the center’s home page, “create a place for reflection, education, sharing and prayer for all those who are moved by what happened here.”
“Listen to the voice of this place,” he encouraged us. “Hitler doesn’t have the last word here. Those who were here want to speak to us.”
He said that many visitors have difficulty comprehending the enormity of the events at Auschwitz. “You go to a medieval castle and you read that torture took place there, it doesn’t mean anything. But this happened in our world. It has to do with us.”
He also gave us some advice that would prove to be a challenge.
“Don’t leave depressed,” he said of our upcoming visit. “To say ‘never again,” means we have to do something positive. Just to visit Auschwitz doesn’t change the world. But you should reflect on what happened and your relationship to it.”
Over the next five hours, we would be given a lot to think about.