Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Liberation of Auschwitz: Observations and Thoughts

The Nazi labor and death camp, Auschwitz, was liberated on January 27th, 1945 as Soviet troops marched across southern Poland en route to Berlin. The Day of Memory is observed each January 27th and last week the images on Russian television reminded me of my own visit there several summers back.

Auschwitz has become a symbol of the Holocaust, of terror and genocide and the disregard for human life of World War II. Nazis sent over 1,500,000 people to Auschwitz, including Jews, gypsies and Polish political prisoners. Quite a few survived their ordeal and have shared their stories. Care to come along for a bit of the tour? But be forewarned: It's not exactly a walk in the park.

The inscription over the main gate, Work makes you free.

On the inside looking out. Across the barbed wire are my fellow travelers. We had caught an early train from Warsaw south to Krakow and then came west to Auschwitz by bus.

A guard tower through a window.

We visited the museum, a collection of buildings that house 6,000-plus exhibits. Here's an overview.

This suitcase belonged to Fanni from Vienna and she carefully labeled it with her address. This was one of 3,500 suitcases confiscated.

Pots, drinking cups and cutlery were collected from prisoners.

A vast sea of shoes.

This shoe was new and oh-so-special, once upon a summer's day.

A wooden shoe, Dutch style.

Combs and hairbrushes, powder brushes. Blush, anyone?

Now the story becomes considerably more sad. . .

Locks of human hair. Hair cut from the dead and recycled into haircloth for use in officers' uniforms. When the camp was liberated in 1945, over 7,000 kilograms - 15,000 pounds - of hair was found, packed into paper bags and ready to be hauled back to Germany for weaving.

The finished cloth: Traditionally, tailor's canvas is made from horsehair. This is from human hair.

Entering the crematorium. When prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, they were sorted into two groups: those fit to work and those unfit to work. The unfit came to this building after their long train trip to the camp. The sign over the door read "shower and disinfection."

In the next room were gas chambers disguised as shower rooms.

Later, corpses were burned in furnaces such as these. One crematorium had 12 furnaces. Beyond this were grinding machines that ground bones into bone meal, used to enrich the soil.

There was lots to see at Auschwitz. But one museum building and the crematorium was enough for me and I was drained. Walking toward the exit and the museum shop, I found myself making sick jokes about what souvenirs might be in the shop, my way of dealing with the gruesomeness of it all. I thought, imagine a t-shirt that said Auschwitz 2009. Or one that said My grandma went to Auschwitz and all she brought me back was this t-shirt. It goes downhill from there but fortunately I didn't see any such things for sale. Rather there were books, videos and such. I stocked up on several, knowing that soon this would be but a dream, a nightmare and I didn't want to forget.

This book by Stella Muller-Madej, personally autographed has these words on the back cover: It is true that Schindler's Jews were saved from hell, but can we say it all had a happy ending? None of the people I have met have ever been truly happy,none have managed to get away from the misery of the past. When they meet each other they are unable to talk about anything else, it is like a shadow cast over their lives. They can not forget, and we must not do so. (Steven Spielberg)

This book, The Residence of Death (2003), by Teresa and Kenryk Swiebocki, 127 pages of photographs and manuscripts, packed with information.

* * * * *

Eating my breakfast last week and watching highlights of the January 27th liberation of Auschwitz, I was struck by a sad irony. We shake our heads in disgust and point our fingers at the Nazis, their crimes against humanity, the snuffing out of 6 million lives.

Yet days earlier, on January 22 was another anniversary, that of Roe versus Wade, the court decision which legalized abortion in the United States. Since then, 49 million have lost their lives through abortion. To put that into perspective, that's like eliminating the entire population of California plus Ohio.

How ironic to condemn the atrocities of the Holocaust and then shrug off what is happening amongst us. Is there a museum to the 49 million babies who have been killed? Has anybody been charged with crimes against humanity? Myself, I don't hear much said about abortion. I don't recall hearing abortion mentioned much even in Christian circles. The thought crosses my mind, Are some topics off-limits?

If so, why might that be?

* * * * *

Holy Father, give us Your eyes.
Help us see life as You see it.
Help us to treasure human life, young or old, born or unborn.

Father, thank You that You know all, You see all.
You witness life wherever it is, whenever it begins.
You know the thoughts, the motives of each who wants to end a life. . .
the life of the frail elderly, the life of the unborn.

Father help each of us to make wise choices.
Help us to harness our needs and desires
May we live within your parameters.

That we will do all to Your honor, to Your glory.
Within Your grace, ever sufficient.
For ever and ever.

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