One of the most exciting and most popular trips happened last week: the Poland pilgrimage. With 90 percent of the students in Gaming signing up each semester for this optional school trip, I had high expectations. But little did I know how much I would get out of this trip on so many levels.
I slept little, I ate a lot, and I grew.
The trip began with a little bit of unexpected excitement. Nothing makes memories like being late to the unveiling of Our Lady of Czestochowa at dawn and running through the streets of the city to go see her before the crowds grew.
We may have been late, but Our Lady wasn’t going anywhere and was waiting for our arrival in all her beauty and splendor. As many before us, we knelt and waddled on our knees around the image, asking for Mary’s intercession for our requests. It was a beautiful experience and made me forget how exhausted I was before we began our trip to Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was the hardest but most moving part of our trip. Words cannot describe my exact feelings as I walked through the halls where hundreds of innocent people were held prisoner, the crematoriums where their lives were taken unjustly, the platforms where, with the shake of a finger, they were pointed towards life or death.
I hardly cried; I just looked at it all in shock and kept asking myself two questions: how could God have let something so awful as this happen, and why do we still visit and discuss such an awful place where horrendous things happened?
The first question was answered by someone I met on that trip. Many people before me have wondered the same thing and have asked God where he was in the midst of all this. But God should be asking us why man let this happen.
God gave us all free will; the choice was given to those Germans who had this power over life and death, and they chose evil. Sadly, action was not taken against them until too many innocent souls, both young and old, were taken from this world in mass amounts. The pain of Auschwitz is not that God allowed this to happen, but that powerful men made the choice to let this happen.
The second question I answered for myself upon reflection as I walked around Birkenau, the “death camp” side of Auschwitz.
If you look at pictures of Auschwitz in the 1940s, it is nearly stripped of all nature, consisting of the cabins for housing and imprisonment and then the crematoriums. Today, the property is ironically blooming with life, filled with trees, flowers and lush grass. This all lies on top of the burned down buildings and the ashes of those lost dumped in the water and buried in the ground.
As I looked and contemplated, I realized that it is out of the ashes that we grow. The grass and trees are literally growing on top of the ashes of the dead from this massacre. Yet they still grow and blossom on all of this sadness.
We grow from this as well. It’s painful to reflect upon the grave mistakes of those in the past, but they help us to understand and see the harm of evil. Places like this, although they hurt to visit, remind us that we mourn as a community of people.
It is not the Jews alone that mourn the loss of so many of their kin; Catholics mourn them, Mormons mourn them, atheists mourn them. We all bond over the loss of the innocent and visit Auschwitz to respect the memory of those who did not deserve to die.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is a lesson to all of us that no matter our race, our religion or our culture, the innocent must be protected at all costs and remembered as children of God, not simply as a Jew, a priest or anyone else who died there.
After we left, a trip to the Shrine of Divine Mercy and Pope St. John Paul II’s hometown helped me further remember God’s mercy after such horrific events. No matter the wrong we do, his mercy is endless, and we must surrender ourselves to him, asking for forgiveness and the grace to learn from past mistakes to better prepare ourselves for the future. Thanks to the Poland pilgrimage, I have a firmer belief in this.