By Eleanor O’Hagan
The sites of St. Maximillian Kolbe, Pope St. John Paul II and Auschwitz move students to enter into prayerful pilgrimage on the Poland trip.
We spent a large portion of time in the camps Auschwitz and Birkenau, sites of the most horrendous crimes against humanity. Humanity was lost in these places, innocent lives were taken and saints were martyred.
Despite knowing about the Holocaust beforehand and having seen and read about the concentration camps, nothing prepares you for actually being there. You can see a picture of millions of shoes piled up, but it’s different looking at them with only a rope between you.
When you go inside the starvation cells to see St. Maximillian Kolbe’s cell where he died, you have to go through a narrow hallway. It’s such a tight squeeze that your face is nearly pressed against the door.
I was less than an inch away from the scratch marks in the wood made by human beings who were being starved and suffocated inside. It’s truly an intense experience – one I don’t think anybody is ever ready to encounter.
The same experience occurs inside the gas chambers, which are not as big as you think. I wanted to run out as fast as I could, but at the same time I wanted to stay and stand with the millions who lost their lives there.
It’s as if your soul is being torn apart. You don’t want to look at the evil, but you wish to be with the beautiful souls who were persecuted there.
Now this seems like it was probably the worst trip of my life. Or at least the worst part of the Poland Pilgrimage. Well, it would be had we ended there and just left.
We did not just go through the concentration camps and then leave. We stood by the railroad tracks and prayed a Divine Mercy chaplet.
And not just for the souls of those who died in the camp. We also prayed for the souls of those who committed the crimes and those who are still martyred and persecuted today.
If we had just ended the pilgrimage at Auschwitz, we would not have been truly pilgrims. As Catholics, we know that evil does not win and that death has no victory.
Our earthly life may be filled with suffering and our deaths may be by the hand of evil and in the cruelest way. But our death is not the end, just as Jesus’s death on the cross is not the end.
The Poland Pilgrimage ended in Wadowice, the hometown of Pope Saint John Paul II. If you want to hear a story about someone living through tough times, he is the man!
He lived through Nazi occupied Poland, Soviet occupied Poland, the Cold War and times of fear in general. Yet what was JPII always saying? “Do not be afraid.”
In the midst of suffering, fear and hatred, JPII was telling us to not fear but to love one another and to forgive.
Times are pretty scary right now. Every day it is a new threat, a new scandal and a new sign of the “end times.”
When looking at our past, thinking of life now and what could come in the future, it all seems pretty grim. Yet on this pilgrimage to Poland, a land that has seen the worst of times for most of its history, I found the most peace and trust in God that I think I have ever experienced!
So, whatever it is that is causing you fear or anxiety, remember, “Do not be afraid!” This too shall pass.
And if it does not within your lifetime, remember that the Cross is not the end of the story. The tomb was empty. So will yours be.