We started the day off at the Jewish museum in Oświęcim. This museum is inside the last remaining synagogue in Oświęcim and a part of it is still set up as a synagogue. They had some artifacts that were from the Great Synagogue that had stood between the two churches. I say “had” because when the Nazis entered the town, the first thing they did was destroy the Great Synagogue. In the synagogue part of the museum, all the men were required to wear a kipa, which is a traditional Jewish head covering, while the women could if they wanted, but didn’t have to. They showed us a very small example of a Torah scroll and a ram’s horn that is used as a call to service. We also saw a quick video of interviews of Jews that had lived in Oświęcim before the war and survived the Holocaust. All of them now live in Israel, along with their children and grandchildren. Only one of the survivors on the video said that he didn’t want to think about Poland, that to him, Poland did not exist. For the others, they looked back on their lives here before the war as a pleasant memory, even though they had not returned since the war. We noticed that all of them, as well as everyone in the town that we have spoken to, make the difference between the camp and town very clear: the camp is Auschwitz; the town is Oświęcim. Before the war, the town was about fifty percent Jewish and things were very peaceful. The town is not the camp.

Then, we went to the old walled Jewish cemetery. Even though there are many gravestones there, they were mainly just lined up not in their original places. They couldn’t be put back in the same places since the cemetery had been pretty much destroyed and the gravestones knocked over and broken. In the middle of the area, there were two monuments that looked like they had been made of broken gravestones. The space was very quiet and peaceful, placed outside the city like most Jewish cemeteries. The wall cut it off from the things around it, such as the large outdoor market across the street or the gas station on the opposite corner. It seemed to be a world in and of itself.

After the cemetery, we took a quick drive down to the chemical plant that was built near the Auschwitz III camp. The camp no longer exists, save for a few brick guard towers, but the chemical plant is bigger and is still being used. The camp, Auschwitz III, was smaller than Auschwitz I, built to house the prisoners who worked in the chemical plant making synthetic rubber and other materials of the sort. We didn’t spend much time there, just driving by, turning around and driving by again. There wasn’t much to see anyway (the Nazis destroyed the camp before retreating back to Germany), just two brick guard towers standing lonely on the side of the road and empty fields.

After seeing the chemical plant and the cemetery we returned to the hotel and had lunch. After lunch, we met and talked with the resident priest here at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, Fr. Manfred Deselaers. I found our discussion with him enlightening and my favorite part of visiting Oświęcim. He described what exactly the centre stood for, that it was a place, obviously for dialogue; something he said, enabled people to build relationships which I thought was interesting. He stressed that this was important because everyone experiences things differently and has a unique way of viewing and handling situations. With this introduction, he touched on the centre and what its main mission was. As a place located so close to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the center is not only a place of prayer but also of reflection and peace. Here, people can reflect on what they have seen and handle it in whatever way they choose. It has an affiliation with the Catholic Church but they open their doors to absolutely everyone. Father Manfred made a point of mentioning this because he said it was through things like stereotypical grouping and division and the separation of people that things like the Holocaust happen.

Father Manfred started our discussion by saying we would discuss the three perspectives present here in Oświęcim, that of the Jewish, German, and Polish population. For example, he pointed out to us how members of the Jewish and Polish population view Auschwitz as a cemetery, and rightfully so but he also mentioned that Germans who visit, those who weren’t alive at the time of the Holocaust feel immense guilt about the acts that maybe their grandparents or great grandparents committed. That they sometimes feel so guilt ridden that they try not to speak or speak as little German as possible to avoid judgments of other visitors. Fr. Manfred said that when he encounters people who feel this way that he tries to help them understand that what those who came before them did is not their fault. He said he tells people crying about it and feeling emotional can be a good thing but being depressed for the rest of your life and placing underserved blame on oneself doesn’t help anything. Growing up, my mom always told me that you can’t take responsibility for anyone else’s actions. You can only be responsible for your own and be the best person YOU can be. It’s not up to you to shoulder the responsibility and repercussions of another’s actions. He said to us that he tells people the best thing they can do is visit, share the knowledge they gain and be sure to pass it along to others. Education, of yourself and others about this topic and its place in history is the best solution to handling the storm of thoughts and emotions people have when they discuss the events of the Holocaust and visit places like Auschwitz.

One thing Father Manfred said that really resonated with me was that being here, living in Oświęcim, the memory of Auschwitz and the Holocaust is something that the people of this town live with and experience the memory of each and every day as a part of their daily life. Residents of the town and all our tour guides are very clear to always make the distinction between the town of Oświęcim and the death camp of Auschwitz. They want to be sure that people know and realize that the camp is not who they are, that they have a life outside the events and memory of the Holocaust which I think people tend to forget when they come here. I will admit, no place has ever had the effect on me that Auschwitz-Birkenau did. I didn’t cry while I was there because standing on that ground, looking around, seeing what thousands of people before me had seen, I looked up at the sky, the same sky all those prisoners I’m sure looked up at and I thought of the horrendous terrifying way they died and I went numb. All I felt was numbness, I couldn’t wrap my head around it as I thought of what a thousand people looked like, what a million people looked like, what two million people looked like and I couldn’t fathom it, I couldn’t comprehend that those numbers were people. Real live people with jobs, families, friends, and normal lives before the Holocaust began. After I left, I was writing my journal and all of a sudden my numbness wore off and I can honestly say I’ve never cried so hard, been so angry, or so confused in my life. I thought about how at the end of the day, I got to get on the bus, come back to the hotel and leave tomorrow. I can’t imagine living here as the people of Oświęcim do, surrounded by the memory, living the memory as these people do.

When the discussion came to an end and it was time for questions, a classmate asked Father Manfred what I think was the most important question asked all day, one I certainly had wanted to ask and had asked myself countless times as I walked through the camp and all day afterward, “Where do you think God was?” In response to this question Father Manfred became quiet for a moment, looking down at his hands and thinking of how as a man of God, to answer a question I’m sure he had himself given much thought to. While he thought, he looked down at his folded hands and when he looked up, he said in reply “in the dignity of the prisoners.” As I heard this, my mind started racing trying to see where the Father was going with this. I took a moment and thought to myself and as I considered the Father’s answer I found it to be a very good answer to the most difficult of questions. Simply put, we will never know for certain “where God was” but I do agree with Fr. Manfred’s answer. When I thought about those who survived, and the stories they tell, I do think that dignity was a rather strong presence in their stories.

One such story I heard recently was that of a survivor and friend of the curator at the Galacia museum. She said her friend told her despite his living conditions and limited access to things like soap and water within the concentration camp, he always tried to look his best. He would often ask other prisoners to cut his hair, and when given his daily ration of water he would drink some and then use the rest to rinse his hands and face. When Gina, the curator, asked him why he would do such a thing he replied “because then when the guards called me dirty Jew I knew in my head, as well as my heart that it wasn’t true.” This story was what came to mind when Father Manfred spoke of dignity. The Nazis did everything in their power to strip the people under their control of anything that made them human, their names, belonging, families, everything but one thing they never could manage to take away from the people was their dignity. When everything else was stripped from them, this remained.

So I think as we walk away from this place and continue our journey that we must not forget. We must make the effort every day for the rest of our days to remember this place and what happened here, to not forget those who perished under such horrific circumstances. We must take their living memory and keep it alive and pass it along to others to ensure that it can never be forgotten.

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