By Emily Antenucci
OSWIECIM, Poland — Imagine you are standing, eyes closed, in a field stretching for miles. It’s green with grass and trees, colorful with flowers, the air filled with the songs of birds chirping their favorite tune. Now you open your eyes and you see: debris, which is burnt black and stacked tall in piles; barbed wire fences enclosing you from the rest of the world; and the ruins of wooden and brick barracks occupying the green fields around you.
That’s what Oswiecim looks like, although the beauty and blooming nature are painted over with an atmosphere of darkness and despair. The fields and ruins are infamously known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, site of the two largest concentration camps developed by the Nazis in World War II. I was there this past weekend. Yes, they are notorious and yes, it is a very emotional experience, but I highly recommend visiting because, truth be told, no words can express the experience.
The view from the stairs of Block 10-11 in Auschwitz I. (CNS photo/Emily Antenucci)
As someone who learned about World War II in school, I knew it would be impossible to truly fathom the magnitude of the horrors that took place at Auschwitz. Having walked along the train tracks where the prisoners were dropped off and having been inside the blocks and barracks where the prisoners lived, I realized that my previous thinking was a massive understatement. Where in school, we learn by memorizing terms and statistics, after this past weekend I can now place meaning behind those definitions and stories behind those numbers. An informative, powerful experience, I still found myself leaving the camps even more distraught and confused than when I first arrived.
The view from the train platform where prisoners were dropped off inside Birkenau. (CNS photo/Emily Antenucci)
Constant questions popped into my head during my visit. One of my immediate thoughts while walking the grounds was: Where was the church when this was happening? While I know this controversial topic has been discussed and debated for decades, it still plagued me. Almost immediately, I thought of Blessed John Paul II, who was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla and was archbishop of Krakow before being elected pope. He grew up miles from these camps during that fear-filled period and was influenced by the Holocaust and World War II in many ways.
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