A Place of Suffering – Another ‘Golgotha’

Published on 30 Jan 2017

by Julia Warrell

I visited Auschwitz in March 2007, and experience I shall never forget.  I did write about this visit for Cloch y Llan (church magazine) shortly after my return.  I focus on Etty Hillesum’s realisation that ‘God cannot help it’, in relation to the horrors and degradation she experienced at the hands of the Nazis.  Her conviction that this ‘helpless God (whom we view as omnipotent) has to be protected by us.’  I have asked myself many times, as countless others have, where was God amongst the chaos of Auschwitz, Belsen, Ravensbrook, etc., between 1940-1945?  Abandoned.  It was his chosen people being persecuted for their race and faith!  The Final Solution: 1.5 million Jews died in Auschwitz.  Just for your interest, I enclose my impressions (edited from her larger article, Ed.) at the time.

I walked with my friends to the old Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz, which is far less opulent, in contrast to the city centre.  We visited a photographic exhibition in a synagogue.  This depicted the life local Jewish families prior to 1940 - everyday men, women and children who would eventually be caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust.  I did sign the visitor's book, denoting that I was from Gwynedd, Cymru.  I felt as if I was doing this on behalf of us all here in Bala...

The name Auschwitz-Birkenau is synonymous with death; that organised, most callous, calculated mass-murder of the Jews in Europe between 1940 and 1945.  They were perceived by the Nazis to be less than vermin and were consequently treated as such.  Other groups considered 'different' targeted by the Nazis, included: political dissidents, the intelligentsia, the old, the mentally infirm, homosexuals and Romanies.  No respect was shown, either, to priests, monks or nuns - they were 'dangerous' since they could influence others, and many died for their beliefs in the camps.

I was aware of the extreme discomfort in the pit of my stomach and a feeling of sadness, equated to grief, as I travelled with my friends by coach towards the town of Oswiecim (the polish name for Auschwitz)  that morning in March.  The journey took an hour from Kracow along worn, bumpy roads.  The day was cold and grey; freezing sleet began to fall form a leaden sky.  We drove through flat, sometimes sparsely wooded, countryside, dotted about with disused building and run-down farms.  As we approached the town we saw ugly apartment blocks built during the time of communism - these were still in use...
The first stop was Birkenau.  We saw line upon line of wooden huts disappearing into the distance, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and watch towers; all were completely exposed to the elements since the land is open and treeless.  I shuddered upon seeing the railway lines leading to both Birkenau and Auschwitz...

Auschwitz itself is nearby.  The site was chosen by the Nazis as it was originally a barracks for Polish soldiers.  The red brick buildings were already in situ and, therefore, suitable as a concentration camp.

As a group we passed through the notorious gate of this most infamous place of degradation and suffering.  Cynically, written above the gate, were the words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' meaning 'Work brings Freedom'.
The focus here was much on the museum, housed in one of the camp's buildings.  This was a place of complete horror for me upon realising that approximately 1.5 million people perished here from either starvation, disease, exhaustion or by the bullet...

A memory I shall hold dear is that of a Polish monk, who sacrificed his life during a selection process for a fellow prisoner who had a wife and children.  We saw the cell in which he had been occupied whilst awaiting his death.  He was duly canonised many years later by the late Pope John Paul II, himself being Polish.
There is no religious memorial of any kind at Auschwitz-Birkenau; no focal point to pray. "The place is a memorial in itself" commented the guide.  Liberation by the Russians came in 1945 for some; for others it was too late.

A question asked, obvious it may seem, has to be 'where was God in this chaos?'  The only answer, or explanation, must be that humanity is given choices in life, for good and for evil. The Nazis chose evil and death.