I was in Kraków, and I knew I would go to Auschwitz sometime, but I didn’t know when. It was inevitable but unplanned—you can’t plan to visit Auschwitz like you plan to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Then I was wandering around the streets of Kraków one morning and suddenly I hailed a cab. After I told the driver where I wanted to go, it was silence the whole way, over an hour from Kraków. He stopped across the street; I paid him and got out without a word—what do you say about Auschwitz?
It was silent. Not audibly silent, as there were plenty of people mulling about, and tour buses waiting with engines and air conditioners on, but physically silent. It felt silent. What struck me more than the silence, though, was the sterility. Indeed, the place was not only sterile; it was banal: parking lots, tour buses, a clerk, gift shops. The visitor—I hesitate to say “tourist”—is accompanied to the infamous gate by large freestanding photographs of familiar political and cultural dignitaries who have visited the site. It was inappropriate, to be greeted on my way to the gravesite of millions of helpless unknowns by a gallery of the rich, famous, and powerful.
After the red carpet row of photos I stopped to collect and prepare myself, to make myself spiritually naked before I passed beneath the gate. How to walk? Should I crawl? But there was no way to crawl low enough, so I walked—that seemed better: to stand. Imagination and sympathy fail beneath the gate; only sorrow and love, both infinite, are enough. And so, in silence, I passed under.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I wanted to weep, but weeping was out of place here—not on account of reverence, not on account of horror, but because Auschwitz was more like a museum than a mausoleum. The cell blocks had been converted into first-class exhibits, complete with tour guides and multimedia installations. It was all information, all data. No one weeps at data.
The sterility was unsettling. I wanted to catch the eye of another visitor, to empathize, to find some communion in our sorrow, but everyone was distant: reading and listening, instead of feeling and grieving. But I couldn’t blame them; their demeanor was not only encouraged, but designed. Whoever put the museum together, they wanted you to know. And for good reason, of course; so I couldn’t blame them either. But I had not come here to learn some new facts: there is no amount of information that can ever come close to comprehending the tragedy of even one lost human life, much less this place.
I was no longer sure why I had come, but I knew that I wanted to weep and to pray. And I knew that this was somehow not the place for tears and prayer. I wanted to get away, but everywhere I went there were crowds of people taking photos. It reminded me of visiting the Louvre—Auschwitz should not remind me of the Louvre. I became self-conscious of my sorrow. The place was so sterile, so lifeless—indeed, so deathless—that the visitors treated it like any other place on their list of tourist attractions. Where I expected weeping there was either silence, or worse: chatter. It was literally and metaphorically dumb.
In the far corner, near the end of the “tour,” between Block 10 and Block 11, is the Execution Wall, where tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of prisoners were tortured and killed. Many tens of thousands of people died right here—as the tour guides explained in a cacophony of languages (Press “1” for German; “2” for English—no option to press “0” for Reverence).
I tried to keep my museum-etiquette composure as I followed the tour groups into the most remote of all the buildings, Block 11, the “Death Block,” which was used exclusively to torture and kill people. I tried to imagine walking down those stairs and knowing that I would not walk up again. But how can one imagine that?
This place was the horror or horrors. It was more, and worse, than killing. It was the scene of slow, meticulous, aesthetic execution. The walls were absolutely grey, infinitely grey, emphatically grey. I don’t know if I have ever felt more desperate than I did in that cell block, watching anesthetized people take sterile photos of sanitized death chambers.
The walls were hopelessly grey.
But on the lowest floor, along the outside wall, near the very end, was Cell 21. Cell 21 is architecturally indistinguishable from the other cells. But Cell 21 is where a St. Maximillian Kolbe was placed, after offering up his life in exchange for that of a condemned man who was a husband and a father.
Cell 21 was a starvation chamber. In that chamber, Father Maximillion Kolbe lived for two weeks without food or water, singing hymns with the other prisoners and saying mass every day.
But I didn’t know any of that at the time because I wasn’t part of the tour. So I was shocked when I came upon this cell. For here, in a starvation chamber in the Death Block of Auschwitz, here, at the very end of horror, all of a sudden: Flowers!
Amidst all the grey, all the death, all the sterility and the apathy, against all hope—a simple vase of flowers! I have never wept like I wept in that moment. I fell hard to my knees and I wept the tears I had been longing to weep the entire time, even if I didn’t know it: for they were tears of joy! There was beauty here, too, even here.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about St. Maximilian Kolbe. He introduced himself to me as flowers. But is that not how the saints always meet us? As stars in the night? As the splash of color against a hopeless grey? As hope, as love?
I cannot imagine a more fitting memorial for a saint, for the martyr whom Pope St. John Paul II called “The Saint of our Difficult Century,” than this simple vase of living flowers in a museum of death. This is love exalted upon the cross!
I cannot say that I left Auschwitz with a deeper understanding of death, despair and hopelessness. But I did leave with a deeper understanding of life, and hope, and love. I learned that a single living flower is more enduring than the entire Nazi machine of death; for death will die—and indeed, it has died—while love endures forever.
And I found something to say about Auschwitz: Saint Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us—and send us flowers.