Reflections from Auschwitz — Jake Shanley

Article by Jake Shanley, current BIC student

This past summer, I had the chance to travel to Europe for two weeks on a Christian pilgrimage. Every 3 years, 2.5 million young Catholic Christians (usually between 15 to 25 years old) travel to a designated place in the world for an event called “World Youth Day.” This past summer, the destination was Krakow, Poland. While there are many things I could talk about, I want to discuss my time in Auschwitz and how it relates to the theme of the pilgrimage: God’s Mercy.

The concentration camp Auschwitz is located two or so hours outside of Krakow. I’ll attempt to describe our moment there. As you walk into the camp of Auschwitz, the foreboding sign “Arbeit macht frei” hangs over the archway. It’s an obvious lie—“work sets you free”—used by the Nazis to coerce Jewish and other religious and ethnic prisoners to work until their deaths. While walking around one can read signs describing the function of certain buildings. “This was a gas chamber,” or “this was where the Jewish prisoners lived.”

There’s a sign on the corner of a bare wall on one of the buildings, with a picture of a Catholic priest, named Maximilian Kolbe. He had been captured by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz, and ministered to other prisoners with spiritual help during their occupation. One day, a prisoner escaped, and the concentration camp staff decided to execute twelve Jewish prisoners in his place. One man started weeping, crying out that he had a wife and kids, and they would be fatherless and have no way of support for themselves. Maximilian Kolbe stepped out of a group watching the execution, and volunteered to take the man’s place instead. For two weeks, Kolbe and the prisoners were sent to a “starving room,” where they would be starved out until their deaths. Kolbe was the last one to survive, and was injected by the guards with a lethal injection of carbolic acid to finish him off.

Seeing the site of his martyrdom, and all of the other one million Jewish prisoners, begged multiple questions. One we had to ask was this: for a pilgrimage revolving around “God’s Mercy,” where was His Mercy in all of this?

God’s mercy lies in the fact that every single person is made in His image—Nazi ideology distorted this truth. The example of Maximilian Kolbe and similar figures like Dietrich Bonheoffer shows that this truth extends to every person regardless of race, religion, or class. As BIC students, when we read the holy book of a different religion in World Cultures or simply converse with someone we do not agree with, we need to “love our neighbor” and not let differences get in the way seeing every person through the lens of God’s Mercy. Auschwitz did not happen overnight—it occurred from German citizens forgetting to love daily across the differences around them, and recognizing the dignity of all people made in His Image.

Jake Shanley is a sophomore BIC student majoring in philosophy.

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