Holiness in the Midst of Holocaust

How Pope John Paul II offered an answer to the horror of the Holocaust. Oct. 23-Nov. 5 issue feature.

(photo: Shutterstock/CNA illustration by Melissa Hartog)

Pope John Paul II offered an answer to the horror of the Holocaust.

“Can it still be a surprise to anyone that the Pope born and brought up in this land, the Pope who came to the See of St. Peter from the diocese in whose territory is situated the camp of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), should have begun his first encyclical with the words ‘Redemptor Hominis’ and should have dedicated it as a whole to the cause of man, to the dignity of man, to the threats to him, and finally to his inalienable rights that can so easily be trampled on and annihilated by his fellowmen?”

Pope John Paul II offered this anguished reflection during his 1979 visit to Auschwitz, located about an hour’s drive from his birthplace in Wadowice. His words exposed the devastating impact of the Nazis’ brutal legacy on the spiritual life of a Pole who knew many victims — Jewish and Christian — who perished in the camps. During the German occupation, a number of his peers in the underground seminary were arrested and died in prison, while a series of seemingly lucky breaks protected him from harm.

During the Second World War, a reported 900,000 Jews were immediately killed, following their arrival at Auschwitz, and another 200,000 perished there, according to incomplete records compiled at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum archives.

Among an estimated 200,000 non-Jews imprisoned at the camp, 165,000 were Catholics, including priests, seminarians and religious. Edith Stein, the Jewish convert and Carmelite nun — Sister Benedicta of the Cross — was executed at Auschwitz in 1942 for the crime of being a Jew. 

It was a gray day when our pilgrim group arrived at the buildings that still contain the devastating evidence of the hundreds of thousands of lives extinguished at Auschwitz.

Our tour guide pointed out piles of shoes and human hair, grotesque reminders of the Nazis’ parallel war against an entire race of people.

Before I passed through the grim buildings and corridors of the camp, it was possible to push away the horror of what transpired here and approach the legacy of Nazi war criminals as a compelling but distant history lesson. It was another matter when I actually walked through the halls once inhabited by half-starved human beings treated like garbage — or even worse, human guinea pigs.

Each visitor to Auschwitz, I suspect, responds with a desperate search for some light to oppose the darkness. The all-pervading desolation called out for some witness to hope.

St. Maximilian Kolbe was transferred to the Auschwitz camp in 1941, branded prisoner 16670. Reportedly, he was given the most dehumanizing tasks and beaten routinely, but still heard confessions and provided Communion to the faithful.

When a prisoner escaped and 10 men were randomly selected for execution as punishment, Father Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a Polish father and husband. He was starved for three weeks before receiving a lethal injection.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” John 1:5 reminds us. When Pope John Paul II visited the camp in 1979, he lit a candle in Kolbe’s cell.

There are those who confront the horror of Auschwitz and rage at a God who was “silent.” As the trains continued to dislodge their human cargo, famished slave laborers struggled to survive the end of the war.

At the end of his life, Jesus asked the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Pope John Paul II has described Auschwitz as “this Golgotha of the modern world.” Yet, despite the desolate silence, there were prisoners who still believed in love and acted on that belief to the end.

John Paul declared Kolbe “the patron saint of our difficult century.” Today, many of us approach the horrors of the past as a cautionary tale that underscores the urgent need to address nascent evil before it explodes into a new regime of state-sponsored violence against a vulnerable class of persons.

But there is another lesson to be learned at Auschwitz. In every circumstance, no matter how desperate, we have a measure of freedom to love, to hope and to believe. At Auschwitz, amid fear, death and suffering, Christ the Redeemer remained present to all who joined their sufferings to his own passion and death on the cross.

That truth shaped John Paul’s message to his fellow Poles, who struggled under the yoke of communism for decades after the camps were liberated. During his visit to Auschwitz, he somberly acknowledged: “Many victories were won [here]. Where the dignity of man was so horribly trampled on, victory was won through faith and love.”

Early Christian pilgrims were the first to visit the graves of martyrs and holy men and women. Our pilgrimage to Auschwitz followed this pattern, in a special way. There, we beseeched God for his forgiveness and prayed for the victims — Jews and Christians, the dead and the survivors. We asked for the intercession of the saints who perished here and for the grace we need to follow their holy example.

This is the final part of Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond’s pilgrimage to Poland.