Lessons from Auschwitz


(In light of the feasts of Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, here is a re-post of a reflection I wrote upon my own visit there as part of a parish pilgrimage to Poland in 2015).

To be honest, I was not fully aware until I came to Auschwitz a few years ago while on pilgrimage in Poland that there was a whole city by that name, but one that retains the Polish original, Oswiecim.  It is actually a pleasant town, which I discovered in an early morning run around the central, mediaeval quarters. Auschwitz was the Germanic form given the city when it was overtaken and occupied by the German Reich at the start of war, in 1939. Almost immediately, the Nazis decided, due to its central location, to use the city as a ‘concentration camp’, where they would ‘concentrate’, or put in once place, all the most subversive prisoners (at least in their understanding). They chose a former Polish army barracks as their site, evacuating the houses and their Polish inhabitants, for miles around.

Eventually, the camp grew to house not just political prisoners, but the undesirables, all those whom Hitler’s regime deemed ‘enemies of the State’, primarily Jews, but also Catholics (priests in particular), Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and anyone who was either considered an Untermensch, or who would not assimilate to the radical, racist Nazi ideology.


In January of 1942, Hitler declared his ‘final solution’, to rid Germany (whose hegemony by this time now included most of Europe) of all those he considered untermenschen simply by killing them all. Thus, the transformation of Auschwitz from a prison to a highly efficient (if ‘efficient’ is a bon mot in such a case) death camp.  Ostensibly, it would always retain its nominal purpose as a ‘labour prison’. Hence the infamous sign above the entrance Arbeit macht frie, ‘work will set you free’, a curious anti-slogan of Christ’s words that it is the truth that sets you free.  The motto itself is a lie, piled upon all the other Nazi lies, for no one was ever set free from Auschwitz; the inmates were either worked to death, or until they were unfit for work and then put to death. Many, especially women, children and the elderly, were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival. Very few of the many thousands of prisoners ever escaped.

Soon, the sheer number of prisoners deported to Auschwitz required the Nazis to construct a much larger death-camp, Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, a few miles away, with plans for a third camp towards the end of the war.

What strikes one upon first seeing Auschwitz, or at least what struck me, is the blandness and forlornness of it all: It is smaller than I expected, at least Auschwitz I, with the nondescript look of just what it is (or was), an army barracks.  Rows of red buildings all the same, but surrounded by an ominous (and electrified) barbed wire fence.  I imagine it would look at lot more sinister with hundreds of heavily-armed SS guards milling around.

I was also a bit taken aback (and forgive me for saying this, but I also got the same feeling in the Holy Land) was the ‘toursity’ feel to the place.  I pondered this prior to our arrival, and hesitated even going on the tour. Sure enough, when our coach pulled in, there were dozens of other buses, with hundreds of people, including many students of various ages, lining up to get in. And this was a drizzly day in the middle of the week.

I have reservations about Auschwitz as a quasi-tourist attraction, and a ‘place to see’ in one’s visit to Poland.  There is, of course, a macabre fascination with evil in our world, but I was more concerned with a possible, more insidious, lesson, one that I hope all those tourists and students (myself among them) are not getting: namely, that they have visited the ‘site of the embodiment of all evil’, taken it in, been there, done that, and now on to the next thing.  There is the danger of externalizing, even historicizing, evil.  That is, so long as we don’t become Nazis, we are all right, perfectly fine, nothing to see here.

To put it another way, we should beware of becoming like the Pharisee at the front of the synagogue in the parable, telling God how good he we are, perfectly complacent, and that we are not like that ‘tax collector’ at the back of the church.

The sad fact is that we are all potential ‘Nazis’, and the darkness even of demonic sin lurks within each of our hearts.  Those who adopted Hitler’s National Socialist philosophy slid gradually into greater and greater evil.  Let us not forget that the Nazi regime began their efficient killing machine with ‘compassionate’ euthanasia, in hospitals, a practice now fully legalized now in Canada, and on the rise.

People seem certain that we as a society could never repeat Auschwitz, no, not us. Perhaps not in the same concrete way, for history, pace Santayana, never exactly repeats itself, but the anti-Christian and anti-human spirit that gave rise to the horrors of the death camps and gas chambers, now evident in a more ‘sanitary’ and ‘humane’ way in the abortion mills  and euthanasia centres dotting Europe and North America, will be with us until the end of time.

The truth is that we should beware of externalizing evil, but understand it for what it is, a choice for darkness over light, for falsity over truth, in each individual human heart.   The buildings are not evil; they are now back to being buildings, and Aushcwitz is now, once again, Oswiecim, a Polish city.  Sure enough, the site of Auschwitz evokes and reminds us of the indescribable sufferings of its victims, the evil choices the SS commandants and guards made in running the camp, and the choices also made by all those who saw the evil and did nothing, or not enough, to stop it.  As long as people understand the site for what it is, it is a sombre and necessary reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.

Towards the end of our tour, our guide, a young-ish Polish man in his late-twenties or early-thirties, showed us a gallows, on which the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudoph Hoess, was hung after being captured, turned over to and tried by the Polish authorities soon after the war.  I asked if he had repented, and the guide emphatically declared he had not, that Hoess had stuck to his self-righteous belief in what he had done to the bitter end.

Something rang false about that, so afterward at the hotel, I found and read an address given by John Jay Hughes at Seton Hall Univesity in 1998 , which I highly recommend reading for its insight not only into Rudolph Hoess, but also the Nazi ideology and how a soul could descend into such evil.  The truth is that not only did the former commandant repent, but, a lapsed Catholic who had rejected his faith in his youth, he made a confession to a Jesuit priest (many of whose confreres had died in Auschwitz), after which he broke down and wept. He wrote letters of repentance to his family, and to the Polish people themselves for all the suffering he had caused; although he claimed not to have known of all of the abuses at the camp, he took full responsibility for what he done, and what had been done. He received Holy Communion, and went to his death with apparent equanimity.

Höss on the gallows, immediately before his execution

One of the primary things that had moved him to repent was the fair and just treatment he had received from his Polish jailers, many of whose relatives and friends he had helped to kill, and some who had even been inmates at Auschwitz.  It slowly dawned on Hoess that it was their Catholic faith, the very faith he had rejected, that moved them to show such mercy.

Afterward, on that pilgrimage, we visited the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, just outside Cracow, a city not too far from Auschwitz, but the very antithesis of it spiritually. One of the messages of Saint Faustina’s revelations is that God’s love and mercy are infinite, extending to all men, and no sin unforgiveable, except the refusal to ask for forgiveness and final despair.

We can even hope that Rudoph Hoess, in his own limited way, realized this.  God’s mercy, however, often works through our own individuals choices, and, like the faithful Polish jaliers and the Jesuit priest, even one act of kindness, one prayer, one sacrifice, can lead to the conversion of a heart hardened in sin.

On this memorial of the martyr Maximilian Kolbe, and the Vigil of the solemnity of Pentecost, we should recall that good and evil are not in places, nor even in history, but in the depth of the human heart, discerned only by the Holy Spirit of God.  The greatest evil of Auschwitz was the very rejection of this ‘Spirit of God’ in the hearts of individual men.  And that is why the main lesson of Auschwitz is that in the face of our own society’s descent into evil, we must strive to keep our own conscience clear, ordered to the Good.  Of course, we must resist external evil, but most of all the evil within our own hearts, even, if need be, like Father Maximilian – whose own holy death at Auschwitz led to his SS guards declaring they had never seen anything like it – to the point of shedding our blood.