A glance at Auschwitz and Blessed John Paul II

By Emily Antenucci

OSWIECIM, Poland — Imagine you are standing, eyes closed, in a field stretching for miles. It’s green with grass and trees, colorful with flowers, the air filled with the songs of birds chirping their favorite tune. Now you open your eyes and you see: debris, which is burnt black and stacked tall in piles; barbed wire fences enclosing you from the rest of the world; and the ruins of wooden and brick barracks occupying the green fields around you.

That’s what Oswiecim looks like, although the beauty and blooming nature are painted over with an atmosphere of darkness and despair. The fields and ruins are infamously known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, site of the two largest concentration camps developed by the Nazis in World War II. I was there this past weekend. Yes, they are notorious and yes, it is very emotional to be there, but I highly recommend visiting because, truth be told, no words can express the experience.

 

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The view from the stairs of Block 10-11 in Auschwitz I. (CNS photo/Emily Antenucci)

As someone who learned about World War II in school, I knew it would be impossible to truly fathom the magnitude of the horrors that took place at Auschwitz. Having walked along the train tracks where the prisoners were dropped off and having been inside the blocks and barracks where the prisoners lived, I realized that my previous thinking was a massive understatement. Where in school, we learn by memorizing terms and statistics, after this past weekend I can now place meaning behind those definitions and stories behind those numbers. An informative, powerful experience, I still found myself leaving the camps even more distraught and confused than when I first arrived.

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The view from the train platform where prisoners were dropped off inside Birkenau. (CNS photo/Emily Antenucci)

Constant questions popped into my head during my visit. One of my immediate thoughts while walking the grounds was: Where was the church when this was happening? While I know this controversial topic has been discussed and debated for decades, it still plagued me. Almost immediately, I thought of Blessed John Paul II, who was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla and was archbishop of Krakow before being elected pope. He grew up miles from these camps during that fear-filled period and was influenced by the Holocaust and World War II in many ways.

Living and working so closely with those affected, he carried his experiences with him when he was elected pope. For example, he was the first pope to visit Auschwitz and the first pope in memory to enter a synagogue. He repeatedly asked forgiveness for Catholics’ past acts of antisemitism in an effort to move in a new direction of friendship.

Set to be canonized at the end of April, Pope John Paul set the standard for his successors to continue the tradition of spreading peace and understanding between Catholicism and Judaism. While there are still many unanswered questions in my mind revolving around the church and World War II, focusing my thoughts on how Pope John Paul took it upon himself to take action is something that helped ease my mind a bit.

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A written background of Blessed John Paul II presented in the Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Emily Antenucci)

Visiting Auschwitz and Krakow, I was reminded not only of the horror people are capable of committing, but I was also in the place where Blessed John Paul began his journey of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and I was there just two weeks before his canonization.

Now imagine you are standing in that same green field, eyes closed, knowing the unspeakable brutality that went on in the exact place where you stand. How can we imitate the growing flowers that are bringing new life from a place of death? Who is working today to make sure such atrocities never happen again? What work is there left to do?

Emily Antenucci is an intern in the CNS Rome bureau while she attends Villanova University’s Rome program.

 

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Any birthday surprises in store?

POPE BLOWS OUT CANDLE ON BIRTHDAY CAKE

Pope Benedict received a birthday cake at the White House April 16, 2008, when he turned 81. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has yet to reveal what retired Pope Benedict has planned for his 87th birthday today.

It will definitely be low key and most probably include a friendly phone call from Pope Francis, who is always picking up the phone on people’s birthdays.

While Pope Benedict usually liked to keep celebrations simple, the people around him liked to splurge, especially when he visited Washington, D.C., in 2008.

April 16 was his first full day in the United States, and the White House presented him with a gorgeous four-tier lemon cake after opera star Kathleen Battle belted out the “Happy Birthday” song.

Things got really raucous when a group of Bavarians came to the apostolic palace on April 16, 2012. A small band treated the pope to ”oomppah” music and kids did the skirt-swirling, shoe-stomping, thigh-slapping “Schuhplattler” dance.

CHILDREN DRESSED IN TRADITIONAL BAVARIAN GARB DANCE FOR POPE BENEDICT ON 85TH BIRTHDAY

Children in traditional Bavarian dress danced for Pope Benedict on his 85th birthday in the Clementine Hall in 2012. (CNS photo/Gregorio Borgia, pool via Reuters)

Dressed in traditional costume, the children presented the pope with white flowers and a maypole covered with colorful ribbons and recited a German birthday poem.

Remember, you can send greetings and well-wishes to:

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Mater Ecclesiae monastery

00120 Vatican City State

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