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 a very emotional experience, but I highly recommend visiting because, truth be told, no words can express the experience.
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.
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.
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.