Friday, 17 September 2010

Of Westminster... and Auschwitz

The Pope's visit seems to be going very, very well. With Fr Tomy I just watched Evening Prayer from Westminster Abbey, which was very beautiful. Rowan Williams quoted from Pope John Paul's letter on Christian Unity "Ut Unum Sint", which explored among other things the role of the Pope himself, so it was interesting that he quoted it. This morning I caught part of Benedict's meeting with youth and children, and that seemed very joyful too. I missed the Westminster Hall address, but hope to catch up on that also. So far, it seems all the media searching for headlines has been lost among the peace and joy of the Holy Father's visit.
"Peace and joy" are the opposite of what we felt in Poland when we visited Auschwitz. At Auschwitz I, where the museum is housed in the former prison blocks, we were led by our excellent guide through the exact nature of what Auschwitz was and how it worked. Then we witnessed the piles of hundreds and thousands of shoes, glasses, hair, pots and pans and more... Next we filed through the Block of Death, including the starvation cell where St Maximilkian Kolbe perished, and the terrible, terrible "standing cells" where four people were crammed into a tiny dark cell where there was only room to stand - and left there.
And then finally I found myself standing in the gas chamber and the adjacent Crematorium I. The outside was so innocent-looking, like some warehouse (see my photo). Inside was a place of torment; it will stay with me for a long time.
We then moved on to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where all is silent and deadening. The famous railway track passes through the gate and fans out into three branches where the "separations" took place as the poor victims spilled out of the cattle waggons. Most went straight to death, the minority to a few months of unimaginably hard labour. As we stood looking in the rain under a grey sky, the rail tracks seemed like the claws of some terrifying, bloodthirsty Bird of Death.

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