"Auschwitz is something else, always something else. It is a universe outside the universe, a creation that exists parallel to creation. Auschwitz lies on the other side of life and on the other side of death. There, one lives differently, one walks differently, one dreams differently. Auschwitz represents the negation and failure of human progress; it negates the human design and casts doubts on its validity." -- Elie Wiesel.
For any visitor to Auschwitz and Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Wiesel's words ring true -- yet only in the sense that Auschwitz can only be "experienced" as a historical artifact.
Walking upon the same ground as an endless stream of doomed souls; hearing strings of docent stories about Nazi cruelty and sadism; witnessing rooms filled with human hair, piles of spectacles, mountains of shoes, all from the deceased -- words will fail the most articulate of visitors.
One cannot understand the scope of the Holocaust without visiting Birkenau, for the sheer size of the camp delivers a single message. This place existed for one reason: the mass extermination of human beings.
Here, senses become heightened. One becomes aware of the silence.
Every footstep feels sacred, for so many walked along the same ground in despair, walking toward death. There is grass, yet one does not see the grass, only the mud and dirt and filth of the early 1940s.
The author snapped these Auschwitz photos on a recent memorable visit to Germany.
The most noticeable sound is the chilling shuffling of footsteps, perhaps not very different from the footsteps then. One becomes aware of the very shoes on one's feet, a comparative luxury. One sees the barbed wire, the fences, the watchtowers, and one is reminded of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. There, one descends into a massive, undulating sinkhole, containing row upon row of variable-shaped concrete structures.
The only way out there, as here, is up to the sky.
Here, even emotions do not exist. The sheer scope and depth of this abomination transcends sadness or despair.
One merely becomes numb.
Here, amid the ruins of human progress, a question comes to mind -- one asked often: "Where was God in the Holocaust?"
Some point to Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,300 Jews from the camps. Others point to less well-known "righteous Gentiles" who did the same.
So stark, so haunting ... so many lives lost.
For others, there is the little-known story of Saint Maximillian Kolbe. The Church canonized this Polish Conventual Franciscan friar in 1982, partially because of an extraordinary event that occurred in Auschwitz.
Kolbe's life had already been extraordinary. He refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste, which would have been an admission of German ancestry and would have permitted him the rights of a German citizen.
Instead, he remained at his monastery, and sheltered 2,000 Jews with his compatriots.
He was sent to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941. Two months later, three prisoners disappeared from the camp. The Nazis selected 10 random prisoners to be starved to death in an underground cell.
One of the men selected was a Polish army sergeant, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who pleaded for mercy.
Maximillian Kolbe's selfless actions represented the best of what man and God can be.
Kolbe volunteered to die in his place.
The horrors of Auschwitz are many, but few bring chills to the bone like the underground torture cells. There were "dark cells," where groups of prisoners were deposited in total darkness, with only tiny holes available to breathe. Many suffocated.
Kolbe and a group of other men were thrown into starvation cells. There, deprived of all hope, of light, and of food, death was certain. Yet Kolbe was not deprived of his faith.
An assistant janitor was an eyewitness to the events in the cell over the next two weeks. Any time the door was opened, Kolbe was either standing or kneeling. He led the men constantly in prayers. After two weeks, all had died ... except for him. The Nazis put him to death with a lethal injection.
Kolbe was named a martyr by , and for good reason. Kolbe's actions were not merely noble and admirable -- they were saintly. They represented the best of what man and God can be.
Six million Jews perished in the Holocaust, yet of the first 69,000 prisoners at Auschwitz, half were Christians. Many more died there as well, and 3 million Christian Poles died in the war.
Today, the world faces more challenges to faith. Jews and Christians alike . In these times, it is worth remembering Saint Maximillian Kolbe, his steadfast faith, and one final piece of his story.
The man saved from the starvation cell, Franciszek Gajowniczek, survived the Holocaust, as did his wife.
He died at age 93.