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Pope Francis in Auschwitz: visit amidst “dehumanization” and oases of hope

A preview of the places to be visited by Pope Francis upon his third day in Poland, due to open with a silent remembrance journey, to say that the horrors of Auschwitz must never happen again. Already 300 thousand young people have visited the Museum during the WYD. A dialogue Centre for Jews, Poles and Germans stands a few steps away from the extermination camps. The Missionaries of the Immaculata-Father Kolbe in Harmeze are hosting youths from Bolivia, Italy and Brazil. They house an exhibit on Marian Kolodzej, Auschwitz prisoner number 432. Silent Via Crucis in Birkenau ahead of the Via Crucis with the Pope

foto SIR/Marco Calvarese

A preview of the places to be visited by Pope Francis upon his third day in Poland, due to open with a silent remembrance journey, to say that the horrors of Auschwitz must never happen again. Already 300 thousand young people have visited the Museum during the WYD. A dialogue Centre for Jews, Poles and Germans stands a few steps away from the extermination camps. The Missionaries of the Immaculata-Father Kolbe in Harmeze are hosting youths from Bolivia, Italy and Brazil. They house an exhibit on Marian Kolodzej, Auschwitz prisoner number 432. Silent Via Crucis in Birkenau ahead of the Via Crucis with the Pope

Today the long path leading to Auschwitz extermination camp is green. Yet, not even the lushness of the vegetation, in this faintly sombre summer dawn, manages to erase the image of the deportees standing in long lines on dusty – or muddy, depending on atmospheric clemency – unpaved roads, forced to march towards their destiny of death. The first thing that stands before our sight is the impressive silhouette of Crematorium number 1 on the left side of the now infamous inscription “Arbeit macht frei”. It’s the gateway of Francis, who on Friday will be the third pope to cross the gates of the most infamous death camp in the world, where almost two million Jews, and more, were exterminated out of hatred of humankind, exceeding their faith. Auschwitz is the Apocalypse created by man, the barrenness – planned in the smallest details – of mankind, with crematory ovens like a Last Judgment. In this place, until 71 years ago, the term “dehumanization” was conveyed in all of its most atrocious forms. Yet, beyond the abyss of death and despair, “only love creates”, assured Father Kolbe, in whose cell at “block 21” the Pope will pause in silent prayer: because evil “inexorably tends to repeat itself.” Thus, near the ashes of the burnt corpses thrown into swamps, woods and marshes surrounding Auschwitz and Birkenau, transforming this area into a tombless cemetery, there are oases of peace and prayer, whereby a spirit of welcome and dialogue become the antidote to the return from the past. It’s an ever-incumbent risk, testified by the dismal atmosphere of terrorism and violence our times are laden with.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum is visited by approximately one million people each year. Only during the WYD in Krakow, the youths arriving from 200 world Countries numbered 300 thousand.

The extensive, peaceful affluence of pilgrims has led to “ring-fence” the entire area, forcing organizers to close off entrance of young people into the “blocks” – 28 blocks in Auschwitz alone – but the youths were still enabled to complete their visit through large screens reproducing, along Auschwitz 1 extermination camp, its interior. Thus in the next days the young population in Krakow will have the possibility of following the same path planned in Pope Francis’ visit of Friday 29, the third day of the Pope’s 15th international journey.

The meetings dubbed as “At the threshold of Auschwitz”, are set to “celebrate the triumph of humanity that gives us hope for a better future.” The initiative was presented by Fr Jan Novak, director of the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim, a few steps away from Auschwitz concentration camp. “Jewish and Christian former deportees meet with German and Polish youths, professors, priests, and Rabbi from world Countries.” “In most cases – went on the director of the Centre coordinated by the Krakow Foundation, established in 1992 on the initiative of Cardinal Macharski, in conjunction with European bishops and Jewish leaders – these are meeting between people suffering from open wounds. The Jews are wounded by the memories of the attempted annihilation of their People. The Poles reminisce over the frequent violation of their national sovereignty by foreign powers, while the Germans suffer from the awareness of the responsibilities that blemish their national history.” This situation prompted the proposal of a “place for reflection, formation, exchange of ideas and prayer”, regardless of religious affiliation:

For what’s important is to “rebuild human dignity, step by step, as much as possible.”

Fr Kolbe, who asked to die to save the life of a family man, was prisoner number 16.670. Marian Kolodzej, Polish artist and scenographer, deported to Auschwitz concentration camp on June 14 1940, when he was only 17, was given number 432. He arrived in the first transport of Poles to the “blocks”, where he spent five years and survived, witnessing the episode when the Franciscan founder of the Militia of the Immaculata stepped forward and offered his life to the Nazis. For 50 years Marian –who died in 2009 – blanked out his forced detainment in horror, but after a stroke his memories have surfaced again in full. The contents became an exhibit, “Memory cliché, labyrinth”, on display at the Centre run by the Missionaries of the Immaculata-Father Kolbe in Harmeze, currently hosting young boys and girls who arrived from Bolivia, Brazil and Italy to participate in the WYD. “Words encompassed in a drawing”, as the author described, who dedicated 15 years of his life to fulfil a promise – blanked out and re-emerged at a later stage – to his fellow prisoners:

“If you survive you have to provide a testimony.”

One hundred eighty hectares, three kilometers from Auschwitz. Here stands Birkenau, or “Auschwitz 2”, where the Nazis exterminated the highest number of Jews. It will be the second leg of the third day of Pope Francis’ visit to Poland, after the silent visit to “Auschwitz 1”. Bergoglio will visit the monument of the Nazi Victims from world Nations, marked by tombstones in the 23 languages spoken by the prisoners. He will place a lit candle before each one and will meet 25 “Righteous of the Nations.” In the meantime, a flow of pilgrims from world Countries have gathered in a silent walk towards the tombstones. Guided by their priests, they will follow the 14 stations of the “Via Crucis” with the Pope next Friday. In the background, the remains of one of the four crematoriums and the red-bricked chambers where the same prisoners disposed of the corpses of the gas chamber victims.

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