The Via Crucis at Auschwitz

At the Golgotha of Auschwitz for peace

A Via Crucis in the symbolic place of the Holocaust to respond to Pope Francis’ appeal for peace. Anna from Krakow, who had not dared to visit the concentration camp for a long time, recounts the event.

More than twenty years have passed since I moved to Krakow. Since then, I have occasionally thought of going to the nearby Auschwitz German Concentration Camp Museum to pay my respects to the victims of the Holocaust. But I could never make up my mind. Just the thought of the crimes committed there and the suffering of so many people who went through that man-made hell made me shiver. It was terrifying to think that man could do this to his fellow man. It was as if I was afraid to become aware that every human being, and therefore I too, is potentially capable of so much evil, injustice, pettiness, cowardice, hatred… I once spoke of my fears to a dear friend and he, in turn, told me about his experience at the Via Crucis in the former camp, led by Fr. Manfred Deselaers, of the Auschwitz Center for Dialogue and Prayer. He encouraged me to take advantage of this opportunity because, as he told me, “if you do not have faith it is impossible to be in that place without losing hope.”

When the head of our community asked how we could accept Pope Francis' appeal from 15 October 2022 to be peacemakers with him, the thought of the Via Crucis at Auschwitz came back to mind and – albeit with some hesitation – I proposed the gesture to my CL friends. During the trip I was quite tense and many questions were whirling in my head: how can one stand in the face of such a gigantic evil? Is there an unshakable hope? Is it really possible to overcome evil, since there are always wars in the world? What gives life meaning that survives the pitch of darkness? Is peace possible? That place remains the most atrocious I have ever seen so far. My friend was right: without faith it is impossible to see this place, without faith there is no room for hope, for a glimmer of meaning. For this I am grateful for the Via Crucis and for the fact that we were able to follow Fr. Manfred, who briefly described each of the places we passed through, but above all he invited us to enter into dialogue with this place during meditation, with our hearts, with the suffering Christ and with the other people (visitors of the camp) that we would meet along the way.

For me, what was important were the memories of the former prisoners of the camp, read at each station (which indicated so clearly how their stay in the camp had been their Golgotha), referring back to the Passion of Christ, and the prayer which connected the past with the present. In the testimonies I sometimes recognized the same Presence that I have also encountered, which allowed the prisoners to survive the worst moments and to preserve their dignity in an experience of total annihilation. For example, at the sixth station (Veronica wipes the face of Jesus), we read the following reflection: «Zofia Pohorecka, a twenty-year-old girl, was a prisoner in the Birkenau women's camp. For many years after the war she met with German youth groups. She often said she survived only thanks to her friends who nursed her when she was seriously ill. She talked about how tenderness, friendship and love had given her the strength to survive. Thus, even in this terrible place of human suffering, misery and humiliation, gestures of kindness were not lacking, which here became heroic acts. Let us learn from those people not to resign ourselves to evil, to sin. O God, Veronica supported Jesus in His pain. Help us so that, even in the midst of the brutality of daily life, we do not lose the ability to love our neighbor unselfishly".

I thought of the friends I had arrived there with and spontaneously began to thank God for all of them, because I realized that they represented the same gift to my life as the friends of the then 20-year-old Zofia had been. Without them, I probably would not have crossed the gates of the camp for a long time to come, but would everyday life without them have tasted the same, where would my hope have been placed, and how would it have been possible to overcome the daily challenges? Again, it suddenly occurred to me that the word "faith" in Polish also means "companionship", the concrete people with whom I live. With a faith conceived in this way, it becomes possible even to walk in a concentration camp.

In the silence we met other visitors, including groups of young Jews from Spain and the United States. Some sang hymns, a custom – Fr. Manfred explained to us – which has been preserved thanks to the memories of many prisoners who drew hope and encouragement from the singing of psalms sung by the rabbis who were in the camp. So they also sang there… I have often underestimated the value of true singing, which, if it reaches the heart, has the power to restore life. What is this song? What would I wholeheartedly sing about here? The psalms and Povera Voce come to mind…

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The last station, XV: "Faith in the Resurrection". A weeping Jewish woman, about twenty years old, stood at the exit, looking at the camp as if she could not tear herself away. For a moment our eyes met. I approached her and we started talking. She lives in the United States, she told me that during the Second World War most of her family had died in this camp and she had come here to pray. When it was time to part, I told her that I too had come to pray. I was reminded of another farewell from a few months ago, when I said goodbye to a Ukrainian family at the Krakow train station, who had stayed at our house after the war broke out. They were very eager to return home, even though their country was still ravaged by war. It was difficult for me: “letting them go” towards such a danger seemed almost surreal. I remember the last words I said as we said goodbye at the foot of the departing train: "Wars will end when we all recognize that we are brothers and sisters because we have only one Father". One day it will finally happen.

Anna, Krakow