Introduction for participants of WYD 2016

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"Auschwitz" is the German name for the Polish town of Oświęcim.  When Poland was invaded and conquered in 1939, it was incorporated into the German Reich. In order to eliminate the Polish elite, which could organize the resistance movement, the new German rulers erected the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in June 1940. In the following years it expanded rapidly and was given additional tasks, especially the task of the mass extermination of Jews. The Polish population was expelled from eight villages and these areas were added to the ‘Auschwitz zone of interests’ of 40 km².  Most of the buildings were demolished and farms for agriculture and animal husbandry created. In addition, camps were established in factories, foundries and mines, so that the Auschwitz complex finally included more than 40 sub-camps. The prisoners were no longer treated as human beings. They were given a number instead of their name and had to perform slave labour. Their average survival in the camps was less than one year. Graves do not exist, the ashes of their burnt bodies were scattered.

The following groups of people were deported to Auschwitz: from 1940 about  140,000-150,000 Poles, half of whom were murdered; in 1941, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, at least 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, almost all were murdered; from 1942 under the so-called "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" approximately 1,100,000 Jews from all over Europe, of these more than 900,000 were killed upon arrival in the gas chambers and 100,000 died in the camp; from 1943 around 23,000 Sinti and Roma of whom only 2,000 survived; also other prisoners, mostly political opponents of the Nazis from Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union (Belarus, Russia, Ukraine), France, Yugoslavia and other countries, including Germany and Austria, as well as Bible Students (Jehovah's Witnesses), homosexuals, so called re-education, asocial and criminal prisoners.

In the Memorial Place today we meet people from around the world who are very affected by the memory of Auschwitz. The contexts are different: Jews remember the almost completely successful extermination of the Jewish world in largely Christian Europe, the Holocaust, the Shoah. Poles remember oppression and terror from a neo-pagan Nazi Germany and resistance by a society rooted in Christian values. Citizens from the countries of the former Soviet Union recall the liberation of Europe from fascism by the Soviet Army in the “Great Patriotic War” (WWII). For Germans, Auschwitz is a reminder of the greatest failures in their history and a challenge for moral renewal. And there are many other perspectives of memory here. Today Auschwitz is a warning for the whole world, and people think of references to their own respective situations. The Catholic Church remembers martyrs in the resistance against Nazism, but also its guilt from a tradition of Christian anti-Judaism.

In Auschwitz we touch an open wound that has not healed. This wound has to do with our own identity. Who would I have been at that time? Who am I today in my responsibility before people and before God? This wound has even more to do with our relationships. Auschwitz began with the destruction of the relationships between people; the ‘others’ were not treated as humans. How can confidence between us return? Healing after Auschwitz is therefore a relationship story.

And God? Even Pope Benedict XVI said: " In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence - a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?  How could you tolerate all this?  In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here ... " (28".05.2006).

But this place also holds signs of the presence of God and of humanity. There were victories of love in this world of hatred. In June 1979, Pope John Paul II said:  “In this site of the terrible slaughter [...] Father Maximilian voluntarily offered himself for death in the starvation bunker for a brother, and so won a spiritual victory like that of Christ himself. [...] How many similar victories were here? These victories were made by people of different faiths, different ideologies, certainly not just believers. We want to embrace with a feeling of deepest reverence each of these victories, every manifestation of humanity. They were the negation of a system of systematic negation of humanity. In the place of terrible devastation of humanity and human dignity – there is victory of humanity!”

St. Edith Stein, the Carmelite Sister Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, co-patroness of Europe, was murdered in Auschwitz - Birkenau because of her Jewish ancestry.  Pope John Paul II has said: "From now on, as we celebrate the memory of this new saint from year to year, we must also remember the Shoah, that cruel plan to exterminate a people — a plan to which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters fell victim. May the Lord let his face shine upon them and grant them peace (cf. Nm 6:25f)” (11.10.1998).  "Her voice merged with the cry of all the victims of that appalling tragedy, but at the same time was joined to the cry of Christ on the Cross which gives to human suffering a mysterious and enduring fruitfulness" (1.10.1999).

The Catholic Church and others, since the end of World War II, have engaged in the healing of Christian-Jewish and Polish-German relations. This is also felt in Oświęcim/Auschwitz. Pope Benedict XVI ended his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2006 with the words:  “By God’s grace, together with the purification of memory demanded by this place of horror, a number of initiatives have sprung up with the aim of imposing a limit upon evil and confirming goodness.  Just now I was able to bless the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer.  In the immediate neighbourhood the Carmelite nuns carry on their life of hiddenness, knowing that they are united in a special way to the mystery of Christ’s Cross and reminding us of the faith of Christians, which declares that God himself descended into the hell of suffering and suffers with us.  In Oświęcim is the Centre of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and the International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.  There is also the International House for Meetings of Young people.  Near one of the old Prayer Houses is the Jewish Centre.  Finally the Academy for Human Rights is presently being established.  So there is hope that this place of horror will gradually become a place for constructive thinking, and that remembrance will foster resistance to evil and the triumph of love."

Therefore, the visit to the Memorial Place is not only an educational event but also one of honouring the dead, examination of conscience, confession of faith and opting for a life of reconciliation.  We bring all in prayer before our Merciful God, and we ask for help, that we might be instruments of his peace.

Centrum Dialogu i Modlitwy w Oświęcimiu 2016