Sometimes something inside you tells you not to do this or that. I had this feeling a while ago when I visited Auschwitz, the infamous German concentration camp outside Krakow, Poland.
This feeling came upon me when the guide led me into what had been the administration building. In this building, among other things, the authorities dealt with prisoners accused of some infraction or another. The guide showed me the rooms that had been used to interrogate prisoners, usually with torture involved.
And then he showed me the steps to the basement. There I really hesitated, but anyway, I went down the steps. On the landing, my reluctance was confirmed. A man was sitting on the steps weeping.
The basement was the place where incorrigible prisoners were kept, and where executions by starvation occurred. In one room, St. Maximilian Kolbe died by being starved, because he asked to take the place of a man, a husband and father, whom the Germans at random had selected for death.
It was unspeakably horrible. More than a million were gassed at Auschwitz — not a merciful death as the Germans conducted it, but, by comparison, not as long as death by starvation. What evil minds, I asked myself, ever concocted the process of killing that took place in this terrifying basement?
The hungerbunker, to use the German title, was not the only terrible place. In the corridor were several concrete structures about the size of telephone booths, except that they had no doors. The openings were relatively small at floor level, about 3 feet in height.
Troublesome prisoners were crammed into these dark chambers like sardines, compelled to stand in quarters so tight that they could hardly breathe. This would go on for hours, maybe days. Finally extracted, survivors who could walk then were taken back to their places in the hard-labor brigade.
I had other opportunities to see German concentration camps from the 1940s. Knowing what I might see, I had declined all suggestions to visit any of them. I finally went to Auschwitz because I thought I owed it to Our Sunday Visitor’s readers. I needed to be able to describe the horror as seen firsthand. For three days after seeing Auschwitz, I had nightmares, which has never been a problem for me, and I had no appetite, but on balance it was worth it. I am able to speak and to write with knowledge.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, of course, was a Polish Catholic. The overwhelming majority of victims, however, were Jews.
I always tell people who downplay the horror of the Holocaust that reports are not at all exaggerated. Few that I have seen truly succeed in capturing the unbelievable inhumanity, the utter mercilessness, that were underway.
Citing other atrocities, calling to mind the terrors brought upon other ethnic groups, such as the Poles, and even noting the millions of abortions, have value in exposing how diabolical human actions can be, but they cannot diminish the depravity of the onslaught against the Jews that was all across Europe 70 years ago.
Remember, also, Auschwitz was only one part of an entire network of similar operations, and the camps, of course, were merely the most atrocious examples of the persecution of Jews at that period.
Precisely because of that period, but also because of the long history of outrages being visited upon Jews, the incident at the kosher grocery in Paris recently has to be seen not as isolated but a fearful repetition of evil. Anti-Semitism lives.
I have returned to Auschwitz several times since that first horrible visit. I go back to learn and to think and to pray. Never again, I hope.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.