On Tuesday evening we had a lecture by Pfr. Dr. Manfred Deselaers, who was for more than 20 years, the only German staying in Oswiecim, close to the Auschwitz Birkenau camp. He is a catholic priest who welcomes visitors from all nationalities to the center for Dialogue and Prayer the whole year long. Dr. Deselaers tackled questions that certainly most of us ask ourselves about Auschwitz, such as: what was Auschwitz before and what has it become now ? He first explained to us that in order to get closer to possible answers to these questions, we have to "listen to the voice of this place" and to listen to survivors' testimonies as listening to their accounts is the closest that we can get to understanding what Auschwitz was. The power of their words, however, can never tell the entire story, as the moral and physical wounds of the camp are felt deeply and differently by each person. And although we have an understanding of the words and concepts they describe now, we have not experienced them. We know the "raw" facts and figures: more than 900,000 prisoners died in the camp and the gas chambers and most of them were sent directly to Zyklon B "showers" on arrival.
Yet we still can not grasp how life was like in the camps, "what it meant to be a prisoner", as Dr. Deselaers said. We cannot grasp what is it like, morally and physically, to experience dehumanization, loss of human relationships, cold and windy winters and to wear nothing but used, light clothes and to experience a loss of identity, to name but few of the ongoings of the camps. Our understandings of the situation also differ according to the way we have been taught about this in school, conversations we have had with our families or the reading we have done, for instance. Dr Deselaers taught us the German, Jewish Israeli and Polish perspectives and feelings about what happened in the camps. All these precious insights made me reflect on how I understood the camps before coming here and taking part in this project. As far as I can remember, the first time I was exposed to the subject of the concentration happened through my primary-school history books. I remember the conversations that followed with my friends and family. I read Anne Frank's diary a bit later and I knew it was horrifying but I did not quite understand why while I was reading it. I felt a sense of unease that I could not explain, the feeling that something was deeply wrong. It was hard to grasp that this diary was not a fiction novel, and that the main character is a real life person who never came back from the camps. In high school we began to study this issue in more depth and watched several documentaries like "Nacht und Nebel". Pictures were put to the words previously read, making them more "true". I decided then to read Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and books written by survivors ( such as Primo Levi, Jorge Semprun..) These texts pave the way to a better understanding, but some fundamental questions still remain unanswered. What is to blame? Is it the extreme bureaucratization of society in a world becoming 'rational' (here in opposition to the personal feelings and values) where we no longer think critically of the consequences of actions and lack of actions? Or the hatred in human beings? Or is it a lack of solidarity amongst people? It is hard to accept that you cannot explain what had happened and that all this madness was true. However, with projects like this one organized by Maximilian Kolbe Werk we are able to hear the voices of those who were directly affected by these events. Listening to the camp survivors raises respect and humility and the will to spread the stories that illustrate and bring alive the figures and facts written in our history books.