Esther Murphy, Bernie O’Rourke and Teresa Anne Nagle outside the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim
On Thursday 6th October 2016, Sr. Mary O’Sullivan met Sr. Margaret Corkery (Group Leader), 11 Mercy Sisters and one Mercy Associate at Krakow Airport and accompanied them to the Centre of Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim O[wi)cim to begin a Mercy retreat.
To facilitate the retreat, Sr. Mary had prepared a booklet for Morning and Night Prayer and Mass for each day.
The first morning (Friday) was spent in Auschwitz 1 where Renata, our guide, led us through the camp and described the different harrowing aspects of camp life. We spent moments in prayer in the cell in which St. Maximilian Kolbe died.
Friday afternoon was spent in Birkenau (Auschwitz 2). From the tower at the entrance we got an overview of the camp but due to its vastness we could not see the entire camp. It was here that the majority of those alighting from the trains were selected by the flick of the commander’s thumb and forefinger to go directly for extermination in the gas chambers.
Among them were Edith Stein (St. Benedicta of the Cross) and her sister Rosa. As we walked through each section of the camp, Renata graphically explained the atrocities that were perpetrated there including the building where Mengele’s horrific experiments were carried out. To this day there are three meters of human ash to be found in the ground; human ash is still in the ponds. The Germans used human ash as fertilizer.
Next day in Auschwitz 1 a resident historian gave a power-point presentation. The first slide showed the identity and origin of a person from Chicago. We learned that initially the inmates were given a number to memorise. Tattooing came later. An added difficulty for them was having no knowledge of the German language. Hence they couldn’t follow orders and were duly punished. The main focus of the presentation was the capture and treatment of religious – Priests, Brothers, Sisters – and life in the camp. She gave a detailed account of the capture of St. Maximilian Kolbe and his confreres. Their Prior who was away at the time escaped capture. This proved providential as he was subsequently allowed to visit his friars.
A large number of the Romany people went directly to the gas chambers. Documentation in relation to them is now being collected. One building held records of accounts given by survivors: for example one man told how he survived the death march by focusing on one pole to the next; another man said he tried to retain his human dignity by washing every day.
Helena (101 year old survivor) with Maria (interpreter) joined the group for Mass
Helena Dunicz NiwiDska, a remarkable 101 year old survivor of Birkenau, joined the group for the 12 o’clock Mass and lunch, after which she spoke to us through an interpreter, Maria Szewczyk. Helena presented Sr. Margaret, with a signed copy of her book and two CDs, of music played in Auschwitz. She expressed gratitude to the Congregation for the financial support for the production of the CDs.
At her request we accompanied Helena to the ruins of Crematorium 2 where she presumed her mother had been exterminated. She placed a lighted candle there and we prayed silently. At the memorial plaques for the different nationalities exterminated in the camp, Helena placed a lighted candle in memory of the Polish people. On this occasion we entered Birkenau by a back entrance. This suddenly gave us an insight into how close the houses and lives of ordinary people were to the camp and from where they saw the fires burning and the shadows of the people being stripped. The German guards also had their dwellings outside the camp.
Franciscan church in Harmeze
Next we visited the basement of the Franciscan Church in Harmeze to see the black and white drawings of survivor 432, Marian KoBodziej, depicting the horrors that took place in Auschwitz. The title of the book of his art is “The Labyrinth.” In this church there is the miniature statue of the Madonna of Auschwitz.
That night Sr. Mary gave us a tour of the Centre. Photographs of the visits of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict to Auschwitz are on display. One riveting picture was that of Pope Benedict surrounded by a rainbow. Sr. Mary told us that it had been a dark cloudy day but when Pope Benedict rose to speak the dark sky began to disappear, the sky brightened and a rainbow appeared. The chief rabbi then said that God is very pleased that his German Pope has visited Auschwitz.
Town of Oswiecim
On Sunday morning we visited the town of Oswiecim – the Parish Church with its magnificent interior and the Synagogue which is now a museum. Prior to German occupation the Rabbi and Parish Priest worked in collaboration and harmony for the good of all. The Polish community were very upset when the Jewish people were targeted.
In the afternoon Sr. Mary led us in the Stations of the Cross in Birkenau using survivor reflections in specific relevant areas. This was a unique experience and interpretation of the Way of the Cross.
Following Night Prayer we had an informative discussion with Fr. Manfred Deselaers about the philosophy of Hitler and the Third Reich.
Basilica of Pope John Paul II
On Monday morning we visited the Basilica of Pope St. John Paul II and the tomb of St. Faustina in the Church of the Divine Mercy in Krakow. After some free time we had a meal together and proceeded to the airport for our flight home.
Church of the Divine Mercy
This thought provoking and soul searching retreat experience lies deep within our psyche to be revisited frequently. The horrors perpetrated in Auschwitz are still being committed in our world today.
Back row L-R : Sr. Catherine Ryan, Ms. Lonán Ní Dhubhain, Srs. Kathleen O’ Keeffe, Esther Murphy, Bernie O’ Rourke, Dolores Fitzgerald, Mary Ryan, Mary O’Sullivan, Margaret Corkery. Front row L-R: Srs. Síor Cosgrove, Bonaventure Higgins, Dominica Downing, Ms. Helena Dunicz Niwinska, Srs. Angela Bugler, Teresa Nagle. Seated in forefront Maria Szewczyk
Bonaventure Higgins rsm
South Central Province