Lessons from Auschwitz

20150521_171217To be honest, I was not fully aware until I came to Auschwitz that there was a whole city by that name, but one that retains the Polish original, Oswiecim.  It is actually a pleasant city, which I discovered in an early morning run around the central, mediaeval quarters. Auschwitz was the Germanic form given the city when it was overtaken and occupied by the German Reich at the start of war, in 1939. Almost immediately, the Nazis decided, due to its central location, to use the city as a ‘concentration camp’, where they would ‘concentrate’, or put in once place, all the most subversive prisoners (at least in their understanding). They chose a former Polish army barracks as their site, evacuating the houses and their Polish inhabitants, for miles around.


Eventually, the camp grew to house not just political prisoners, but the undesirables, all those whom Hitler’s regime deemed ‘enemies of the State’, primarily Jews, but also Catholics (priests in particular), Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and anyone who rebelled against the Nazi ideology.


In January of 1942, Hitler declared his ‘final solution’, to rid Germany (which by this time now included most of Europe) of all those he considered untermenschen simply by killing them all. Thus, the tranformation of Auschwitz from a prison to a highly efficient (if ‘efficient’ is a bon mot in such a case) death camp.  Ostensibly, it would always retain its nominal purpose as a ‘labour prison’. Hence the infamous sign above the entrance Arbeit macht frie, ‘work will set you free’, a curious anti-slogan of Christ’s words that it is the truth that sets you free.  The motto itself is a lie, piled upon all the other Nazi lies, for no one was ever set free from Auschwitz; the inmates were either worked to death, or until they were unfit for work and then put to death. Many, especially women, children and the elderly, were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival. Very few of the many thousands of prisoners ever escaped.


Soon, the sheer number of prisoners deported to Auschwitz required the Nazis to consruct a much larger death-camp, Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, a few miles away, with plans for a third camp towards the end of the war.


What strikes one upon first seeing Auschwitz, or at least what struck me, is the blandness and forlorness of it all: It is smaller than I expected, at least Auschwitz I, with the non-descript look of just what it is (or was), an army barracks.  Rows of red buildings all the same, but surrounded by an ominous (and electrified) barbed wire fence.  I imagine it would look at lot more sinister with hundreds of heavily-armed SS guards milling around.


I was also struck (and forgive me for saying this, but I also got the same feeling in the Holy Land) was the ‘toursity’ feel to the place.  I pondered this even prior to our arrival, and hesitated even going on the tour. Sure enough, when our coach pulled in, there were dozens of other buses, with hundreds of people, including many students of various ages, lining up to get in. And this was a drizzly day in the middle of the week.


I have reservations of Auschwitz as tourist attraction, and a ‘place to see’ in one’s visit to Poland.  There is, of course, a macabre fascination with evil in our world, but I was more concerned with a possible, more insidious, lesson, one that I hope all those tourists and students (myself among them) are not getting: namely, that they have visited the ‘site of the embodiment of all evil’, taken it in, been there, done that, and now on to the next thing.  There is the danger of externalizing, even historicizing, evil.  That is, so long as we don’t become Nazis, we are all right, perfectly fine, nothing to see here.


To put it another way, we should beware of becoming like the Pharisee at the front of the synagogue in the parable, telling God how good he we are, perfectly complacent that we are not like that ‘tax collector’ at the back.


The sad fact is that we are all potential ‘Nazis’, and the darkness even of demonic sin lurks within each of our hearts.  Those who adopted Hitler’s National Socialist philosophy slid gradually into greater and greater evil.  Let us not forget that the Nazi regime began their efficient killing machine with ‘compassionate’ euthanasia, in hospitals, a practice just legalized in Canada in February of this year.


I had a discussion with someone recently on the nature of public, manifest evil, and she seeemed certain that we as a society could never repeat Auschwitz.  Perhaps not in the same concrete way, for history, pace Santayana, never exactly repeats itself, but the anti-Christian and anti-human spirit that gave rise to the horrors of the death camps and gas chambers, now evident in a more ‘sanitary’ and ‘humane’ way in the abortion mills  and euthanasia centres dotting Europe and North America, will be with us until the end of time.


The truth is that we should beware of externalizing evil, but understand it for what it is, a choice for darkness over light, for falsity over truth, in each individual human heart.   The buildings are not evil; they are now back to being buildings, and Aushcwitz is now, once again, Oswiecim, a Polish city.  Sure enough, the site of Auschwitz evokes and reminds us of the indescribable sufferings of its victims, the evil choices of the SS commandants and guards made in running the camp, and the choices also made by all those who saw the evil and did nothing, or not enough, to stop it.  As long as people understand the site for what it is, it is a sombre and necessary reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.


20150521_173019Towards the end of our tour, our guide, a young Polish man in his late-twenties or early-thirties, showed us a gallows, on which the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudoph Hoess, was hung after being captured, tried and turned over to the Polish authorities soon after the war.  I asked if he had repented, and the guide emphatically declared he had not, that Hoess had stuck to his self-righteous belief in what he had done to the bitter end.


Something rang false about that, so afterward at the hotel, I found and read an address given by John Jay Hughes at Seton Hall Univesity in 1998 , which I highly recommend reading for its insight not only into Rudolph Hoess, but also the Nazi ideology and how a soul could descend into such evil.  The truth is that not only did the former commandant repent, but, a lapsed Catholic who had rejected his faith in his youth, he made a confession to a Jesuit priest (many of whose confreres had died in Auschwitz), after which he broke down and wept. He wrote letters of repentance to his family, and to the Polish people themselves for all the suffering he had caused; although he claimed not to have known of all of the abuses at the camp, he took full responsibilty for what he done, and what had been done. He received Holy Communion, and went to his death with apparent equanimity.


One of the primary things that had moved him to repent was the fair and just treatment he had received from his Polish jailers, many of whose relatives and friends he had helped to kill, and some who had even been inmates at Auschwitz.  It slowly dawned on Hoess that it was their Catholic faith, the very faith he had rejected, that moved them to show such mercy.


downloadToday, on our pilgrimage, we visited the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, just outside Cracow, a city not too far from Auschwitz, but the very antithesis of it spiritually. One of the messages of Saint Faustina’s revelations is that God’s love and mercy are infinite, extending to all men, and no sin unforgiveable, except the refusal to ask for forgiveness and final despair.


We can even hope that Rudoph Hoess, in his own limited way, realized this.  God’s mercy, however, often works through our own individuals choices, and, like the faithful Polish jaliers and the Jesuit priest, even one act of kindness, one prayer, one sacrifice, can lead to the conversion of a heart hardened in sin.


On this solemnity of Pentecost, we should recall that good and evil are not in places, nor even in history, but in the depth of the human heart, discerned only by the Holy Spirit of God.  The greatest evil of Auschwitz was the very rejection of this ‘Spirit of God’ in the hearts of individual men.  And that is why the main lesson of Auschwitz is that in the face of our own society’s descent into evil, we must strive to keep our own conscience clear, ordered to the Good.  Of course, we must resist external evil, but most of all the evil within our own hearts, even, if need be, like Saint Maximilian Kolbe (whose own holy death at Auschwitz led to his SS guards declaring they had never seen anything like it) to the point of shedding our blood.


Vigil of Pentecost


A Tale of Two Polands


Facade of the Warsaw cathedral

As we continue our pilgrimage through Poland, I am struck by the similarity of its situation to Canada, specifically to Quebec, circa 1960’s.  Poland is culturally, aesthetically, visually, geographically and demographically one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, perhaps the world, just like Quebec used to be (stretching the analogy that Quebec is a country).

Driving through the countryside over the past couple of days, in the brand-new coach, where I have had the leisure (in the true Aristotelian/Pieperian sense of the word!) To read, pray and watch out the window, one sees magnificent churches dotting each town through which we pass, roadside shrines and the cities, well, the cities are filled with Catholic statuary, monuments, and road signs. Images of Poland’s most famous son, Pope John Paul II, greet one at almost every turn.

Although the people are still by and large Catholic, there is a precipitous slide in practice as the sample age decreases, and as one gets nearer to the large cities, particularly Warsaw, where the young people are flocking in search of studies (the university has over 40,000 students), work and, of course, the social life.  A youngish-woman, perhaps in her thirties, with whom a few of us shared a pint of the local ale in a brewery near the hotel, admitted that she, and many of her friends, no longer practise their faith, as though such were a matter of course. Her excuse was that the Church was ‘too involved in politics’.  I took that to mean some form of ecclesial commentary on the moral stances of politicians, something I wished the Church in Canada did more often.  I think that perhaps her issues lie deeper, as they do with most of those who abandon the faith. 

Connected with the loss of faith is the diminution of family life, with the number of children per family, once at pre-60’s Quebec level a generation ago, now approaching the European ‘norm’, aka, demographic suicide.  I see many young couples in Poland, as in Canada, walking dogs instead of pushing prams.


20150517_093609On the contrary, in the rural areas, the faith has more life. On Sunday, we were in Kashuby, in the still largelly rural and pastoral northwest of Poland, attending an outdoor Mass with the local bishop.  Hundreds of locals, young and old, gathered, some making a pilgrimage of many miles on foot, processing in with full Kashubian regalia, accompanied by a brass band (the music was vibrant, if not exactly liturgically apt).  Their hearts were all in the right place, and the joy and devotion of the people palpable.

Yet, even here, the insidious spiritual virus of secularism is making inroads:  Not far from Kashuby, I was awoken at three in the morning in our hotel, by a group of juvenalia exiting the ‘disco’ located in the hotel basement, at closing time, fighting, yelling, and, apparenty, a bit past the point of hilarity.  I have seen many such restless youth, and the not-so-youthful, in my walks around the various cities to which we have journeyed. Just the other night, as I wandered the main square of Wraclaw saying a Rosary,  I was approached by a young woman inviting me to a strip-club, by which enterprise she was clearly hired.  I explained in what English she could grasp (my Polish is not yet up to explaining the Theology of the Body!) that such establishments were a sin, and degrading to women, and that there were far better ways to make a living.  I don’t think she had heard that response before, so I hope what few words I could speak are an, albeit imperfect, channel of God’s grace.  However, I am getting the sense that this agnostic hedonism is becoming the new normal for many of the youth of Poland, whose parents grew up in the halcyonic days of John Paul II.  

Now,  for many young people, the great saintly Pope, who held out such great hope for his native land (but also gave stern warnings), is but a statue and a street name.  


Pilgrims in the chapel of the convent at Treibnicza.

Then again, there are always signs of hope.  Just today was one of the highlights of our pilgrimage, a visit to the tomb of Saint Hedwig herself, after whom our parish is named. The body of the saintly wife, mother, patroness and mystic is found in the magnificent parish church of Treibnicza, which she and her husband, Henry the Bearded, helped to build.  Saint Hedwig was also the foundress of the Cistercian convent next to the church, where she spent her days after her husbsand’s death in 1238.  The convent is now staffed by the saintly Sisters of Saint Charles Borromeo (after whom Karol Wojtyla was named), who care for the elderly and children in troubled families.  


There are such signs of hope all over Poland, a country at the crossroads.  Pope John Paul, for all his optimism, also sternly warned his own people of the choice before them: After the collapse of Communism, they should not fall into the consumerism and secularism of the West.  To paraphrase his message to families, Poland, become what you are!


Who knows? Perhaps these same youth who woke me up at the hotel all got up to make the trek to Kashuby the next day.    

Even if I could not sleep, I can always dream….

May 20, 2015

Polish Pilgrimage

20150516_133322Curious and often suprising are the paths upon which God leads us.  Out of the blue I was asked to accompany our parish priest, parishioners and other pilgrims to Poland to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of our parish, Saint Hedwig’s.


I have only been here just over a day, and already I love the land and its people.  My feeble attempts to speak their language are met with amusement, but, at least I think, some degree of pleasure and gratitude.


After arriving mid-Friday (Poland time, GMT +2), we spent this morning, Saturday, on a walking tour of Warsaw.  The city was largely destroyed by the Nazis, but rebuilt by the indomitable Poles.  Although still showing signs of the subsequent Communist oppression, the city, at least the old part, displays its former glory, with many buildings 20150516_121857reconstructed from paintings and historical accounts.  Two of my own highlights so far have been praying Compline by the cross commemorating the site where Pope John Paul II said Mass on his own first pilgrimage to Poland (at least as Pope!), in front of thousands upon thousands of his native people, presaging the downfall of Communism in Poland a decade later.


I also enjoyed a bit of solo quiet time in the small but splendid Baroque church where a very young Chopin first played the organ.  A religious Sister was prayng at the altar rail, and turned around, I thought with some mild rebuke, when I snapped a photo with my newly-acquired, hand-me-down tablet, which makes an unnecessary ‘click’ when you take a picture.


We have now travelled to the north-west of Poland, the Kashuby area, many of whose descendants live in the small town of Barry’s Bay, where I teach and live. They say the Kashubians emigrated there due to its simliarity to their homeland.  From what I have seen of the wooded area dotted with lakes, they are likely right.


I will have more to say about Poland, one of the few truly Catholic countries left in the world, but even here alas, like the land of my own lineage, Ireland, the faith is under attack, and slowly being eroded by secularism.


But we will see!  I have hope for Poland, (and Ireland as well!).  Tomorrow is an outdoor Mass with the bishop, and a tour of the Kashuby region.


May 16, 2015

Saint Andrew Bobola

Saint Brendan the Navigator


Albertan Apocalypse?

ndp majorityThe NDP sweep in Alberta has been described as an ‘Orange Crush’, with the NDP colour smothering the Conservative blue and Liberal red.  Others are calling it an Albertan apocalypse.  There is a connection there, for Orange Crush is also a song by REM, who also penned the apocalyptic ballad ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’.


It’s the end of some kind of world, for Alberta at least.  And since the province’s oil industry has been the energy and economic powerhouse of Canada, it is also, if not the end of, at least a dire change in Canada’s world as we know it.  There are already anecdotal stories of the possibility of millions of dollars in contracts being cancelled with news of the NDP majority.


The National Democratic Party was founded on socialist principles:  the governmental usurpation of private property and income, to be redistributed as the government sees fit in lavish funding of liberal pet projects, such as universal daycare, universal education, universal health care, including unrestricted access to abortion, a pro-homosexual agenda, and, particularly bad for the Albertan economy, a radical environmentalist policy.  Curiously, the founding father and first leader of the NDP in Canada, Tommy Douglas (voted the ‘greatest Canadian of all time’) and the one who instantiated universal health care, also defended eugenics and forced sterilization of the ‘mentally and morally unfit’ in his Master’s thesis, modifying his views after witnessing the horrors of Nazi Germany.


Of course, you won’t find eugenics in the current NDP policies, but they are still no friends of conservative, moral principles.  Then again, as I consider this, I wonder how friendly the Conservatives themselves were to such principles, and how ‘apocalyptic’ this NDP sweep will really be.  Canada’s socio-moral policies could hardly get more ‘liberal’, and none of the major political parties, including the Tories in whom many people I know place such hope, has a truly ‘conservative’ stance.   Moral questions, such as abortion, same-sex ‘marriage’, artificial reproduction and so on, have been ‘decided’ by Canadians.  Just to be sure, however, at the federal level, NDP leader Tom Mulcair has declared unequivocally (as has Justin Trudeau for the Liberal) that none of his MP’s will ever be permitted to vote for any limiting of access to a woman’s ‘right to choose’.


The central issue here, which none of the political parties is willing or able to address, is the role of government itself.  Its metastatic growth, myriad employees, unmanageable salaries, benefits and pensions, all the interfering laws and polices, have grown under the Tories, as they will under the NDP.  As Rex Murphy has written, the complacency of government is a big part of the problem, exemplified in the ‘let them eat cake’ attitude of Alison Redford, who apparently treated Albertan’s tax money as her own private treasure trove, and Jim Prentice’s too-clever politicism, removing the true conservative voice of Albertans by absorbing the Wildrose party into the one, big, bland Tory tent.  Like King David, they have had their forty years of governance, and Murphy says that the NDP shake-up is a good thing.


Although I sympathize with Murphy’s analysis, and with disaffection with the political class in general, I also ponder the words of a wise man I know, that as bad as things are, they could always get worse.


At least the Conservatives, for example, allowed the partial funding of private schools and even homeschooling.  I would rather government get more or less out of education altogether, but these policies are a step in the right direction.  Jim Prentice also recognized the dire economic situation facing Albertans (and Canada as a whole),  and tried to implement a prudent budget controlling costs to some extent.


Both of these may go under Rachel Notley and her untested, but zealous, NDP neophytes, who, from the utopian policies they are willing to make public, seem to consider money no object.  Most Canadians, especially those with a proclivity to the NDP, live in an economic dream world, and most young voters in Alberta and Canada have grown up highly dependent upon the governmnet teat.  All  I can hope is that some kind of wake-up call is imminent.  Who, pray tell, is going to pay for yet-further universal access to prescription drugs, daycare, and university education, as well as the lucrative ‘government jobs’ everyone is vying for these days?  Canada is already more than halfway to a trillion dollar debt, with no end in sight, and the oil money is drying up like a old Texan well.


Reality is a very effective, but also often a painful, teacher.  Albertans will know what they have voted for soon enough and I hope that they will realize, with the rest of Canada, that only within the reality of the moral law (and that includes a prudent economic policy) can a province or country be governed well.


May 11, 2015

Sex-Ed Protest Methinks Goes not Far Enough

empty classroomIt was a day of protest in many elementary schools in Ontario, as quite literally thousands of parents kept their children home as a ‘response’ to Kathleen Wynne’s proposed sex-ed curriculum.  The parents were particularly concerned about the introduction of ‘gender identity’ in grade 1, and the normalization of homosexual, ahem, ‘behaviour’.  A small gesture, but one that I hope is a sign of a growing revolution against the insanity of our modern government.


They had one of those protesting parents, a mother, on the CBC, as I was finishing up dinner.  The host of the program, Carol Off, who is off on a lot of things, tried to goad the apparently nervous mother into admitting that homosexual acts were abnormal.  The poor woman kept raising the red-herring of accusing the teachers of bringing sex-talk into unrelated subjects, such as math.  That is not really the point, is it?  Rather, the issue is that the whole notion of ‘sex talk’ really belongs at home.  The State and its teacher-employees have no right to decide when and how children learn about sex, especially disordered sex.


I had to turn the program off, but that is nothing new for me and the CBC (which I do, on occasion, enjoy):  I kept thinking, go on, Mama, tell it like it is.   Put the condescending Ms. Off in her place, declare loud and clear on national radio that, yes, homosexual acts are disordered.  For good effect, describe them in some graphic detail if need be, as well as some of their innumerable deleterious consequences (as Robert Reilly points out in his invaluable Making Gay Okay).  Let the truth out, that the human body was not designed for homosexual intercourse, regardless of whether one considers the designer God, or natural selection, or a bit of both.  Such acts are unfruitful, unsatisfying, and can in no way be made acts of ‘love’, since they do no ‘good’ to the other.


It is a great scandal for the propaganda of the state school system to normalize such acts in the minds of our children.  But, as I will never tire of repeating, we sold out the system long ago when we handed over the education of our children carte blanche over to the government.  The state has full control, signs all the cheques, owns all the buildings and, to a large extent, all the teachers. Thank God for the small mercy that we are still permitted to keep our children at home, even teach them there, should we see fit (unlike Germany, still under the Nazi-era anti-homeschooling laws, making education at home illegal, and state-education compulsory, laws upheld by the European Parliament in 2006).


My advice?  Exercise your rights while you still can, and keep your children out of school not just for one day, but long term. You can teach them better at home than the vast swathe of teachers out there, or at least better than the bloated, broken system in which they teach.  Such a choice, an option at present, may become a moral necessity for those of good conscience, should Wynne and her cronies continue on their course to mandate the pornographic and value-less sex-ed curriculum on our unsuspecting children.  What a message would be sent if the teachers walked into an apocalyptic scene of empty classrooms as the fall semester begins, with all the children happy at home, learning at the feet of their parents who are, after all, the primary educators of their offspring.  The parents could even cooperate and start a small school on their own.


Perhaps even the teachers could protest and stay at home, finally for a good reason, and not just for a fatter paycheque and easier work conditions.  Perhaps they could even offer their expertise to such ‘small schools’, which are, as all schools should be, under the ultimate governance of the parents themselves.


The choice is ours.  For woe to him by whom scandals come, but woe to him double who scandalizes children.


May 4, 2015

Bd. Marie-Leonie Paradis