Poland: Where Suffering Meets Hope

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By Joshua Feibelman, Franciscan University

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his mercy endures for ever!” (Ps 117: 1) 

“The cross means there is no shipwreck without hope; there is no dark without dawn; nor storm without haven.” – Pope St. JPII 

“Some day, we will know the value of suffering, but then we will no longer be able to suffer.” – St. Maria Faustina Kowalska

When I looked up to the right, I noticed the wall. It was adorned with crutches, walking boots, braces, and casts. Thousands of small metal hearts also hung from the metal facade. Here, in the chapel of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, Poland, I witnessed many signs of the healing power of Christ. These items of infirmity revealed a story. Indeed, they gave witness to the faithful who had had the courage to approach Our Lady. They were not disappointed. Later that very day, on a site hardly an hour away, I witnessed another scene wrought with crutches, braces, casts, bandages, and the like. Only this time I was standing in the 11th barrack in Auschwitz. And instead of displaying the items of infirmity on the wall in praise of God’s gift of healing, here they lay, piled in a jumbled heap. This time, these items of infirmity meant one thing: death. For those who were unable to work because of bodily weakness, the flick of a finger determined their fate. In one case, the rays of hope. In another, the utter darkness of death. This is the land of Poland. It is a place where suffering and hope converge, where the worst of atrocities meet the greatest mercies of our God.

Around five in the morning, the buses arrived in the Polish town of Czestochowa. Disembarking from the bus, we approached the monastery of Jasna Gora where the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa is displayed. It was still chilly, so I wrapped my jacket around my shoulders. Dawn had yet to crease the horizon. Only the dreamy glow of street lamps radiated through the dense fog marking the path. Once inside the small side chapel, we waited for the unveiling of the image. Several dozen Polish women crowded with us there, singing Marian hymns in Polish. I know because I hear the Polish word for Mary repeated over and over. Precisely at 6 am, a hollow sounding bell clangs thrice and the cover over the image is lifted. Trumpets and the organ follow, and Mass beings…in Polish! I remember looking around me during that Mass and being struck by how many young Polish people were present at the Mass. Here we were, 6 am on a Friday morning, and the youth were here. Unlike many of the other churches I had been to in Europe, where tourism is the precedent and the spiritual pilgrimage secondary, the Church at Czestochowa was filled with persons, young and old, gathered in a spirit of faith and hope. At such an early hour, when tourists remain in bed, one will find such churches filled with pilgrims. Indeed, that is what we found in Poland.

A couple of hours later, our group returned to have an English Mass on the altar in front of the image of Our Lady. My music team was blessed with the opportunity to lead the music for the Mass. We sang the Mass parts in Latin. The hallowed and ancient words hung in the air, echoing from the lips of almost two hundred Franciscan University students. During Communion, our violinist played the Ave Maria. The haunting melody almost brought tears to my eyes. How is it that melody can rend our hearts so? How does such beauty move us? I still can hardly explain it.

“Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work makes you free. The words over the gate of Auschwitz fill one with many things: a sense of hope perhaps, or a sense of foreboding, or even a sense of irony as twisted as the barbed wire that lines that camp. Man’s proper act is work in the broad sense. One thinks of St. Benedict’s rule as that which lays out the proper rhythm of man’s life. “Ora et Labora.” Pray and Work. Work indeed allows man to fulfill his potential as man. It allows him to participate in the creative work of God. Work has the power to unleash man’s freedom and creative potential, directing it to the good, the true, and the beautiful. From this perspective, work breaths the hope of man fully alive. And yet…the words over the gate may have been more appropriately rendered in the words of Dante: “lasciate ogne speranza voi ch’intrate.” “Abandon all hope, ye that enter here.” Without a doubt, hopelessness became the state assumed by the majority of the souls upon darkening the threshold to that gate. For in their case the “freedom” gained from work was none other than “death,” and that is all.

Entering through those black, barbed iron gates was perhaps the most chilling experience of my young life. The mind really cannot grasp the magnitude of the place. Along the path, trees stand in uniform lines. The red brick barracks are also homogeneous, neat and tidy, geometrically ordered and architecturally dull. There is no distinction here. Everything is the same. So too, the souls who wandered here. At least this is what the Nazi force attempted to do. The prisoners were stripped of their humanity, their individuality, their personhood, their names. They were given numbers. These strokes on their arms were all that distinguished them. And yet, interior freedom and hope cannot be squelched. The interior life can continue, even when surrounded by such indescribably brutal external circumstances. I certainly cannot attest to this. But Victor Frankl does account for this interior hope in his famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning. He declares that a man can cope with any how when he has a why. But this leaves us with a question. What is man’s why? What is his source of this hope?

In the bottom of bunker thirteen, we come to a cell. Inside the bars, a postcard photo of the Madonna and the Christ Child lies on the floor. A bright red rose, fresh by the look of it, rests nearby on the floor. I lean my head on the cold bars and begin a short prayer. This cell once belonged to St. Maximilian Kolbe, a man of fervent faith, a hero of heavenly hope, a man of abounding Christian charity. It is here that this great saint freely sacrificed his life for another man, it is here that he lay, tightly squeezed, singing songs and hymns of joy to Mary with his fellow prisoners. Something herein reveals the truth of scripture, that it is in this losing of ourselves that we find ourselves. In the profound and truly incredible (in credo — meaning unbelievable, literally translated) moment when Maximilian Kolbe took the place of Franciszek Gajowniczez, he alone saw the dignity of the human person. Where Auschwitz was a place where dignity was squashed like an annoying bug, St. Maximilian gave his life as a witness to the dignity of Mr. Gajowniczez, as a witness to the dignity of every person. To quote Gajowniczez on the moment:

‘I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?’

By imitating Christ and sacrificing his life out of love for his fellow brother, St. Maximilian invited the light of God into a godless place. How is it that such light can reside amongst such darkness and depravity? The rose, vibrant and red on the bottom of St. Maximilian’s cell is a testament to this transcendent hope.

Soon we are in another barrack. Behind a glass display, a heaping pile of little shoes, children’s shoes, bear witness to the blindness of humanity. Their youthful bearers are but a forgotten memory—I remember seeing a pair of red leather shoes, rustic red and fading fast, and thinking about an ode, an ode to a red shoe. From my journal entry I quote: “Ah, pair of little shoes, I’ll weep with thee and mourn with thee. You were once the proud possession of a child, a Christmas gift perhaps? A gift, bringing a smile to a young face? Perhaps his favorite color was red? Tell me about the one who bore thee under thy feet. Tell me who he was, or she—What could I ever say to her or to him? I wish that I could teach him games, how to throw a ball, how to catch, how to kick a football with thee. I know you, O pair of little red shoes, were proud to be the beloved possession of your bearer. He was not a random child, no. He was unique, with a face, with beautiful eyes and a smile, a smile and a laugh that could brighten anyone’s day. O shoes, I see thee, every pair, and I am here to remember and mourn every bearer of thy soles and laces, for every bearer was far more to you, O shoes, than a number! Every bearer of thy leather soles—had they not souls? Eternal and Immortal? Will you hope with me O shoes?”

On the outskirts of Poland, a different red brick building stands as a testament of hope: the Chapel of Divine Mercy. Here, hardly an hour drive from Auschwitz, God revealed himself over and over again to Sister Faustina, telling her about His mercy. It is hard to grasp the reality that God would demonstrate His immanence, His desire to bring good out of human evil, by revealing his redeeming mercy in the very place where one of the greatest atrocities in human history occurred. Do we need any other reason to hope but God’s mercy? On Saturday afternoon, shortly before 3 p.m., we crowded into the Chapel of Divine Mercy to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Hundreds of pilgrims from many places and of many tongues gathered with us in the chapel. I walked over to the left side of the chapel and knelt down on a small kneeler, directly in front of the image of Divine Mercy. The way the light fell on the paint made it seem to glisten. At 1500 hr, the bells began to ring, and the organ began to play: “For the Sake of His Sorrowful Passion, Have Mercy on Us, and on the Whole World,” but in Polish: “Dla Jego bolesnej meki miej milosierdzie dla nas i calego swiata.” Five decades later, five languages had been spoken, but the universal Church remained one, united in one prayer, visibly demonstrating hope in God’s mercy. One could not help realizing that St. Maximilian, now in heaven, rejoiced with us in our prayer.

On Sunday, we drove to Wadowice, the boyhood town of St. Pope John Paul II, the other champion of God, champion of the hope that we can have in God, and champion of the great and relentless mercy that our God offers us. We were blessed to have Mass in the Minor Basilica of the Blessed Virgin, the boyhood parish of JPII. After Mass, I went to pray before the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. This image was a favorite of the Pope, and he prayed there often. I recall reflecting on how JPII’s Theology of the Body has taught me the truth about love, about self-gift. As JPII teaches us, “The worst prison would be a closed heart.” The worst prison is not bunker 13, no. It is a heart that cannot give or receive love. As I prayed a rosary, I pondered the way in which the Incarnation has so much to teach us about love. Christ’s body reveals and makes visible the love of God, and it is through Christ’s body, freely hung on the Cross, that we learn what it is to love.

Let us remember the five bodily wounds of Christ. May these wounds be our daily meditation, teaching us always what it means to love. May Christ’s wounds be our hope. When you walk the streets of Krakow, if you are perceptive, you can almost feel a sense of suffering hanging in the air. And yet, hope, faith, God—these things permeate the spirit of the atmosphere. At Jasna Gora, I witnessed a visible sign of this mingling between hope and suffering. After our English Mass, we climbed the stairs to a chamber in the upper part of the church. There, one of the most profound works of art I have ever seen hung around the wall. It was a rendition of the Stations of the Cross, each depicting Christ in the context of Auschwitz, thereby uniting Christ’s passion with the passion of the millions of people in the concentration camps. Each panel told something of the history of Poland, of its hope and its depravity, its faith and its suffering. In the third panel, Christ is seen, falling under the weight of his cross. Behind him, a dozen persons, half clothed and emaciated look toward him, the suffering evident on their faces. The background is filled with crutches, reminding me of the paradox between the crutches at Auschwitz and those here at Czestochowa. But in the fourth scene, Christ encounters the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, a creative and particularly Polish rendition of “Christ meeting his mother.”

In the twelfth station, Christ hangs on the cross. Beneath, in the shadow of that instrument of salvation, Saint Pope John Paul II stands, holding his papal ferula, the metal rod with the crucifix on top. Behind him, the prisoners of the concentration camps stand, holding crosses of their own. In this way, the artist demonstrated the gift of hope received by those prisoners, those persons, when they unite their crosses to the cross of Christ. Was this not the essence of JPII’s personalistic philosophy? To quote that Great Saint from his homily at Auschwitz: “In the place of terrible devastation of humanity and human dignity – there is victory of humanity!” What is this victory JPII speaks of? None other than the victory won by the cross of Christ, the victory won in the laying down of one’s life for the other, the ultimate sacrifice of oneself for the other…like Maximilian Kolbe, or Edith Stein…like Christ. And despite suffering, it is in this victory that we are called to hope. Truly the Cross of Christ is the source of hope for the Polish people. It is the hope for all Christians. Ultimately it is the hope, the only hope for humanity.

Edited by: GraceAnne Sullivan

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