Whenever people speak of Auschwitz, I wonder how it was possible for a person to ignore atrocities that happened only a few miles away. It’s said that some camps were within walking distance of ordinary homesteads.
Upon reflection, I’ve realized that the answer lies in our nurtured ability to empathize with the downtrodden and exploited. Having grown up watching holocaust films in religion class, I was deeply affected by what I saw but the experience always seemed surreal. It was something foreign, something that happened to someone else. I couldn’t imagine how it occurred, or how ordinary people were complicit in something so extraordinary. I just could not seem to see my own face in that of the prisoners or the guards. It’s as if Auschwitz was a concept in my mind, not a reality.
That changed recently after viewing the documentary, The Labyrinth: The Testimony of Marian Kolodziej. This documentary is the story of an Auschwitz survivor who finally confronts the horrors of his past after 50 years of silence. Marian Kolodziej, a Polish Catholic, uses his pen and ink drawings to invite us into an experience of life in Auschwitz. Somewhere between the drawings and Marian’s testimony one becomes acutely aware of how distorted a person’s path can become without having God in our horizon.
In particular, I found Marian’s recollection of the death St. Maximilian Kolbe beautiful and compelling. For those of you unfamiliar with the story of St Maximilian Kolbe, he was a conventual Franciscan friar, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz. He was locked inside a starvation cell and against all odds he survived until he was executed by lethal injection.
Interestingly for the viewer, St. Maximilian is the only person Marian draws with the full detail of a human face. The attention to his face suggests that he is the only one who has retained his humanity. I reflected on this a lot and it made me realize how our humanity is so deeply connected with our relationship with God. In essence, the extent to which we are human is remarkably dependent on our ability to maintain an abiding faith, a wellspring of hope and a selfless love for all – regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. It brought into stark clarity how my indifference to the suffering of those around me, perhaps the person sleeping out in the cold on the street, adds to the suffering of others and to myself. I can’t help but think that this is what Christ asks us to do when he asks us to pick up his cross; this is what he means when he calls us to take up the suffering of the meek, the lowly, the hungry, and the naked and to restore them to their dignity.
The Labyrinth Documentary airs on our network on Sunday, October 27 at 9:30 pm. See our broadcast schedule
Below I’ve included a recent interview with Fr. Ron Schmidt SJ producer of The Labyrinth about the making of the documentary.