At the Gates of Hell

The monument at the entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Majdanek was designed to be reminiscent of Dante’s Gates of Hell.

Into that secret place he led me on.
Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e’en I wept at entering.

– Dante

When I first visited this former camp in 2010, I never expected that I would ever return there. At the time, I did not even know where we were on the map. It seemed that we had been brought to the brink of an abyss, and that even our own existence became more tenuous as we stood there.

I will always remember pressing my hand against that massive, imposing monument and praying: “Lord, etch this experience on my memory and engrave this upon my conscience because I don’t want to ever forget the testimony of the survivors that I’ve heard in this place.”

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“Tradition Says”

Once, when I was a student in Poland, I was living in a dormitory taken care of by Ursuline sisters.

It was a Wednesday morning on November 2nd when I came downstairs to do my laundry.

The kind ginger sister, a young Catholic from Russia, Sister Maria, took pity on me but the elderly Sister Elisabeth at her side at reception was clearly dismayed at the need to make an exception. I approached the reception window at the entrance lobby of my dormitory with a plastic bag, full of dirty laundry, my bottle of detergent, my ID card to exchange for the laundry room key and five złoty in change to receive a special coin to activate the washing machine. 

They both looked at me with a look that said, “Shouldn’t you know better?” But, in truth, I didn’t know better. 

“Today is a holiday,” Sister Maria stated, alluding to All Souls’ Day. 

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Curious about Costumes

Once, when I was 7-years-old and my brother Evan was 4, my mom brought us to the cemetery on Halloween.

We had been driving by anyway, and so she considered it a good occasion to introduce us to the upcoming feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days even as our attention was fixated on costume-wearing and trick-or-treating later that evening.

My mom began, “This is the place where people are buried.”

“What?” my little brother asked incredulously. “You bury the person in the ground?”

My mom clarified, “The body is buried in the cemetery because you don’t need your body when you die because your soul goes to heaven to be with God. The body is like a costume.”

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