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.
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.”
“Your lessons are hard, oh God, let me be your good and patient pupil. I feel that I am one of many heirs to a great spiritual heritage. I shall be its faithful guardian.” – Etty Hillesum, killed in Auschwtiz on November 30, 1943
Today I am reflecting on the transformative impact of encountering misery – past or present – to discerning one’s path in life.
Confrontations with grave moral evils and injustices can be decisive turning points in a person’s life when he or she becomes summoned to personal responsibility with a sense of mission.
During my studies in Poland, I learned about a satellite campus of the Catholic University directly across the street from the former Nazi concentration camp, Majdanek.
One of my roommates was studying journalism there and I asked her what it is like to go to school across from the former camp.
She admitted that she no longer thinks about it every time she goes to class. But, she recalled, “One Friday, a professor gave us an assignment just when we all thought we would have a free weekend. Naturally, we started to complain a bit. Then he told us to think about what had happened across the street and take some perspective before we grumble about an assignment, and we all fell silent.”
Today is both International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. The coinciding of a solemn commemoration with a celebration of the trees and fruits of Israel makes me reflect on all the tenacious ways that new life is sometimes brought forth from barren situations.