I’m writing this while reclining in a tiny triple-deck bunk crammed into a sleeper car in what is called a second-class train in Poland. We’re spending a week here, traveling around with my college roommate Reiner, who is German and married to a Polish woman. This part of the trip is vacation, and like most vacations in Europe it involves touring churches and old castles, stopping for afternoon cappuccinos and Italian gelato ice cream, and roaming on winding cobblestone streets. In Krakow we visited the university where Copernicus taught and attended a piano concert of Poland’s most beloved composer, Chopin.
Yet Poland has a tragic history, with reminders confronting us everywhere. We walked through the monuments to the Warsaw Ghetto, where only a few of the 370,000 Jews survived after an armed uprising against the Nazis. And we spent a full day at Auschwitz, where the scale of mass murder beggars the mind. The 300 barracks at Auschwitz stretched over fields covering many acres, but prisoners were brought there to die and not to live. Crematoriums worked around the clock to dispose of the gassed bodies, burning as many as 10,000 corpses per day—1.5 million people in all, most of them Jews.
Auschwitz is a haunting place because it seems so methodical and organized, as if some massive corporation had hired consultants to devise a program of pure evil. Think of the impact of 9/11 on the U.S., and then imagine that being repeated day after day for four years—not by terrorists but by an established government against its own citizens.
Various nations (Holland, France, etc.) have “adopted” barracks to tell the stories of their citizens killed at Auschwitz, and of course Israel has set up several displays too. Tour guides holding up their trademark umbrellas lead their groups to displays marked with names like “Extermination Techniques” or “Plunder.” One barrack depicts the living conditions in which 800 prisoners were crammed into a room designed for 200. One displays torture devices used against prisoners; another details medical experiments in which prisoners were deliberately infected or burned to test various treatments, or doused in tanks of freezing water to study resuscitation procedures. The “Plunder” building shows thousands of shoes taken from prisoners, a huge heap of spectacles, and a mound of human hair filling a glass display case sixty feet long (the Allies found two tons of human hair stored in warehouses at Auschwitz). You can visit an execution wall where thousands were shot, and then the infamous “shower rooms” in which naked Jews were herded to be gassed. For years nothing grew at Auschwitz, for the chimneys had spit out a fine bone loam that covered the ground. Now the grounds are lush and green, the setting incongruously resembling a college campus with walkways and brick dormitories.
The slogan “Never Again” takes on the force of a scream at Aushwitz, and yet in our own lifetime in Rwanda and Yugoslavia and Darfur history repeats itself, though perhaps not on the same scale of evil efficiency. We were encouraged to see many groups of students, mostly Polish and German, visiting the memorial. They wore baseball caps and t-shirts celebrating rock groups, and many sported tattoos and body piercings, yet most maintained a reverential silence. Will future generations finally learn the lessons?
Early in the morning of the day we visited Auschwitz, I went jogging through Krakow, a beautifully preserved medieval city. Poland is the only place I’ve visited in Europe where masses at 6:30 and 7 a.m. still attract a crowd, where worshipers outnumber tourists. Perhaps because it has been pulled like taffy, and sometimes chopped into pieces, by its giant neighbors Germany and Russia, it maintains a strong faith. For twelve years Pope John Paul II served as bishop of Krakow, and mementos of him abound.
The train is taking us to Gdansk, the city where Solidarity was born, and Lech Welesa led a movement which became a revolution. One of the greatest events in history took place with virtually no bloodshed, the ending of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Russia does not invite tourists to its Auschwitz-like scenes of cruelty but they are there, of course, and in fact far more people were killed under communist rule than under Nazi rule. The Poles believe, and few historians would contradict them, that Pope John Paul II played a crucial role in that “miracle” of liberation. Some twenty years later they are still reveling in their freedom: you can sense it in such things as their dress and their friendliness to Americans.
Next week we travel to Sweden. I’ll be speaking three times at a large Christian conference which meets during summer solstice. We’ll see the sun all night (I brought a blindfold for sleeping). I like the Swedes. They’re honest, hard-working, charitable people. Only a tiny percentage of them attend church, but these tend to be truly dedicated believers. They don’t give a lot of feedback to speakers, those stone-faced Scandinavians. But they listen carefully and afterwards interact.
The conference with the Evangelical Free Church in Sweden went very well. Meetings were held in a large barn, with people coming from all over and camping on the grounds in campers or tents. I spoke three times, and the last night they had something like 10,000 attending. Some people listen over the radio in their campers; others sprawl on the lawn. Sweden has such short summers, and the Swedes take full advantage of them.
It was Midsummer Eve holiday in Sweden, the longest day of the year, and they celebrated with some strange customs of dancing around a maypole and singing songs about frogs and elephants (our July 4 holiday seems quite mild by contrast). Little girls, mostly blonde of course, wore garlands of flowers in their hair. The sun set around 11 p.m. and it started getting light before 3 a.m. Of course, farther north it never gets dark!
Swedes are reserved, and hard to read as I’m speaking, but they seemed very responsive and appreciative. I had several book-signings, and heard some very moving stories of people coming to faith—a difficult and rare thing in this secularized country. One woman dressed in black leather said to me, “I am the woman at the well,” and described her tumultuous life and conversion; now she heads up a ministry to motorcycle bikers. Another young girl said to me, “Your books helped me be not so ashamed of my Christian life.” Another woman, who had interviewed me as a journalist six years ago, told of her conversion after the church reached out to her mentally handicapped daughter. “I was raised atheist, and only attended her confirmation at her urging. While standing in line beside her to receive communion, which I thought a very weird custom, I heard God say, ‘This is my body broken for you, Elisabeth. Not just for your daughter—for you.’”
Swedish Christians, like most European Christians, feel like a besieged minority, viewed as cultic by the society around them. This makes reports of God at work all the more stunning. And seeing 10,000 people gathered on a farm to sing praise songs and worship defies all stereotypes.
The only down side of the conference was the accommodations: rustic to put it mildly, with a bathroom on a different floor and barely digestible camp food. I guess we should be glad we weren’t staying in a tent, since most days it rained off and on.
Sweden is beautiful in the summer, and we got to drive across the entire country, East to West, stopping at two different conferences for book-signings. Crops look good, with poppies and lupine scattered along the road and lots of trees standing. We didn’t get a lot of sleep with the short nights, crying babies, and general crowdedness, but our time was well spent.
Copyright © 2008 by Philip Yancey