IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller
By Dennis Sadowski
OSWIECIM, Poland (CNS) — Walking
into the Auschwitz concentration camp, Stephanie Dalton felt a chill up and down her
She called it the spirit of those who died at the hands of the Nazis more
than 70 years ago.
“You could tell the people’s presence (was) still there,” she said
after her group from the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, walked through the camp
July 25 as part of their World Youth Day pilgrimage.
Dalton, 19, a member of Sts. Simon and Jude
Parish, spoke to Catholic News Service during a break after touring the
camp and the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau
extermination camp where nearly 1 million people were killed in secret during
World War II.
Looking at forested areas at Birkenau, Dalton said she could see the people
who were held “in the beauty” after arriving by train in crammed
boxcars as their fate was being determined by the Nazis.
“They didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said in a solemn
The Brooklyn contingent totals about 600. Forty of them filled a bus and
joined thousands of others from around the world at the camps a day before the
official opening of World Youth Day.
At Auschwitz, visitors walked in silence under the famous gate with the
slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free.) Only the footsteps
of the pilgrims on the dry, rocky ground could be heard.
For some of the Brooklynites, the silence echoed what it may have been like
for the Jews, Roma and others identified for extermination as they left the
trains and walked to their death.
Wadley Fleurime, 18, a native of
Haiti and a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary
Church, compared the pain of losing friends in his homeland’s 2010
earthquake to how families must have felt when they lost loved ones and friends
“It breaks my heart that something like this could happen, because I
know what the heartbreak is like,” he said.
Patricia, 22, and Gabriella Ruiz, 19,
sisters who belong to Mary Queen of Heaven Church, said after leaving
Auschwitz they found it difficult to comprehend the killing that occurred
onsite. They expect to share what they saw and learned with parishioners at
“It was crazy that we were walking in the same place that they harmed
people,” Gabriella Ruiz said. Her sister described her experience as “surreal.”
The sisters want to research the Holocaust more deeply so that they can support
their experience with additional facts and photos.
“We can say we saw it with our own eyes,” Patricia Ruiz said.
Several contingents from France stopped at various locations at the
expansive Birkenau site to pray and sing hymns of atonement for the sins of
Dominick Costantino, 24, vocation program
coordinator for the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was walking with
a young Polish woman, Monika Hulewicz,
discussing the history of the camps.
“It’s very sad that humans could have done this to other humans,”
Costantino said. “It’s amazing (that) you’re walking in the suffering. In
the silence you hear the stumbling, the falling, the crying of the people.”
Hulewicz, 23, said it is imperative for Poles to tell the story of the
carnage at the camps.
“It is very important for us to show that this is not just Polish
heritage, but that this is the heritage of the whole world,” she said. “It
is a big, big reminder of how we can avoid doing it in the future.”
At the crumbling bricks of a dynamited Birkenau crematorium, Adrianna Garcia, 26, a member of St. Peter Prince of the Apostles Parish in San
Antonio, stopped to discuss with a friend what she was seeing. She said
that studying the Holocaust in school was far different than seeing the camps
where mass executions were carried out.
“You honestly don’t get the full picture until walking the grounds,”
As a fifth-grader in a Catholic school, Garcia had a Jewish teacher who
would tell stories about the Holocaust. “Her stories can’t compare to
seeing this,” Garcia told CNS. “She would take us to the San Antonio
Jewish museum, but you can’t compare it.”
She said the pilgrims who visit the concentration camps must take home the
stories home and encourage others to make the same trip if they can. She said
she already had been sharing what she saw on social media.
“It’s important not to leave it in the storytelling. Stories come and
stories go. But if you live it, you can help others understand it,” she
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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.
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