2007+2008 Annegret Fuehr - Maximilian Kolbe Werk - in Oswiecim
Since April 2007 I have been working as a volunteer here in Oświęcim, on behalf of the Foundation Maximilian Kolbe in Freiburg, Germany. I have reached that stage in my life which can be characterized as „early retirement“; thus I am a volunteer quite voluntarily. Before I was a grammar school teacher in NorthRhine-Westphalia, a volunteer in Kenya, a headmistress in Thuringia (former GDR). „I was born under a wandering star...“
My thirteen years in Thuringia gave me a vital interest in the „East“, and soon it was my great wish to get to know Poland, our close neighbouring country. A lecture by Dr. Deselaers and a seminar for teachers here at the Centre made me acquainted with this educational institution so that I just wanted to offer my help.
The offer was accepted. And now I help out wherever necessary: I accompany individual guests or groups, write letters, translate articles, welcome the guests at the reception, wash the dishes or lay the tables, do library work. There is enough work to do; it's there for the asking. One accompanies guests to the Memorial Sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau, to the Jewish Centre, to the town of Oświęcim...The countryside is pretty and has quite a recreational value, too, particularly the riverside. I think it is important for visitors also to get to know some aspects at least of the Poland of today; therefore I like to take those who are interested on a tour of the town at the end of which there is always a cup of excellent coffee or the fabulous Polish icecream.
The easy part of my stay? Wonderful building, wonderful heads and staff, incredibly interesting visitors from all over the world: Japan, Australia, Europe, America. Campers, cyclists, bikers, travellers by bus, rail or plane. Young people, groups from schools or parishes, adults of various age groups. Altogether people who know why they are here. And who wish to talk...
The hard part? Well, exactly that: Here – that is „Auschwitz“. The Memorial Sites can be reached on foot from here, but they are above all inwardly always present. Some visitors come for a day – some for a week. They are all confronted by probing questions as they walk through the „Blocks“ of the „Stammlager“ or in the world's largest cemetery, Birkenau. With the help of books, the witness of former prisoners, films, one may well find an answer to the question „How was it possible?“ The question „Why?“ remains unanswered. For me personally one line from a prayer by Bishop Hemmerle, which can be found on the hompage under „Texts“ (Prayers), sums up what I feel as a German: And my own people did this.
When I pay a visit to the Memorial Sites, I go there to honour the dead. At least now not to look away, not to discuss away, not to compare and qualify. We owe the victims this respect by walking through the endless cemetery of Birkenau in silence, by looking at the photos of the happy, smiling children, men and women they were before the catastrophe, by exposing ourselves to the sense of horror and shame which befalls us at the sight of the gas chambers and crematoria. Yet, looking at the Cross we may also pray that these murdered, too, were not forsaken: God is with the victims.
And: „The memory of Auschwitz should not make us ill, it should make us more human,“ (M. Deselaers). One should not leave this place unaltered. We bear a responsibility for the present and for the future: before God and before human beings. To put it laconically, „Goddamn it, you've got to be kind!“ (Kurt Vonnegut)
Would I recommend the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim as a place for volunteers?
Annegret Fuehr, Dinslaken (Germany), August 2007
Jeszcze raz wolontariusz(ka)
w Centrum Dialogu i Modlitwy w Oświęcimiu
Don't worry, I'll continue in English...
It is the same Annegret Fuehr, who also in 2007 wrote an article and who now – at the end of October 2008 – a short while before her journey home reflects her second stay as a volunteer, also on behalf of Maximilian-Kolbe-Werk, here in Oświęcim. It does not happen very often that a volunteer extends his or her stay. At the end of October 2007 I had returned to Germany „to hibernate“ there, knowing full well that I would want to come back and spend another seven months or so here continuing my work. This intention speaks for itself, as it shows that I appreciated the time I had spent here as very valuable, important and worthwhile. When I „absolutely“ recommended such an engagement at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in my last report, it had not been just a polite phrase.
This year, too, I spent the months of April to October here, for me the nicest seasons. When, after a language course in Cracow in February, I arrived on April 6, everything was familiar. I enjoyed meeting all the colleagues and to continue my work as a volunteer. Again I accompanied groups or individual travellers to the Memorial Sites, to Oświęcim or to special places in the surroundings; I spent my day with them and frequently the evening, when the groups met to share their impressions, emotions and ideas, to watch a film or when somebody simply needed a person just to listen.
The work at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer offers a volunteer from Germany excellent opportunities to learn a lot about Poland. As a matter of course the time of National Socialism has a special meaning, but since the Poles are very aware of their history, the attentive guest can also find out much about other phases and epochs – glorious and difficult ones. This aspect is of great interest for me, as it had been my wish to live in Poland, exactly in order to get to know the country and its people. I had the great good luck to become friends with a history teacher from Oświęcim, and thus I gained some insight into the inner life, which otherwise would have remained hidden. Also talks with the colleagues helped me to develop a warm and caring attitude towards Poland, just as I had wished.
Of course, such work need not necessarily benefit the one who does it, but for me it is important to meet our neighbours personally, especially after the horrible events of the past. Doing my work has made just that possible for me. I could also learn a lot from the guests, for the persons in charge of the groups are often real experts on history and – since they mostly do not come only once – friends of Poland. Being together with members of „Muzeum“ staff also helped me to regard the past and future with new eyes. It is true, the ever present topic „Auschwitz“ does not exactly make life easy. Therefore, it is highly to be recommended that volunteers, e.g. from Pax Christi, spend some days of vacation at home in between .
As a volunteer of Maximilian-Kolbe-Werk I was away from the Centre three times: in May I spent three weeks together with guests from Belarus in Inowrocław, where the former prisoners received treatment for various ailments in a sanatorium. They came from different places, had all been in a Concentration Camp (Dachau, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, Buchenwald...) and had now gratefully received and accepted the invitation from MKW. Another important experience was provided by a project of Maximilian-Kolbe-Werk: witnesses from Poland travelled to Gemany, where the six Polish ladies and gentlemen spoke to pupils of various schools about their suffering during the War – Auschwitz and Birkenau, Buchenwald, Ghetto Łódż. The young people listened with great attentiveness and deep seriousness. Although the days were quite strenuous for the guests from Poland, it yet meant a lot to them to find such interested and sympathetic listeners in Germany. Also in September I could take part in the meeting of former prisoners who take care of other survivors in their areas. That meeting, organized by MKW, took place in Łódż; 42 former prisoners were there to talk about their experiences and to learn about new projects and the work in general that had been done by Maximilian-Kolbe-Werk in the past year. Some of them I also visited at home, and I am still in close contact with quite a few of them.
At the Centre, in Oświęcim, there have been so many visitors, activities, conferences etc that I cannot name them all. It is a place to which people come who know why they pay „Auschwitz“ a visit. And thus everything is very intense: the meetings, the conversations, the experiences, the joy and the grief. As last year I often visited the sites of the crimes, read a lot in the books in our library, spoke with Americans, Poles, Britons, Germans, Australians. Apart from that, there were a few things to be done with the help of laptop and printer, all of which is for the benefit of the Centre.
I am very grateful for my stay at the Centre. My wish had been, as already said, to live in Poland for a while, and that is what I have done – with tremendous gain for myself; for first of all I have got to know many pleasant and likeable people, second I now know a bit about Polish history, and third I see the significance of good relationships between Germany and Poland even more clearly (also the difficulties, though). When I now go back to Germany, I shall continue working there for the Centre and for MKW, I shall travel to Poland from there, I shall certainly come to Oświęcim again to stay here for a while – and I shall try to speak for Poland (not just about) whenever possible. What I wrote at the end of my first report is still true as a simple lesson to be learnt from „Auschwitz“:
Goddamn it, you've got to be kind (Kurt Vonnegut).
And again: would I recommend the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim as a place for volunteers?
Annegret Fuehr, October 2008
Oświęcim - Dinslaken