My God, My God
Why Have You Forsaken Me?
The Way of the Cross in Auschwitz-Birkenau
The texts for the following meditations of the Way of the Cross are inspired by the land and the Catholic traditions of the parishes of Oswiecim and Brzezinka who have kept alive the memory of the victims of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau for many years.
In Auschwitz we wrestle with our faith in God. We believe that here in this place our search becomes a search for God. This leads us to the never ending question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is not possible to pray in Auschwitz in any other way. We need to comprehend the Way of the Cross meditation as our wrestle with God and with humankind. Here, where superficial and empty phrases would only be an insult to the memory of the victims we will encounter profound witnesses of faith.
As we walk the Way of the Cross in Auschwitz-Birkenau, we will walk in spirit along two paths. We will walk with all the people who suffered and died here, some of whom lost their faith along the way. Also we walk the way of Jesus Christ’s Passion and Death, in the belief that Christ walked with the people. He leads us to the victims and into deep solidarity with them where if we were alone we would probably turn away.
The Stations follow the basic structure of the Way of the Cross: a Scriptural reading followed by a text of the reality of the camp, a personal reflection and prayer.
We begin this spiritual way with the Sign of the Cross: In the Name of the Father….
Jesus is condemned to death
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them:
“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.”
And they were overwhelmed with grief.
Memories of the camp:
The Auschwitz concentration camp was established in June 1940, first for Polish prisoners, then also for Soviet POWs. From 1942 this camp became the place for the mass extermination of humans, most of them Jews. About a million Jews; 75,000 Poles; 21,000 Sinti Roma; 15,000 Russian POWs; and others were killed here. The people who arrived at the camp generally did not know what was awaiting them. It has often been testified by a witness that the commandant’s greeting would be: “This is a concentration camp- there is no way out other than through the chimney of the crematorium.”
Let us pray for all who are condemned to death, for those who are excluded from society, those no one wants, for those who should simply disappear. Let us pray for all those who must live with their own destroyed thoughts and dreams because political situations and social circumstances deprived them of a dignified life, as for example, in countries where war and hunger is present.
Lord Jesus Christ you have said: Whatever you have done to the very least of my brothers and sisters you have done to me. What you have not done for them you have not done for me. Help us Lord to comprehend these words more deeply.
Jesus takes the cross on his shoulders
Then Pilate handed Him over to them to be crucified.
So they took Jesus and carrying the cross Himself
He went out to what is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.
Memories of the camp:
The prisoner Tadeusz Borowski was in a commando at the selection site with the task of sorting out luggage at the arrival of each new convoy. He writes:
More and more activity erupted on the selection site. Kapo divided men into working units. The SS officers would arrive on their roaring motorcycles. First they greeted each other with the proud Roman gesture of raising their right arm. Then, whilst shaking hands and exchanging cordial smiles, they would talk about the latest news and report from home.
“The train is coming” – one would shout – and everyone would stretch their necks to see. The goods wagons appeared round the corner. Behind the tiny barred windows one could see human faces: pale, ruffled, tired, frightened men and women. Suddenly the drumming of fists could be heard coming from the wagons, and desperate calls of: “Water! Air!”
Then: “Los, an die Arbeit!” (Now go to work!) Then the bolts were noisily pushed back and the wagons opened, letting a stream of fresh air into the wagon whose force must have knocked over the people inside. All the people were exhausted and crushed together. There was the heavy weight of their luggage and possessions, every form and size which contained all they had brought with them from their earlier lives, all that might be useful to them to start a new life.
We want to turn our eyes to those who have burdened them with this cross, the perpetrators. One of the most shocking things about Auschwitz is the comprehension of how “normal” they seemed to be. None the less each one of them had his own irrevocable life story and each had made their decisions. Very few appeared to be completely abnormal. “How much of them is in us?”
Let us pray for the perpetrators of yesterday and today who burden others with the cross of their selfishness, hardness of heart and injustice. Let us pray for ourselves, who so often wish to get rid of the people whom we consider to be difficult. How often do we turn our backs on others… How often do we look upon the victims of this world with indifference…Grant us, Lord the gift of conversion. Lord, have mercy on us.
Jesus falls for the first time under the cross.
My heart shudders, my strength forsakes me;
the very light of my eyes has failed. Friends and companions shun my pain;
my neighbours stand far off.
I am stooped and deeply bowed; I go about mourning all day.”
Ps 38: 7:11-12
Memories of the camp:
From the memories of Tadeusz Borowski:
Dead tired from the work and the terrible experiences at the selection site he asks a friend:
“Henry, are we good people?”
“Why do you ask so stupidly? Don´t you see friend that I’m boiling inside with anger against these people. It’s because of them I have to be here. I am not sorry that they are being gassed, may the earth open up and swallow them… I could slay them all… Maybe it’s pathological… I don’t know or understand !”
“No, it´s the opposite, it’s normal, preconceived and precalculated.”
Jesus falls under the cross. In Auschwitz many fell under the cross that was put upon them. The worse part wasn’t the suffering, but the pain caused by the defeat and the wreck of all humanity. The rivalry between the prisoners in the fight for survival was often so immense that it was difficult to maintain solidarity. A survivor stated: One had to be a saint to share one’s bread. It was harder than to go to the gas chamber. None the less there were such people.
Let us pray for those who were morally broken whilst experiencing this hell, for those who took care of themselves but at the cost of others, and for those who didn’t have enough faith and strength to retain their humanity. Forgive them Lord, and forgive us when we fail and lose our trust in you.
Jesus meets his Mother
Come, all you who pass by this way,
look and see whether there is any agony like my agony,
with which the Lord has afflicted me on the day of his blazing wrath.
How can I cheer you ?
Whose plight is like yours, daughter of Jerusalem?
To what can I compare you for your comfort, virgin daughter of Zion?
Memories of the camp:
In 1942, to the left of the main entrance of the camp Auschwitz II, barracks were built for women prisoners of all different nationalities. Until May 1943 all children born in this camp were killed in some of the cruellest ways. Most of them were drowned in a barrel of water.
A Polish woman, Elżbieta Piotrowska, wrote a poem for them:
Who killed you children?
What were these humans like?
Did they have faces like ghosts ?
Did they have eyes like animals ?
-No they were ordinary people,
like other people
with human eyes and teeth.
Maybe they were born of a volcano ?
Maybe they didn´t have a mother ?
-Human mothers gave birth to these people.
Did they have any children ?
-Yes, they wrote letters to them.
They sent them parcels with shoes in them.
How did these people kill you ?
-They suffocated us with gas,
they threw us in the fire,
they threw us against a wall,
they kicked us with their boots,
and if they were good they shot us.
And when they had killed you, what did they do then ?
-They wiped away the sweat on their forehead with a white cloth and said:
Today we worked hard !
It was exhausting, so many small children !
Lord, we pray for the children of the entire world, the born and the unborn, for war orphans and those who bear the scars of terrible experiences. Stay with them and never abandon them. Help us Lord to build a world for children that is worth living in. Enfold in your heart all the murdered children.
Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross
Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfil the law of Christ.
Memories of the camp:
Behind the women’s camp in Birkenau the Nazis built gas chamber and crematorium II. Today only the ruins are visible because before leaving the camp the SS blew up the building. About 2,000 people would enter the gas chamber at once, to be suffocated by Cyclon B. They would be standing crushed against one another, holding hands in the cramp of death, so that the commandos had trouble to pull them apart.
The majority of the gassed people here were Jews. At this station we remember in particular the Jewish people. We honour them. We wish to understand the story of our guilt. Regarding the Jews, Christians in Germany have not always carried each others’ burdens, instead many have burdened themselves with heavy guilt. Christians have not always noticed that every cross and every image of Mary would have had the star of the Jews. In accordance with the racist ideology of those times, Jesus, Mary, and all the apostles would have been gassed here too.
A Polish poem written by Stanislawa Grabska :
Jesus was also a despised Jew –
a chassid from Galilee or from Gallizien.
who reigns in the monastery of Tschenstochau-
was also ‘Jewish’-
the whole of her working life.
Wouldn´t both- have gone to the gas-
with their people-
in those terrible times?
Lord, in death we will all be alike. Let us comprehend more deeply that in life we are all brothers and sisters. May all barriers be overcome between us; the views of the world, religions, and confessions, nationalities, and political opinions. We are called to carry each others’ burdens and to rebuild.
Veronica gives Jesus a cloth for his face
Wear me as a seal on your heart, as a seal upon your arm,
for love is stronger than death
Song of Songs 8:6
Memories of the camp:
Commemorative stones have been placed next to the monument built in 1967 at the end of the ramp. The writing on them is in all the many languages spoken in Auschwitz: Polish, English, Bulgarian, Gypsy, Czech, French, Russian, Greek, Serb, Spanish, German, Italian.
Zofia Pohorecka at the age of 20 years was imprisoned in the camp in Birkenau. After the war she lived in Oswiecim and she often met up with young German people who were visiting. She spoke to them about her survival and said that it was due to the care her friends gave her when she was seriously ill even though they knew they were endangering their own lives. She testified that friendship, love, and tender care make you strong.
In the Polish text of the way of the cross it is said: In the reality of this suffering, misery and human degradation one could also witness acts of goodness, which in the face of these surrounding were heroic. Through these testimonies let us learn never to give consent to evil and sin. There is no place where we can be exempted from the obligation to oppose evil and help those who suffer.
Dear Lord, Veronica comforted Christ in His pain, help us not to lose the ability for compassionate love in the face of brutal circumstances.
Jesus falls the second time under the cross
Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
Memories of the camp:
Here in the gas chamber of crematorium III, 2000 people were suffocated in one act with Cyclon B. Dentists would then pry open the mouth of the corpses with plyers and extract their gold teeth. It was as if ‘ human crime’ was celebrating its absolute triumph over God. We know that in those times- God’s silence was for many unbearable. Maybe this applies specifically for the Jews- because for them it meant the breaking of the Covenant , a twofold end of the world: of earth and of heaven. But this place of deepest contempt was also the place of invincible faith and prayer. From the gas chambers Jews could be heard singing the psalms. And from Father Maximilian Kolbe’s death-cell prayers could be heard.
In Auschwitz faith in God, who is love, was not destroyed. Half a century later, in summer 1992 a group of American Rabbis and Polish bishops prayed together the words of this Kaddish prayer:
May the Name of the Holy One be adored and praised, exalted and glorified, blessed and sanctified. May He be praised beyond all exaltations, hymns, honours, psalms, and homage that are ever spoken in the world. In memory of all who have been killed, He will be blessed and this will be a sign of peace for everyone.
Jesus comforts the crying women
A large crowd of people followed Jesus including many women
who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said,
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me;
weep instead for yourselves and for your children.”
Memories of the camp:
In the woods, behind the Auschwitz II camp, two houses from evacuated Polish people were rebuilt as gas chambers. One of them was called “the white house” or “Bunker II”. Close by two other barracks were built, in these the people were made to undress before entering the gas chambers. The corpses were then burnt in four open ditches that were nearby. It was here that many Dutch Catholics of Jewish origin were deported to. Amongst those brought here in the summer of 1942 was Edith Stein – the Carmelite nun Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross with her sister Rosa.
Jesus consoles the crying women. Although He is in suffering He is able to rise above Himself and be aware, and present, to take note of the pain of others. The more we know ourselves and work with ourselves, the more we can become truly free from ‘self.’ It is then possible for us to be aware of the suffering of others. We remember Edith Stein who also opened our eyes to the suffering of others. She, a Jewish Carmelite sister, leads us Christians to the Jews, and into solidarity with the victims who were killed here.
God of love, open the eyes of our hearts to the situation of the people around us. During this station we wish to pray especially for women who in times of conflict often carry the heaviest burdens. We pray for the respect of their dignity, that their beauty may never be exploited again and their strength may be valued in every people and culture. Let us learn from Jesus.
Jesus falls the third time under the cross
I waited, I waited for the Lord,
He bent down to me and heard my cry,
He brought me up out of the muddy pit, the mire and dust.
He set my foot on a rock and gave me a firm footing.
Memories of the camp:
Sometimes during the night, the inhabitants of the village on the other site of the river Wisla, could see in the light of the burning fires a procession of naked persons walking from the barracks to the gas chambers. They could hear the screams of people who had death before their eyes. During the day Polish workers who had been forced to build new crematoriums could observe how prisoners pulled ‘objects’ (which could not be distinguished), out of the doorways of the houses and loaded them on carts and then pushed them into ditches. Black smoke could be seen rising up from these ditches. Thousands of corpses were layered alternately with wood and then set alight with methanol.
Jesus falls for the third time under the cross. This means that He is at his limits end and that He is completely alone. No one consoles him, no one helps him. He cannot do other than surrender to his executioners. He has only his faith in God.
Theo Mechtenberg and Mieczyslaw Koscielniak, a former Auschwitz prisoner, wrote the “Way of the Cross of Maximilian Kolbe”:
After the horror of the day- follows no redeeming sleep.
Hunger cuts into the guts and pain seizes the limbs.
From the darkness rise tormented thoughts
And souls sink into loneliness.
Nightmares now dominate the narrow bunks
And shoulder to shoulder with fellow sufferers
The dead grow cold.
In the night, life is silently extinguished
Leaving behind only traces of the misery
With the end of suffering hope dies too.
Next to man in his deepest decline
Kneels the chosen One-
And in prayer testifies that
The end is a new beginning
“Elevation out of darkness into light”
and sanction of death.
Jesus is stripped of his robe
All that see me jeer at me; make faces at me and shake their heads;
they share out my garments amongst them
and cast lots for my cloth.
Ps 22: 8:19
Memories of the camp:
Philomena Franz, a Sinti, remembers: “When I arrived in Auschwitz on the 21st of April I was standing at the selection site when suddenly there was a terrible scream of: “Line up! Undress!” All undressed slowly. I was bitterly cold and all gooseflesh. Curious, assessing, and skilled looks were thrown at my body. The dress I had been wearing was quickly replaced by a heavy striped one, my feet were clad in heavy wooden clogs. In two minutes a civilian was changed into a prisoner of the concentration camp. We were marched in pairs to the women’s concentration camp, into stone barracks. Two SS men with bull-whips were waiting for us. A guard wanted to pull me onto a chair, but another called out, “Not her, her hair stays.” And then he ordered me to stand to one side and let down my hair, I had hair that fell to my knees. He said: “You look like a jungle princess.” A German woman next to me spoke: “You’ll go to the brothel, you will have it better there than in the camp.” Then my eyes are opened and I feel as if a grindstone is slowly grinding me to death. I close my eyes and I must lean against the wall so that I don’t fall. I think about my family that have been gassed here. My God what are you doing to me here. No, I can´t do it, I can´t bear it- this torment. I feel my blood circulation increasing and anger and frustration swell up in me. I tear at my dress and scream, “No, I won´t go into a brothel, you can shoot me now!” Then a female guard drags me onto a chair, pulls my head back and brutally cuts off my hair. I was number 10550.
The Auschwitz people became numbers without individuality. They were usable material to work and to give pleasure to the SS. They were raw material even after death: the hair, the gold teeth; yes, even their ashes were utilized. The prisoners tried to spare their personal dignity and help others not to lose theirs. For every single prisoner this meant to encourage each other to ‘stand the test’ and to inwardly preserve the consciousness of their own dignity.
Help us, Lord, not to judge by outward appearances but to relate to everyone in deep respect, always in awareness that there is a God given mystery in each one of us. When we too stand naked, when we too have nothing and nowhere to hide, then let us be honest with ourselves, with God, and all others, so that we stand in good conscience and without fear for loss of our dignity. Give us a faith like that of Jesus, whose example shows us that His life was completely embodied in God.
Jesus is nailed to the cross
They drove nails through my hands and feet.
They can count all my bones,
They stare at me and gloat.
Memories of the camp:
On Good Friday in 1942 Father Piotr Dankowski from Zakopane heard these words from the kapo: “Today you will be crucified like your Master.” Afterwards a heavy pile of wood was placed on Father Piotr’s shoulders. He fell several times under the weight until he died crushed beneath the boots of his murderers. In a punishment squad one of the prisoners a Jew, had a wreath of barbed wire pressed down on his head.
It is not the all powerful Aryan superman that reveals to us the truth about humankind but the Crucified One, who in his powerlessness is strong, because he is true. “Do not fear those, who can kill the body, but rather be afraid of the death of the spirit, the death of truth and the death of love!”
Often the victims were truly victorious in Auschwitz.
In the Polish trial of the commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Höß, the presiding judge, ‘Eimer’, said in his opening speech: “In the knowledge of our great responsibility towards the dead and the living, we do not wish to lose sight of what their fight was all about, that of the peoples’ love of freedom. Their biggest goal was the respect for human dignity. This should be shown to the accused, because before this jury stands first and foremost, a human being.”
Lord, teach us to walk straight, and to stand for truth, justice, mercy and solidarity even when we are nailed to the cross.
Give us the grace of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Protestant theologian, who in the presence of his forthcoming execution by the Nazis prayed:
Still the past torments our hearts;
Still we bear the heavy weight of wicked days.
O God, give our scared and frightened souls the salvation,
You have prepared us for.
And if you offer us the heavy cup of bitter suffering filled to the brim
We will take it thankfully without trembling
From your good beloved hand.
Good and wondrous powers are our protection
And so we wait, confident, whatever may come.
For God is with us in the evening and in the morning
And for sure on every new day.
Jesus dies on the cross
Jesus, we hear your cry: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
But we also hear: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
Memories of the camp:
One of the best known memories of the feeling of abandonment by God in Auschwitz, is from Elie Wiesel:
“Never will I forget this night, the first night in the camp
It will remain with me as being the longest night in my life
Never will I forget the smoke.
Never will I forget the small faces of the children before my eyes,
whose bodies rose up like coils of smoke into the blue heavens.
Never will I forget the flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never will I forget the silence in the night,
that took my lust for life away for all eternity.
Never will I forget the moment that killed my God, and my soul, and my dreams
which took on the face of the depraved.
Never will I forget even if I am sentenced to live as long as God:
At this place we need to pray for all those who in or after Auschwitz could pray no more. During this time the heavens of Auschwitz were horribly empty. No butterflies, no birds, there was no greenery. For many since then it has been empty in a religious sense – not being able to find God. We need to take this experience seriously and not take our faith too lightly.
We will now pray silently for a while.
The last and unfinished work of the Carmelite nun, Edith Stein, is called: “Science of the Cross”, in which she writes:
“We know that a point of time comes when the soul is transferred completely into darkness and emptiness. Nothing else remains for it to hold onto other than its faith. Faith puts Christ before her eyes: the poorly, the lowly, the crucified, forsaken even on the cross from God the Father. It is in His misery and loneliness that she finds herself and sees her own faith.”
Jesus is laid in the arms of his mother
By the cross stands His mother and His mother’s sister,
Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary of Magdala.
Memories of the camp:
Father Maximilian Kolbe, a devoted worshipper of Mother Mary, said in his last address before his arrest to his brothers in the monastery: “The King of Love we can honour in love; man can only give Him love as an offering. Love cannot be described any more deeply. Man must experience her. Heaven is nothing other than the ever deepening union with God through love.”
One year later Kolbe was dead. He went voluntarily to the starvation cell to save another prisoner’s life. Not only for Poland has he now become a symbol, the symbol for victory over the power of hate and death through the strength of faith and love.
At this station we want in particular to remember the Polish people, for its history often reflects the image of the Pietà, the Mother who carries her dead Son in her arms. The Icon of Częstochowa is also characterized by a sad gaze that represents not only the experience of suffering and death but also faith and belief in God’s promise.
Let us pray for Poland that has been crucified so often. May her sons and daughters stay true to God’s path so that they can overcome all hate, and walk the way of truth and justice. Hail Mary…
Jesus is laid in the tomb
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the Lord
and set me in the centre of the plain which was now filled with bones.
He made me walk among them in every direction,
so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain. How dry they were!
He asked me: “Son of man, can these bones come to life?”
“Lord God,” I answered, You alone know that.”
Then he said to me: Prophesy over these bones and say to them:
Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!
Thus says the Lord God to these bones:
See! I will put spirit into you that you may come to life.
I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin,
and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the Lord.
I prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise;
it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone.
I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them
and the skin cover them, but there was not spirit in them.
Then he said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, son of man, and say to the spirit:
Thus says the Lord God: From the four winds come, O spirit,
and breathe into these that are slain that they may come to life.
Then I prophesied as he told me, and the spirit came into them;
they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
They have been saying:
“Our bones are dried up our hope is lost and we are cut off.”
Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord God:
O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the Lord,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the Lord.
I have promised and I will do it, says the Lord.
The grave doesn’t have the last word. We believe that God doesn’t abandon us after death. But even here on earth we cannot allow the death of Auschwitz to have the last word. From the remains of the victims, like grains of wheat, a new life must rise up. Auschwitz must become a place that reminds the world of the dignity of man and that makes each of us responsible for world peace. As then, when people arrived here from all over Europe to die, so now, from here, the proclamation of the dignity of human life must be taken to the whole world. So as once there were many soldiers of death, so now we are all called to devote our lives to standing for peace, forgiveness and solidarity. If we give our life for this cause, we won’t be giving more than the victims have given.
O Lord, make us instruments of your peace,
To sow love where there is hatred,
Forgiveness where there is injustice,
Truth where there is doubt,
Hope where there is despair,
Light where there is darkness,
Joy where there is sadness.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in forgiving that we are forgiven,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
We conclude our journey in Auschwitz with the prayer of the Our Father. For with these words Jews and Christians can pray alike. Someone once said that “this prayer could have been composed in the concentration camp.”