Around the time that I was in 7th grade, I began to develop a deep love for learning about history, especially World War II. I vigorously read every book I could find on the topic. If you were to quiz me, I could have named off dates, given summaries of battles, and even told you personal testimonies from those who had been in concentration camps or fought on the front lines. I marked on the map of Europe the major sites of World War II that I dreamed I would be able to visit some day when I was older. Here I am, 8 years later, having my dreams become a reality.
Two weekends ago, I was able to visit two of the most well known sites of World War II: Auschwitz and Birkenau. Our tour group began at Auschwitz. We walked through the iron gate at the entrance that reads, “Arbeti macht frei,” or, “Works bring freedom.” As I walked through the gate, I thought about how fortunate I was that I would be able to walk back out. We were able to tour through many different buildings including the prisoner’s barracks and the gas chambers.
Our second stop was a short drive away to Birkenau. We hopped off of the bus and walked through the massive brick entry way which opened up to a large, flat area of land covered with the remains of the camp’s buildings. As far as the eye could see, there were remains of what the camp once was.
There is something so striking about having history transcend beyond the words and pictures in a textbook to a physical reality. No amount of learning could have prepared me for the knot I felt in my stomach as I walked along the grounds of the camps.
It was only too fitting that we ended our trip with a visit to the Divine Mercy Shrine. It was a beautiful witness to the fact that even in the darkest moments, such as the tragedy of the Holocaust, God showers us with his love and mercy.
It is such a huge blessing to attend Franciscan University where the study abroad program has become commonplace among the student body. I would say roughly 85% of the people I know have gone to or are planning to go to Austria. Sometimes I forget how awesome and rare of an opportunity that is. Most other schools do not have a program like ours.