Click here to see Hattie's photos from Auschwitz.
By David Myers
Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a two-part series on Diocesan Addictions Counselor Hattie Stein’s recent trip to Russia and Poland. Part I, which highlighted her experience in Russia, ran in the Jan. 25 issue.
In the heart of Poland stands one of the most horrifying monuments to inhumanity that exists today, and it’s one that Wright resident Hattie Stein, an addictions counselor for Catholic Social Service’s Rural Family and Behavioral Services program, recently visited.
“It’s really hard to wrap your mind around what happened at Auschwitz,” she said.
In late 2008, Stein was one of 25 people from the United States invited to visit addiction treatment centers in St. Petersburg, Russia and Warsaw, Poland. At the end of her four days in St. Petersburg, she spent an additional four days in Poland.
“The thing that amazed me about Poland is the history,” she said, “just how many people have occupied Poland: the Swedes, Russia, Finland, and Germany of course.”
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, precipitating the start of World War II. The result was the total destruction of Warsaw, but not before hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews, and many others, were forced into the “Warsaw Ghetto,” and later into death camps such as Auschwitz, located three hours by train from Krakow.
“They were promised that they were going to a new land; that’s how they got them on the train.”
Stein said that the rails that brought her and the other counselors to the camp were the same ones on which traveled trains filled with prisoners destined for Auschwitz some 70 years ago.
“When they first got off the train, they were dirty and hungry; the only water they had to drink came from when they would be showered down. Some were told to go into rooms that had pipes. Gas crystals were released and in 20 minutes all would be dead.
“We saw the ovens, the crude, inhumane bathrooms. There was no privacy, no nothing. It was extremely cold. Cattle had more protection and better facilities than these people had.
“We went into one room where a doctor did experiments on women and children. There are no words to describe that kind of destruction, that kind of evil -- no words that make it as destructive as it was.”
Stein said that one glassed-in room was filled with human hair.
“They shipped hair back to Germany to make clothing. There was another huge room that was full of suitcases. They wrote their names on their suitcases because they were going to a new land. It wasn’t just Jewish people; there were Polish people, Germans who didn’t abide, Latvians. It’s so overwhelming.”
Unlike Warsaw, the city of Krakow, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II, survived the war relatively unscathed. Stein said that there was an understanding that Krakow would not be part of the war.
“In Krakow they still have their medieval buildings,” she said. “It looked like Robin Hood could appear from atop one of the buildings. They say it is the city of churches; they have 147 churches in Krakow, most of which are Catholic. Poland is 80 percent Catholic, 70 percent of whom are practicing. Pope John Paul II is everywhere: statues, billboards, large placards; his presence there is amazing.”
Down the street from their hotel stands the 1,000-year-old St. Andrew’s Church. Stein is a member of St. Andrew’s Parish in Wright, which is celebrating its centennial. It seemed coincidental, she said.
“In the United States, if a church is 150 years old, that’s old. The steps going into the church were made out of stone, but in the middle where you walk, it was worn down from all the people. Right next to St. Andrew’s was a cloistered convent of nuns. The guide commented that once they go in there, they cannot leave, even when Pope John Paul II came to Krakow -- where his home is, where he said his first Mass, where he went to school -- they couldn’t even leave the convent to see John Paul.”
Whereas in Russia Stein felt a sense of oppression, she said that in Poland, “there is freedom to be themselves; it is actually more like home.” Together, the group of American counselors enjoyed a Chopin concert presented by a professor from the University of Warsaw.
“We also went shopping in the ‘old town’ and my, what a delight. There were horse drawn carriages everywhere, and quaint shops with everything you could possible want.”
While overseas, Stein was able to keep in communication with the people back home through an Internet blog that has been published on the Catholic Social Service website: www.catholicsocialservice.org (click on the message board).
Stein’s final submission reads: “Thank you to all that participated on the trip with me, for you will never know how heartwarming it was to be that far away and to hear from family and friends. God truly has blessed me with great family and friends.”