Shining Light on the Darkest Corners of History

I could not really conceive of what Auschwitz-Birkenau truly was until we climbed off our bus and walked down the gravel path towards its entrance. “Auschwitz” was black and white photographs in textbooks alongside words on a page. These photographs disconnected me to its place in history, giving the site an eerie and archaic feel. It was as though this place existed only in the past and was inaccessible to us now. The black and white photos immortalize Auschwitz-Birkenau in the darkest corners of history; I could not feel its presence in today’s world. These old photos of the barracks, gas chambers, and watch towers show contrasting shades of darkness and light, their red brick and chimneys standing against a stark, white sky. I was able to feel this same contrast when I walked through the camp. The darkness of Auschwitz became present, though not in the ways I expected, and I no longer felt disconnected from this depraved piece of history.

As we entered through the wrought iron gates, the iniquitous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” looming above us, I did not see the darkness I anticipated from the photos. I saw red brick buildings constructed for the Polish army as barracks prior to World War II. The bricks were carefully laid, the buildings constructed to last. A bird’s-eye view of the area depicts a gridded, regimented landscape lined with trees. As strange as it sounds, Auschwitz was aesthetically pleasing. I did not see the darkness I was anticipating. I saw sunshine reflecting off windows and leaves rustling with the wind, like a day at a summer camp rather than a site of mass death and evil. The uniformity of the buildings and the trees that lined them were almost picturesque.

Yet, this darkness still felt so present. Though I could not see it, I could feel it. I walked around Auschwitz-Birkenau conflicted by my perceptions. Death could be felt so strongly, but the landscape suggested nothing of the atrocities that occurred here. I imagined guards in the watchtowers 70 years ago, observing feeble prisoners dragging along the gravel paths back to their barracks, paralleled by the same tree-lined buildings I was seeing today.


St. Maximilian Kolbe provided light for others in the darkest times (

This feeling of darkness intensified inside of the buildings. We were led into the basement of a building, Block 11, that housed torture rooms. As we descended the stairs, the air became chillier and the ventilation poorer. We were prompted to look inside the cells intended for starvation or suffocation. The second to last cell once held St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest who volunteered for death in place of a stranger. After a prisoner escaped, the Nazis chose 10 prisoners at random to be executed as an example to the rest of the camp. St. Maximilian sacrificed his life in place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had a wife and children. St. Maximilian survived for over two weeks in the cell he was supposed to be starved in and ultimately received a lethal injection that led to his death.

I stared into the dark cell, which was transformed into a shrine of sorts for St. Maximilian. The flickers of the flames from three candles elicited the same strange contrast of darkness and light I found in the black and white photographs. The flames illuminated the small cell just enough to read a plaque beneath them and observe a picture on the back wall. Somehow, this dark cell was still a beacon of light, as St. Maximilian was to other prisoners in the camp. The contrasts of dark and light in this moment were not products of exposure or shadows created by photographic techniques, but of the light of hope in the darkness of death.

I experienced this light throughout the camp. I could not remove the image of St. Maximilian’s cell from my mind. I walked through the camp with the sight of three flickering flames illumining my thoughts. These flames were the smallest light in such a vast darkness, and a symbol of hope in a world and history of death.

As the skies overhead blackened with an approaching storm, we walked the remaining areas of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz in my mind—the Auschwitz I had read about on a page in a textbook and seen through black and white photographs—was real. It was present. As I walked through it, the dichotomy of darkness and light persisted. Auschwitz was a site of extreme darkness penetrated by slivers of light. Today, in color and in person, this darkness was only a feeling. It could not be seen in the shadowy, eerie way the photographs suggested. I looked back up at the skies continuing to cloud. The sun never disappeared. Even as it began to rain and thunder rumbled in the distance, the sun was still shining.

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