Orange and red streaked the Eastern sky awakening the countryside around Oœwiêcim, Poland. But, Wojciech Dybrowski was oblivious to the beauty around him. Flowers made their appearance after a long winter’s nap. Trees budded. Birds sang and busied themselves with nest building. None of spring’s joys mattered on this Good Friday, April 7, 1944.
That night, two Jews, Alfréd Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, escaped from Birkenau, the mammoth 432 acre death camp slightly less than two miles from Auschwitz, a former Polish army base converted into a slave and death camp for Jews and enemies of the Nazi state. Auschwitz commandant, SS Lieutenant Colonel, Rudolf Franz Hoess, raged in anger against the prisoners shivering in the early spring night. Wojciech knew punishment followed escapes – punishment in blood and death.
Guards cudgeled prisoners for not standing at attention. Well-fed German Shepherds stood at ready to attack on command. Tortured with hunger, feverish, and exhausted, Wojciech mustered all his energy to stand hour after hour after hour. One man then another and another fell to the ground. If they weren’t dead, the guards finished them off by kicking and beating them. And just to be sure, a revolver was placed at the head of the fallen man and his brains were blown out. Weaklings had no purpose in Auschwitz.
The prisoners faced northeast where the sun would soon attempt to drive away the grayness around them. In front of them were the gallows flooded by lights. It all seemed surreal to Wojciech. How could a human mind conceive the brutality, barbarous injustice, the executions, and the crematories? The living skeletons with glazed over eyes surrounded him.
Hoess cursed and shouted, “Twenty of you will die!” Ten to die for each one who escaped. Nazi justice.
Wojciech listened to the numbers. Listened for his number to be called. With each number came sobs and cries for mercy. A soldier beat the prisoner and dragged him forward to the noose. Only one hope remained for these human rags – the hope to die.
As the men were forced up the gallows, the German band assembled and played the children’s song, “Alle Vögel sind schon da” – all the birds are back again.
For further punishment, Hoess announced that there would be no morning rations which consisted of a few ounces of bread, an ounce of salami, and tasteless coffee – barely enough to stay alive to do the slave labor forced upon them.
The siren went off to signify that it was time to form into work groups for the twelve hours of hard labor ahead. SS guards armed with automatic weapons escorted the men to their work sites outside the walls.
Dybrowski had been reassigned from the IG Farben factory which used slave labor to make synthetic rubber for army vehicles and Zyklon B gas to exterminate millions of innocent victims in the Nazi gas chambers. Wojciech Dybrowski’s new assignment? Toiling in the fields.
A touch of spring was in the air. Plowing in the rural fields around Auschwitz would begin soon. They needed fertilizing on this Good Friday.
Dybrowski stumbled behind the wagon loaded with fertilizer. The big pack horse strained to pull the load through the soft earth. Climbing aboard the wagon, he and a few others began the hideous job of spreading the human ashes from the crematorium over the field.
Wojciech glanced up. The sunrise caught his eye. One day melted into another. Always the same. Just another day to try and survive. Unexpectedly, he was aware. Good Friday. The day the innocent Savior was victimized and crucified at the hands of barbaric and brutal men.
Wojciech reached for the broom and swept out the remaining ashes on to the field. The warming sun melted the little patches of snow left from an early spring snow fall. While he waited for another wagon load of human remains to enter the field, his mind drifted to pleasant scenes of yesterday.
He was twenty again. It was 1933. His little sister was dressed in finest array. Mom and dad sat with them in the pew of the magnificent and beautiful St. Margaret’s Cathedral listening to Father Josef Woda’s Good Friday sermon. “The sacrifice of Christ on the cross makes us free. No matter what our circumstances. In prison, the Apostle Paul testified that he was not a prisoner of Rome but of Christ. The rulers were really the ones in shackles – bound by hate, lust, and power. Because Jesus suffered on the cross, we are free. Liberated. At peace with God and one another.”
Slowly, row by row, the congregants filed to the front of the church to receive the holy sacrament. “This is the body of Christ given for you.”
Friends and family walked home together talking about the changes in Germany’s government and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. On March 23, less than a month before Good Friday, the German Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act, granting Hitler dictatorial powers. Some were worried. Others thought nothing of it. Wojciech was not really interested in their political talk. His eyes were on the beautiful Alina. She was well named. Her name meant beautiful. He moved in her direction and began a conversation that he hoped would lead to more interesting things ahead.
“Gang bringen” – get going, the guard shouted with an oath. Wojciech almost crumbled from the blow of the cudgel across his back. He pushed his shovel into the pile of ashes and scattered them in the field soon to be plowed and planted. The ashes of death would make life spring from the cold ground. Killing humans to feed humans with the harvest from the field.
At noon, Wojciech received his ration of soup – a quart of water with a few carrots and rutabagas. Quickly, the slave-prisoners resumed their ungodly task until dusk finally came.
The guards marched the hapless men, weary and broken, back to camp and through the gate under the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” – work makes you free. The German band just inside the gate welcomed them with the popular German song, “The Best Times of My Life” in an attempt to destroy them psychologically.
At the parade ground, roll call began. Fifteen died from slave labor on that Good Friday day. Murdered from starvation, ill treatment, sickness, and brutal conditions. Six more collapsed during the two hour roll call. Meanwhile, the never ending smoke from the crematoriums rose. Each day, thousands arrived -stuffed in cattle cars like animals. Most children were immediately sent to the gas chambers along with the elderly, weak, and infirm. The Nazis had no use for them.
The emaciated men formed lines to receive their evening ration – bread and a piece of moldy cheese.
Wojciech Dybrowski had been taken out of the barracks where ten men slept sideways in the bunk. There was no heat in the barracks. No running water, and only a few toilets where the inmates were limited to a monitored ten seconds to do their business.
Wojciech had been beaten and sentenced to Block 11 one freezing morning in early January for breaking formation at roll call to help a fellow Pole who was a childhood friend. The weakened man had collapsed and Wojciech intervened to prevent the guard from kicking him in the head and killing him. But, his heroic efforts were in vain.
Some of the cells in Block 11 were only eighteen inches square. All a man could do was stand up. A tiny air hole at the top of one wall was the only connection to the outside world. Sometimes, three or four men were forced into one of these cells. Some went mad. Others suffocated.
Wojciech’s cell was just large enough for him to lie down. The straw was alive with fleas and lice. A little field mouse managed to find his way in and out of Wojciech’s tiny dungeon looking for a morsel of food. The prisoner felt sorry for the rodent and envied its freedom. “Hungry, too” my friend,” he said. He took a crumb from his moldy supper ration and gave it to the little critter. He talked to the mouse without fear of reprisal since he was forbidden to talk during the day.
“Pawe³ (Paul). That’s what I’ll name you,” Paul. The Apostle too was beaten and confined to the innermost cell of the Philippian dungeon with his friend, Silas. There, they sang and praised God in their agony. So, Wojciech prayed and sang the hymns of his faith. He prayed for his wife, Alina, and wondered where she was. Had she been arrested? Was she in a concentration camp? Which one? He prayed for his ten year old son Krzysztof, and six year old daughter, Nastusia – as beautiful as her mother. What had become of them? Would he ever see his family again? Grief and sorrow welled up inside of him. A tear trickled down his cheek. Wojciech forced himself to live in hopes of seeing them again.
A glimmer from the outside flood lights cast a shadowy light through the air hole. There was just enough light for Wojciech to continue his work of etching something on the wall with his finger nail. He worked on his art night after night, and tonight, it would be complete. He looked at the face and felt a degree of comfort.
Looking up at the face, he laid down on the straw covering the floor and went into a coughing spasm. The cough was getting worse. He turned and spit out another mouthful of greenish sputum and finally went into an exhausted, fitful sleep.
The recurring nightmare played like an old scratched record. He and two other friends in the Polish underground were meeting secretly in the upstairs attic at Aleksy’s home near the the Dunajec River on Czarna Street.
He dreamed of that horrible August of 1942, when ten thousand Jews from his home town of Nowy Sącz, were loaded into cattle cars and deported to the Belzec extermination camp.
He dreamed about his three friends discussing plans for moving a Jewish family who escaped the deportation to a new hiding place. They were to rendezvous with another member of the underground on the western side of St. Catherine’s Basilica at 5:45PM and receive further instructions. It was the Christian thing to do.
Several of their Jewish friends were taken in the Nazi round-up in Hitler’s effort to exterminate the entire race of Jews in Europe. They were heart broken and angry at the injustice of it all. Something had to be done to save the remnant who had gotten away.
Their town in southern Poland had welcomed the Jews. The Great Synagogue dated back to 1746. A third of their town was Jewish. There were those who had tried to help their friends and failed. Five hundred Christians were executed for their part in sheltering Jews from Hitler’s henchmen. Now in the fall of 1944, only a handful of Jews remained out of 25,000 – secretly shuffled from shelter to shelter and hiding place to I hiding place. Members of the underground shared their precious rations with them. These men and woman were fearless and compassionate.
Wojciech’s family had fled to his uncle’s farm in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains thirty-five miles south of Nowy Sacz. He hoped his family would be safe from the Nazi butchery enveloping his town. No one could be trusted. Friends turned on friends. The occupiers offered cash payments for members of the underground and other dissidents.
Secret code words, hand signs, and looking over their shoulders were all part of the noble effort to save the few remaining Jews from the merciless Nazi killers.
As the three men made last minute plans for the undercover operation, Aleksy’s front door came crashing down. SS troops. Boots stomped up the stairs. They found the secret passage to the attic.
Wojciech woke up coughing almost uncontrollably with his brow wet from fever. The siren blasted. A guard opened his cell. Morning roll call.
By noon, Wojciech Dybrowski was coughing up blood. He barely had enough strength to scatter the ashes on the field. But, he forced himself summoning his last bit of diminishing strength.
Alone again in his cell that night, he crumpled into the straw. No more nightmares. No more coughing. No more feverish fits.
The siren screamed. It was Easter morning at Auschwitz. Somewhere in the world, church bells called the faithful to celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.
In the pre-dawn darkness, the soldier unlocked the cell door. His German army uniform was made with fabric from women’s hair shaved after the doomed arrivals came to Auschwitz bound for the gas chambers. Nothing was wasted by the efficient Germans.
The soldier shouted at Dybrowski to get up. Wojciech lay on his side. His left arm flung across his body. His right arm tattooed with his inmate number stretched out on the straw. The guard kicked him in the stomach and cursed him. “Get up, you worthless piece of dung!”
Wojciech’s eyes flickered open. Next to the German, another figure stood. He leaned down, put his hand on Wojciech’s searing forehead, and whispered softly in his ear. “You’ve done well my faithful servant. Come with me.”
That Easter morning, Wojciech Dybrowski, escaped his savage tormentors. A band of angels welcomed him into the celestial city singing the Polish Easter hymn, “ WSTA£ PAN CHRYSTUS.”
Christ has risen as predicted, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Saved His faithful in affliction, Alleluia, Alleluia.
On the third day from His Passion, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Suffering for man in cruel fashion, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Over the gates of pearl were the words, “Christ has made you free.” He entered the city that does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light. Dressed in regal robes of righteousness with the crown of life upon his head, Wojciech was seated at the great wedding supper of the Lamb.
Wojciech could contain himself no longer. He ran to the Lamb upon the throne, took off his crown and cast it at his feet crying, “You are worthy, my Lord and my God, to receive glory and honor and power for you have conquered evil, death, and hell and have given everlasting life to your suffering servant who loves you and lived for you.”
The German guard called for the body collector. Wojciech’s lifeless body was thrown into a wheel barrow with two others and taken to the furnace. All Wojciech left behind was fuel for the crematorium and fertilizer for the fields.
I was in a group of American tourists who walked under the entrance to Auschwitz on a beautiful Palm Sunday morning in 1999. Untouched by time, the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” greeted us. The neat rows of barracks with manicured grass between them looked very much like a college campus betraying the horrors that took place within the walled compound.
Our tour guide took us past Block 10 where Dr. Josef Mengele had conducted ghastly experiments on children. Mengele tried to unlock genetic secrets to create an Aryan race superior to all other races on earth. He injected blue dye into the eyes of the children in an attempt to change their eye color to blue. He carried out twin-to-twin transfusions, stitched twins together, castrated and sterilized twins without using an anesthetic. His doctors injected children with lethal germs, performed sex change operations, and removed their organs and limbs all in an effort to make “designer” babies. Pregnant women at Auschwitz had their babies removed from their wombs before they were born. These babies were just a glob of tissue to Mengele to test his theories. When finished with them, they were tossed away like yesterday’s garbage.
Hitler and his disciples like Mengele fully subscribed to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Survival of the fittest. Selection of the species. Mengele purposed to unlock the genetic secrets through inhuman means to create a species of mankind who would be superior to all others and make the inferior and weak serve the superior as slaves. Mengele was obsessed with creating the super Aryan race no matter the suffering, terror, or ethics involved.
We stood shocked, speechless, and sad. Eyes moistened and turned into tears as we listened to the guide.
Next, we were taken into Block 11. We followed tour guide down the hall to a tiny cell. The guide opened the door. The eyes of the tourists adjusted to the grim darkness. The guide asked, “Can you see it? Can you see the portrait on the wall under the air hole?”
One by one, we began to make out a face. “It was carved by an inmate’s fingernails,” the tour guide explained. “Here, let me turn on a light that the museum installed. You will be able to see it clearly.” She reached for the switch on the wall, and the light made the darkness flee. Shining through the suffering, death, injustice, pain, and inhumanity of Auschwitz was the face of Jesus that a Polish inmate had carved in his night of nights.
We regrouped outside Block 11. In hushed silence, we could faintly hear the church bells in Oœwiêcim calling the faithful to worship.