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by Norman Kolenbrander
As we drove out of the city of Krakow, Poland, strips of ripening barley, oats, and rye unfurled outside the windows of our van. Our driver knew the road well and negotiated it effortlessly. Rows of foot-high corn, blooming potato plants, and red raspberry bushes now joined the tapestry. Vineyards and orchards began to appear on hillsides. Black and white cows accented green pastures—a truly bucolic scene.
From time to time we rolled through luxuriant forests. We came upon a sturdy cottage fronted by pink hollyhocks and around a curve appeared a large home featuring a front garden with a statue of the Virgin Mary wearing her traditional blue robes. To complete the picture, she was flanked by white roses. This journey seemed to offer a vision of Shalom.
Then as we stopped at a crossroads, I spotted a sign offering an alternative vision—arrows pointing to twin destinations: Auschwitz, Birkenau. The forest we now entered suddenly seemed so dark I wondered if the sun had gone into eclipse.
As we neared Auschwitz and passed through the entrance gates, I noticed a railroad track running directly parallel to our road.
Later, as I listened to our guide, the term “the end of the line,” took on a new and ominous significance for me. The railroad track literally ended at the entrance to one of the gas chambers with a crematorium chimney looming just beyond it.
Hitler envisioned and implemented the epitome of evil called “the final solution,” to vent his hatred of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and “mongrel races.” In this place and others, men, women, and children were worked to death, starved to death, tortured to death, gassed to death, and then incinerated on an industrial scale.
An ancient prayer kept running through my head and heart as we toured both Auschwitz and Birkenau: Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.
As it happened, on the day before our trip to the gates of hell, I had learned that President Donald Trump would be visiting Poland in the next week. I now wondered if he might take the time to visit these sobering and instructive sites. I wondered if doing so might help him appreciate the value of NATO’s working to keep the peace in Europe since World War II. I wondered if our president might gain a new appreciation of the European Union and even the value of sane, truthful, and respectful discourse.
For what journeys-end do we live and work and pray?
Norman Kolenbrander is a “retired” Reformed Church minister, residing in Pella, Iowa.