“Spread the gospel,” he announced, shaking the shoulders of dozing college kids a few rows ahead of me, gesturing to the rest of us in the back of the bus. “We’ll be there in five minutes.”
Torben is our professor for a class on the Holocaust. His Danish-accented English is endearing, and so is the hoop earring in his left ear. He often wears denim shirts with layers of a pinstriped vest and gray sweatshirt. I’m not sure how many packs of cigarettes he’s smoked in our four days in Poland, but it’s a part of who he is. When we’re on the bus, he never clears his throat into the loudspeaker system, startling everyone. He always walks down the aisle, gently waking us up until the bus is humming again. It is an honor to learn from him.
Out the window are signs advertising sights in Oświęcim: the castle, town hall, a cultural center. Our destination is straight ahead: the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Although Oświęcim is the Polish name for this town, Auschwitz is its German name, a name effectively destroyed when it was slapped on the three concentration and extermination camps located here.
An older Polish man stands outside his car dealership on the side of the main road, staring down the line of cars and charter busses and taxis on their way to Auschwitz. The Holocaust brings over a million people to his town every year, but I wonder how many of us invest in Oświęcim beyond paying for the charter bus and lunch at a restaurant right outside the camp–I wonder how that makes him feel.
We spend two hours in Auschwitz I, now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Auschwitz I was the original camp, small and cramped. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was constructed to ease congestion at the original camp; it’s at least five times bigger, meant to hold over 100,000 prisoners at once. Walking the entirety of Birkenau takes several hours, so our day isn’t over until after the sun sets. There are few lampposts left, and the devastation of this camp feels even more recent in dim light: a mom, or child, or grandfather could have suffered in this very spot.
All sorts of people–Jews, Poles, and Gypsies in large numbers–were shipped to Auschwitz I or Auschwitz II-Birkenau in the 1940s under the orders of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party’s leader, and Heinrich Himmler, his second-in-command and the head of the Schutzstaffel. The SS staffed concentration and extermination camps; they were the men on the front lines of punishing and killing prisoners. People arrived to these camps after several days in cattle cars, jumping out onto the platform with a suitcase or child in hand.
The SS stood on the platform waiting to decide their fate.
In two lines, separated by gender, they were separated further based on ability to work. Those who could were rewarded with survival, but living in a place like Auschwitz was usually just a prolonged death sentence. Those who couldn’t work would soon meet the end of their lives at the gas chambers and furnaces–death by a pesticide and the evidence destroyed by a hot oven. One of the jobs at Birkenau was taking an L-shaped knife to the chimney, scraping caked human fat from the bricks.
Camp, in this sense, reeks of murder and hatred and heartlessness and cowardice.
Before this trip, camp would have never been such a devastating word to me. I learned my definition of camp after a week in Minnesota in 2011, and a month in Michigan in 2012, and another month in Georgia in 2014. To me, camp is Young Life camp, and camp is new life.
On July 31st, 2011, I hopped off a charter bus, the same kind we took to Auschwitz in 2015, to a celebration, a chorus of “Welcome to Castaway! We’re so glad you’re here! Best week of your life!” The work crew was a group of high schoolers just a little bit older than I was, giving up a month of their summer to work in housekeeping or landscaping or dishwashing. They dropped those jobs for one afternoon a week to welcome new campers. They carried our duffel bags and backpacks to the cabins while we quick-changed into swimsuits for a banana boat ride around the lake and several blob jumps too many.
Camp was a place where I saw older, more qualified people laying down their lives for me, as an example of Jesus, the One whose sacrifice truly mattered. The work crew gave up summer jobs to work for free and my college Young Life leaders took a week out of summer internships or important college-person-things to care about me. Some adults had even given up having a traditional career to work full-time for this ministry, spending school years at basketball games and summers at camp, all the time telling high school kids how much they are valued and cherished by the Lord of the universe.
Camp there was a canvas of freedom, strokes painted by my Young Life leaders talking with me for hours over chips and salsa, painted by the work crew clearing our tables, painted by the camp speaker spending time on each of his talks.
Camp in Auschwitz was a death sentence. “Arbeit macht frei” stands tall outside the entrance of Auschwitz I; it means “work makes you free.” It’s a lie–in a concentration camp, nothing makes you free. The phrase is a bastardization from a novel about gamblers and con men finding their way to morality through work. It makes me angry that the meaning of camp has been bastardized too, changed from the haven I know to a place of such sin–a hell.
The Lord is placing comparison after comparison in front of my eyes. At the end of our Birkenau tour, Torben stops us on one of the main roads, looking at a field to our left. He tells us about Mexico, the section of Birkenau that was never completed. This was where hundreds of women were given one blanket and ordered to sit out in the field. They died shivering under their blankets.
Probably the most ubiquitous part of Young Life camp is the fifteen minutes. This is a time where campers spread out across camp, given special time alone to pray. It’s dark, so camp is dotted with little cross-legged bodies and a few lamps along the main path. When Torben explained Mexico to us, with prisoners huddled out alone in fields until death, the fifteen minutes popped into my head. The images might look similar, but the experiences are far from. The fifteen minutes is when some campers accept Christ into their lives, where they are celebrated in heaven and on earth. But in Birkenau, prisoners out in the field didn’t get a celebration–they didn’t even get survival.
I don’t write this to say that Young Life camp, or any camp where killing isn’t part of the agenda, is blameless. That isn’t true. But in these places, I’ve been given the opportunity to be ushered into a new life, both with Christ eternally and of joy here on earth. I know this is true for my friends who grew up at different camps–Pine Cove, Summer’s Best Two Weeks, Sky Ranch, the list goes on. What a blessing we have been given through these places, and what a responsibility to continue to provide it for others, so no one has to learn the devastating definition of camp places like Auschwitz conjure.