In one small room in the Polish countryside, the horrors of the Holocaust are preserved in sickening detail.
What appeared to be a simple concrete room was in reality used as a gas chamber. A hole in the wall had been cut where poisonous Zyklon B seeped to suffocate prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Scratch marks still marred the wall where the dying prisoners had desperately tried to claw their way out.
For Jill Howard, the images were almost too terrible to process. As pastor of Morgantown United Methodist Church, she had come to Auschwitz as part of an outreach trip with the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute.
CANDLES Holocaust Museum
What: A museum remembering the experiences of 1,500 sets of twins who were the victims of genetic experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
Where: 1532 S. Third St., Terre Haute
When: Opened in 1995
Founder: Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the experiments
“We were only in the gas chamber for a few minutes, and upon exiting, I noticed that many of us were in tears,” she said. “I thought I was holding it together pretty well until we started walking away, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
She was accompanied by Terre Haute resident Eva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor who endured genetic experiments at Auschwitz. Howard said she knew the trip would be emotionally difficult, but she hoped to get a deeper insight not just of the evil that made the Holocaust possible but the forgiveness that Kor and other Holocaust survivors embodied.
“The sign at the CANDLES museum has this phrase in Hebrew: ‘tikkun olam,’ which means, ‘Healing the world.’ Each of us is charged with that task,” Howard said. “I hope that this journey will continue to plant seeds in my own life, that as a minister I can pass on to others.”
The CANDLES Museum was founded in 1995 to recognize the victims of Nazi genetic experiments. Under Dr. Josef Mengele, 3,000 children, all twins, were subjected to experimentation.
They were injected with unknown germs to determine the effects the germs would have on the human body. One twin was the “guinea pig” while the other served as the experiment’s control.
Kor and her twin sister, Miriam Mozes Zeiger, started the mission to find survivors of Mengele. They found 122 survivors and created the CANDLES Museum to tell their story.
Howard was born and raised Jewish and converted to Christianity later in life.
Her time in the Jewish faith taught her the importance of remembering the Holocaust and ensuring that a similar tragedy never happens again.
She participated in Holocaust remembrance events as a teenager in Knoxville, Tenn., and studied literature from the Holocaust in college.
Taking a trip to one of the most brutal concentration camps of World War II was something she felt very strongly about.
“Even though my personal faith journey had led me to Christianity, I wanted to continue to learn about and honor my Jewish roots, which included taking part in Holocaust remembrance and opportunities to learn,” she said.
‘No life here’
After converting to Christianity and becoming a pastor, Howard served in a church in Terre Haute. There, she met Kor and became active in the CANDLES mission.
Kor makes regular trips to Poland to talk about her experience in the concentration camps. Howard had wanted to go for years, but circumstances never allowed.
Finally, when she learned about a trip scheduled for June, she felt now was the right time to go.
“I just couldn’t put it off any longer. I felt that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.
Howard and other members of the CANDLES group spent seven days in Poland. They visited locations such as the city of Krakow to see cathedrals such as the Basilica of the Virgin Mary, and eat pierogies in the city square.
The group went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, from which salt mining started in the 13th century and continued until 2007.
Over the years, artists had carved mythical figures into the salt accumulated throughout the mine.
But most of the trip was spent touring the concentration camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. During the tours, the group trailed behind Kor, listening to her comments over wireless headphones.
They went through barracks, where as many as 700 people at one time were housed. They passed through the corridors and out into the courtyards where people were rounded up and sorted.
At one point, Kor looked down at the grass.
“How is it possible that green grass grows here now? It was always gray with ashes. Green is a sign of life. There was no life here,” she said.
‘Just like any of us’
Standing near a cattle car that transported Jews to the camp, Kor told her story of getting out of the cattle car with her mother and twin sister.
They were separated from their father and other sister, neither of whom Kor ever saw again.
“She described the screaming and the tears on the scene and the smell of smoke and decay as soon as they got off the cattle car,” Howard said. “After telling the Nazis that they were twins, they were taken to the barracks to be stripped, heads shaved, disinfected and received their tattoos.”
After the camp was liberated, a wall was set aside as a memorial. Photographs that prisoners had brought with them — of families, spouses and happier times — still cover the wall.
“It was a beautiful honoring of those who had died but very, very sad. They looked just like any of us,” Howard said.
At the Auschwitz I camp, Howard and the rest of the group somberly walked through the gas chambers.
They passed grisly reminders of the millions who had died in the camp — more than 80,000 shoes collected from prisoners, prayer shawls that had been confiscated, a display of empty canisters of Zyklon B.
On one of the walls in the concentration camp-turned-museum is an enlargement of a picture taken when Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz. Kor and her sister are right at the front of the group, and their ghostly images stare back at you.
“We relived the liberation with her as she walked through the barbed wires once more and told her story,” Howard said.
During the trip, Howard was able to spend some one-on-one time with Kor. She asked about her faith and whether she was active in the Jewish community. Kor replied that she supported the temple but was not expressly active in Judaism.
‘An emotional moment’
But that didn’t affect her ability to forgive.
“For Eva, forgiveness is about self-empowerment — something you do for yourself for inner peace, and it allows you to live a life that opens more doors than anything else you can do for yourself,” Howard said. “It’s really about the will of the mind and emotions of the heart. That’s where forgiveness comes from and that’s what it’s for.”
The heart of the trip was that spirit of forgiveness.
At the loading platform at Auschwitz, Kor read letters of forgiveness she wrote to her parents, both of whom were killed in the concentration camp. She touched on the fact that her father refused to leave Poland even as the Nazis were approaching, and it led to their family’s capture.
“It was quite an emotional moment as we got a glimpse into her childhood and her painful relationship with her father, and a glimpse of how incredibly painful and unimaginable it was for her to be ripped apart from her mother on the platform, never to be seen again,” she said.
Before leaving the camps for the last time, each member of the group gathered at the “execution wall,” where prisoners were lined up and shot by the Nazis.
They lit candles as part of a remembrance ceremony and said a few words about their hopes for the world.
Walking the grounds one final time, Howard said she thought about the immensity of the Holocaust and the misery that had played out throughout the camp grounds.
Though terrible beyond imagination, she wanted to use what she had seen to teach about acceptance, tolerance and love.
“If we remember that in our words and actions, and work to be the best version of ourselves to others, then the hope, the expectation should be that that person will carry that on,” Howard said. “Just imagine how people could impact and change the world for the better.”
What: A complex of concentration camps in Poland used by the Nazis in World War II to imprison and often kill Jews and other minority groups.
Operation: 1940 to 1945
Total number of people deported to Auschwitz: 1.3 million
Where prisoners came from:
- HUNGARY: 426,000
- POLAND: 300,000
- FRANCE: 69,000
- NETHERLANDS: 60,000
- GREECE: 55,000
- BOHEMIA AND MORAVIA: 46,000
- SLOVAKIA: 27,000
- BELGIUM: 25,000
- YUGOSLAVIA: 10,000
- ITALY: 7,500
- NORWAY: 690
- TOTAL KILLED AT COMPLEX: 1.1 million