necessary whispers

observe. connect. make new.

Living History in Auschwitz


Three years ago this week I was sitting in the dining room of a hotel called The Center for Prayer and Dialogue having breakfast with six people: two survivors of the Holocaust, their grandchildren and a man whose grandfather was the Nazi directly responsible for Josef Mengele’s medical torture on twins in Auschwitz. The hotel is located in the town of Oświęcim, otherwise known as Auschwitz. Did you know that Auschwitz is the name of both a town and the death camp that sits at its center? I didn’t know that until I visited Poland for the first time.  The reason I was sitting with these people is that I had traveled to Poland to attend the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.


My visit to Oświęcim three years ago was the only time I was there during the winter months–my other trips were made in June and July. This time, I was there in January. When I landed in Krakow, which is about a one hour drive from Oświęcim, it was snowing. It had already been snowing for days so the ground and all of its natural inhabitants were covered in soft white. It was beautiful in the way beauty sometimes creeps into your heart so deeply it almost feels like nostalgia: a mixing of beauty, comfort and longing for something that is missing. As the plane neared the runway, I looked around me and wondered, “How in the world did I get here?” Technically, I was traveling alone but on the flight from Germany to Krakow I was suddenly in the company of several people I had met before, all of whom were traveling to Poland to participate in the anniversary: a man named Danny Spungen who is a Rotarian (the first person to encourage me to find a Rotary club, by the way) who owns the biggest collection of Holocaust artifacts in the world, Michael Wörle the grandson of Nazi doctor Otmar von Verschuer, and Rainer Höss whose grandfather was Rudolph Höss, the commandante of Auschwitz during the war.   What strange company!


Upon arrival I was met by a man holding a sign reading “Szoo,” which is my maiden name. As a side note, it is always fun for me to be addressed as Szoo when I am in Poland or Hungary because they are the only people who ever pronounce my name correctly the first time. The man was older, about 70 years old with grey hair and a bit of a hunch in his back. He was wearing a shirt bearing the name of the hotel in which I was staying: he had been sent on my behalf. As we made our way through the snow-covered countryside, passing livestock, trees whose heights rival some city buildings and quaint towns no one has ever heard of, I felt I was journeying through a storybook. The peace of the immediate was tempered by the reality of the imminent as I began to recognize the tell-tale landmarks announcing our arrival to Auschwitz. As often happens when I am there, my imagination of the past began to spill into the pool of my present reality mixing a cocktail I would sip for the next several days. It is one thing to peer into the past through books. It is quite another to feel your feet sink into the mud made famous by yesterday.


The Center for Prayer and Dialogue was built, in part, under the vision and instruction of the preist who now oversees its operation: Manfred Deselaers. It sits on a small plot of land about two blocks away from the extermination camp Auschwitz I and about three miles away from the extermination camp known as Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau. The purpose of the hotel is to provide shelter, education and healing for those who visit the camps. Much to my surprise when I arrived, it was also the main basecamp for almost all of the survivors who were traveling to be a part of the anniversary ceremonies taking place at both camps that week. This is to say, anytime I left my hotel room, I was surrounded by living history.


Another aspect of my stay that I could not have anticipated is that all of the meals were served family style in a modestly sized but beautifully decorated dining room. So, at every meal I was surrounded by a cacophony of at least four different languages (namely Polish, German, Romanian and broken English). Somehow, the men and women who possessed some crossover knowledge of the languages managed to translate some of the most captivating stories I have ever heard. And, as seems to be the case in groups of people, the group with which I dined the first night became a kind of small group, the members of which gravitated toward one another for all the following meals. So, if the narration of one story began at breakfast but was not finished by the end of that meal, the teller could pick up where she left off at lunch. It was a storyteller and writer’s dream!


One of my tablemates was David Wisnia, also known as A-83526. He was brought from Warsaw, Poland to Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was 16 years old. His first assignment upon arrival was to walk the perimeter of the camp locating the bodies of prisoners who killed themselves by running into the barbed wire fencing. He and a fellow inmate picked up the bodies, placed them into a wheelbarrow and pushed them to the crematorium for disposal. He performed this gruesome duty for several weeks until a Nazi guard overheard David singing among a group of prisoners one evening. The guard asked him if he was a singer by trade, to which David reported that he was training to be a singer in a renowned synagogue in Warsaw. In that moment, David was taken off his previous job and assigned to be the Cantor of Auschwitz. This assignment saved his life as he served a purpose to both the prisoners and the guards, which gave him access to more food and brought him out from under the threat of hard labor. When the war ended and the Nazi’s were leading the prisoners out of Auschwitz in the Death Marches (days long walks in the snow and ice, without food, water or proper attire for the purpose of getting rid of the “evidence” in the camps) David escaped his group in the confusion of gunfire late one night. After he escaped he found a barn where he hid for several days until he emerged one morning, prompted by the sound of military vehicles rolling down a nearby road. Ultimately, those vehicles belonged to the 101st Airborne who quickly recruited David. He spent the rest of the war fighting against the very men who enslaved him in the camps for three years.


At the ceremony for the anniversary, David sang a Jewish song. Knowing his story made that moment all the more meaningful to me. The survivors and their families who attended the ceremony were housed in a large tent (very large and heated) at the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those who were not family stood outside in the middle of the camp watching the ceremony on a big screen and listening to it via a very loud audio system, which echoed against the brick barracks, tall trees and the cement ruins of the gas chambers. As I stood in the middle of the falling snow, unable to feel my fingers or toes, listening to David’s song, I felt two things in exact measure: freedom and slavery. Nothing is ever just one thing. In that moment, the past and the present held hands, pain and joy locked eyes and a clawing sense of loss climbed up the sides of a tender moment of innocence. It was the kind of moment that both rips something away and offers a cloak of wisdom. That moment changed me.


Survival is a tricky thing. Through my travels, interviews and study on this topic, I have met basically two kinds of people: those who survive and those who thrive. Those whose identities remain huddling in the corner of a brick barrack and those who have lined the walls of their identity with photographs of family, friends and lives fully lived. There are those who hold anchors of hatred and those who swim in the open waters of forgiveness. Eva, my friend Eva, is the latter sort. David is also in the latter camp (no pun intended). From them I have learned a kind of boldness in living, the courage to stand up for myself and to cultivate the discipline of forgiveness.


There is a scripture in Hebrews that says a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounds modern day believers in Christ. Those witnesses are, of course, the Old Testament believers such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–the men who lived before the arrival of Jesus. According to the genre of text in this chapter, we are to understand that these people are not literally looking down to see our current race, so to speak, but we can look to their stories and the way God interacted with them as a kind of instruction and inspiration. In other words, we can act as though they are sitting in the stands of our lives. There is a sense of our own history and identity that exists in knowing them. Maya Angelou also speaks of this idea when she says that she is never alone because she is surrounded by her family members who helped make her who she is and whose wisdom and characteristics live on in her. Or, lived on in her while she walked this earth.


Sometimes I forget who I am. Not literally, of course. But sometimes I allow my identity to be bogged down in the mire of the past, and my own weaknesses and self-doubt. You know when this happens the most? When I start to focus mostly on myself. When I go inward to the point of isolation. Last week I confronted a woman who has been bullying me out of her own insecurities for years. For some reason–well many reasons–I allowed her to do it. Over and over, again. I kept getting stuck between the idea of being “nice,” or, “forgiving,” or, “not wanting to make waves,” and the wish that someone else would stand up for me. You know when I finally got the courage to stand up to her? There were two moments: One was in considering the lessons of courage, living boldly and repeatedly choosing forgiveness that I have learned from the men and women with whom I have spent hours, weeks, months and years throughout my research on the Holocaust. “Stand up for yourself and stand up for others,” I heard them whisper from my memory.


Second, two weeks ago a friend of mine received an anonymous email that was filled with some of the most heinous aggression and vile meanness I have ever read. I thought to myself, “I wish I knew who this was because if I did I would immediately go to my friend’s defense.” That thought ruminated and sat with me for several days. Looking into her situation, I had the courage to stand up for her. Why was I willing to be strong for her but not for myself? And I realized what I needed was not for someone else to stand up for me but it was for me to find the courage to stand up for myself. So I did. No matter what the cost may be as a result of my standing up for myself, it cannot compare to the absolute freedom I feel in having faced the woman who I allowed to bully me for years.


It is also important to note that I have forgiven her. Forgiveness is a one-way street. It has nothing to do with the perpetrators (or offenders) in our lives. It is a decision we make for ourselves. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a two-way street. Reconciliation takes place when two people can discuss their conflicts, find common ground and continue to be in relationship with a feeling of safety, peace and an agreement to rebuild trust.


I am an adventurer at heart. I was born with curiosity running through my veins. I am blessed that I have learned from and alongside so many different types of people in a myriad of environments throughout my life, thus far. I think it is good to actively remember the people who have made an impact on my life and whose lessons I carry with me–both the big, glaring lessons and the small, quiet lessons, which are just as important. Our stories make us who we are and if we honor them, they continue to speak to and grow us. As we grow, our adventures continue to teach us new things, even from the past.


Onward and upward.


copyright Jill Szoo Wilson


PeopleProgram086-XLBreakfast with Legends

(The first two photos depict my view on the night of the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.  The last in a photo of me with my table mates at the Center for Prayer and Dialogue.)

Top photo credit: Charles Moman



Inevitable Séance



She drags her pencil at an angle

Lead falls against the page

It breaks apart

Slowly reaching the edge—

Splintered wood above

Paper below

Something new

Never before

It could be anything, or nothing,

She wipes dusted shrapnel

To the floor.



Touching but separate

Never one and always two

Like sky and horizon until

A tornado vacuums through

Pulling down and lifting

The edges

From above to below—

A little like chaos

A little like science

They meet in the middle,

Inevitable séance.



The ocean and the shore

Knew the game before

On the other side of yesterday

When rain poured

Through a sieve of clouds

First drenching

Then drowning the world

The ones whose eyes refused their faith

“Head up, this too shall pass,”

Soaked through and buried among

Unheard teeth shaped in hasty goodbyes.



One and one

A Daisy in a pot

One nourished by the sun

The other fed by the holding of

The purpose in

His shape made for

The shape within—

Holding side by side

Because the boundaries were set

Until shattered around,

Fragility amplified.



A single flame pierces the night—

Over there a cigarette

Held between the lips of one

Whose ambition dwindles in darkness

His soul furnished in sparseness

And holding hope for a single release

From the day

From the night

He holds the light

Smells it ignite

Burns through to midnight.



She drags her pencil at an angle

Creating something new


Her one

And the one she draws

Will always be two—


A tornado combines

The ocean pours right through

His muddy boot smashes

Or flames creep up the sides.



“It cannot be forced,”

She says to herself,

Words released on a familiar sigh

Echoing from the past

Swirling above the present

Atmosphere heavy with questions

Treading lightly but fast—

She stops her hand

Examines the line

Puts her pencil down

And looks at the time.


–copyright Jill Szoo Wilson

Photo Credit: Alessandro Sicioldr‘s piece entitled, “La Stanza Rossa.”  60x70cm – oil on wood.  If you would like to see more of Alessandro’s work, please visit his website and his Facebook page:  Alessandro’s Website , Alessandro’s Facebook Page .


Knowing Is the Only Knowing


She put her hands above her face—

Fingers long and slender—

Extended her neck so she could see

Behind the shadow and under the moonlight

As though a longer neck would help her eyes

To focus.



It is funny the things we do

When we want to


What is real.

We stand up taller

Use a cloth to clean our glasses

Rub our eyelids and

Open them wide.


We are the only animals

To do such things

And the only animals that


We have to make concessions.



He cupped his hands to the back of his ears—

Strands of hair got in the way—

Hid behind a tree so he could hear

The songs she sang to herself

As though his hands were gathering

The sound.



It is desperate the things we do

When we want to


What is real.

We bend at the waist

And strain our backs

We twist our necks and

Close our eyes to block out

The rest.

When we want to hear

A voice and

Presence of another

It is a choice.

We cannot rely on chance.



She lifted her nose toward the winter branches—

Her neck lay all the way back—

From inside the crook of an Oak

She could vaguely smell the cigar he smoked

The dampened mud rose to

Camouflage the scent.



It is urgent the things we do

When we want to


What is real.

We close our eyes

Soften our lips

Lift our nostrils

Like wisps of smoke

To conjure the

Air floating in invisible wafts

Around us

Brought down by

A spell wrought by the will

To discover the whole instead of a sliver.



He touched the soggy leaves under his shoes—

Buried his fingers all the way through—

To ask the earth if she was near

His fear was that he would not feel

Her footsteps

So he crawled until an indentation appeared.



It is passionate the things we do

When we want to


What is real.

We bend our knees

Put our faces to the ground

Cover the backs of our heads

With our hands

And roll our bodies down

As low as we

Can go

Because the

Earth will tell the truth

About how to lay ourselves low.



She kissed the back of his head—

He was kneeling in the mud—

Told him without words

That he was found

And to the ground

She sank beside him.



It is magnificent the things we do

When we want to


What is real.

We open our mouths

Let the edge of our


Invite the textures

And the taste

The sweet

The sour

The bitter

The salt—

Nourished by the whole.



For a moment each of them broke

Like a glass

And their senses spilled

On the ground

Gravity let them fall around—

Sight and hearing,


Touch and


No longer necessary

Because when a thing is real

Knowing is the only knowing.


copyright Jill Szoo Wilson

Photo Credit: This poem was inspired by a sculpture created by German artist Isabell Kamp.  The sculpture is entitled, Past d.  If you would like to see more of her work, please visit her Facebook page and/or website: Isabella Facebook Page ,Isabell’s Website





Standing in the sand

Of a deserted land

Where rockiness below

Contrasts with the

Smooth and

Even flow

Of clouds rolling by

And away




A kind of dread

In the mind

Where space and a little bit

Of time

Roll around like a dime

Dropped and alive

On the floor.



But the sand

In my hand:

A proof

That hourglass shapes

And the space they hold

Give way to

Entrances and exits—

Still the sun is heat

The moon is a signal

Of what has been done

Of what will come

In the form of a morning

Made new.



But the sand

Fills my hand:

And I laugh

Crunching down

Grit clasping

The sides of my tongue,


The sloughing off of

Dust from the feet of travelers

The dirt from thousands of years

Wet with tears

But still I laugh

Because the road has been lost

As I steady my fingers

Counting the cost

While sand falls all the way through.



People will come

People will slide

The same way—


They came:

Like births

Like death,

With mutiny burrowing sand crabs

In the hearts of those who nurture—

Whether they come to comfort or torture—

The sand will gather them up

The wind will cover their tracks:

Raindrops shy with tears of their own

Will moan into the desert

And erase the path

No looking back

Only forward

Filled with every direction

To go.



It is good

To burn

Pinned ‘neath scorching heat—


Good to stand

Find balance in your feet—


And to walk from the place

Where your name was written

In the sand and

Good to remember

The spot

Where your finger dug the trail

Between teeth-bitten nails

Hopes and betrayals

In the desert






Jill Szoo Wilson

Photo Credit: The intriguing and beautiful photo featured with this piece is by the photographer Jo Fischer.  His photography inspires me to ask questions about the people and places he captures . . . and sometimes simply to feel.  If you would like to view more of his fine work, please visit his website and/or his Facebook page :Jo Fischer’s Website , Jo Fischer on Facebook





She collected recollections

From the past

As though they were

Trinkets from a shop

Where antiques—

Roughly used and rusting—

Lay waiting,

Lay trusting

Their time would come again.


Again yesterday came

But with a different name


So she sat with her


Stoic and measured

With a grip not to lose

For if she loosened her hold

They may drip away.


Away from the darkness

Of her previous losses

She looked toward the light

Lost her sight

At the brilliance it held

Shuttered with fear

Melted with doubt

Stifled her silent shout

With a thought.


The thought

A question

Singed with intention


Like the barrel of a gun

Prompting her

To run

Instead of stay—

But she stayed.


Stayed in the place

Where she planted the seeds

Grass to grow

To overthrow

The things it seemed

She could not let go

Like a patient

Patiently awaiting



Death that rides

On the back of loss

That stabs at the fear

Of drawing near

“Don’t move from here”

She whispered out loud

And hoped the desire to move

Would evaporate

Like a cloud.


Clouds of then

Filled the present

A fog in this room

Invaded by the presence

Of shadows—

Not men—

Only places

They may have been

Had they stayed.


Staying threatened her breath

As the air turned white

The longing for safety


By this encroaching night

The fear of losing

Being lost from her sight

As a struggle to gain

Awoke to the fight.


Fighting for air

She stood to her feet

Considered her options:

Victory / Defeat—

Destruction seemed easy

To fail is so clean

Triumph unknown

Invites mystery:

Shrapnel of

The unforeseen.


Unforeseen was the way

Mighty was the day

When the roots that held

Were cut away

When her voice


Found the breath to say,


is where my future—




copyright Jill Szoo Wilson

Photo Credit: This beautiful piece is by German artist Justine Otto.  Titled: Fourth Corner, 130 x 180 cm, oil on linen, 2013.  To view more of Justine’s work, please visit her website and Facebook page: Justine’s Website , Justine’s Facebook Page .



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