The empty ballet shoe

“I don’t want any Christmas or birthday presents this year…please. Just take me out to dinner and let’s be together. Not to be so introspective but today made me truly realize that things are really useless and we just need each other and I really don’t want you to get me stuff. I just want to spend time with everyone I love.” I received this text from my middle daughter – my sweet Christmas born baby. She had just experienced the horrors of human hatred on a very personal level and her life would never be the same.

A small group of Loyola friends had traveled with her from Kracow to visit this dreadful place. She stepped out of the creaky Polish bus onto the dirty gravel path with trepidation. The sky was gloomy, dark and gray – much like the feeling in her heart. She had known that she would visit this site during her study abroad experience this fall. But, I don’t think she ever expected the reality of it to be so completely horrific on every human level.

“We were literally standing on holy ground…it was a mass grave where thousands of innocent people died,” she somberly shared during our recent phone call. She had just returned to Loyola University in Belgium from a life-changing visit to Auschwitz concentration camps in Poland. We were talking via skype thus I could see the change in her young, pretty face. I understood that something important had happened to my thoughtful girl out there in the stark fields of central Poland, in a place referred to as “hell on earth.” She had seen – first hand – the intrinsic evil which humans are capable of and it scared her. It also provided her with an important perspective – deep empathy for people that she had read about but had now met personally. “The camps smelled like death – ever after all these years. Mom, this was calculated genocide! How could anyone inflict this type of evil on another human being?” she sadly whispered. We talked for quite a long time that night and I just listened as she retold the story of her day long experience at one of the worst places in human history.

Her beautiful, loving heart and spirit had been crushed that day, by the reality that some people in the world are capable of barbaric, cruel behavior. She had learned about the Holocaust through her many years of academic study, but on this day, she came to experience hatred in a very personal way. It looked back at her in every empty little child’s shoe, lock of ladies hair and man’s initialed suitcase that she viewed. “These all belonged to someone, Mom. These people had no idea that they would not be going home. It was all so wrong and unfair.” she said. Then she saw an empty little ballet slipper in the pile of discarded shoes – and she could not withhold her tears any longer. As a lifelong dancer, she felt inner torment for this lost precious soul. She knew that she too would have packed her dance shoes (her Irish ghillies) when told to bring only one suitcase. “Mom – I could not breath…I felt as if I was being choked.” she said. The reality of the horror seeped into every bone in her small body.

She felt nauseous looking out at the endless rows of dilapidated buildings where prisoners slept at Birkenau concentration camp. She said that these huts were originally designed as stables and were not fit for human habitation. As she stood there in the late November cold, she understood something foreign to her – that those who live in hatred will stop at nothing to carry out their evil plans and they will also find a way to justify their evil intentions. This realization chilled her to the bone in an already frigid and dreary place. She shared many other stories and feelings about visiting these camps, but the underlying takeaway was the same, “How could evil prevail like it did during the Holocaust and why didn’t more people/nations do more to stop it?”

Her questions were hard to answer since I too have struggled for years on finding satisfying answers. I did remind her that she is not powerless though, and is capable of responding to the hatred of the Holocaust by choosing to love today – and every day of her life. As humans it is easy to respond to evil or hatred with more evil and hatred but that is not what our good God calls us to do. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34:35)

My beautiful, loving mom taught me about love during her 75 years on this earth. She opened up my heart to many heroic Catholic saints who walked the path of love like Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Fr. Kolbe was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who ended up at Auschwitz after publishing anti-Nazi German publications from his monastery in Poland. He also sheltered many Jewish people in his monastery who were facing capture and death at concentration camps. Fr. Kolbe was eventually captured and taken to prison, then Auschwitz. When a father of many children was chosen by the Nazi’s to face death by starvation, Kolbe volunteered to take his place. He died calmly and in peace on August 14, 1941, after leading fellow starvation victims in prayer and song.

Every day offers us an important choice. Do we choose love, indifference or hatred? The latter two have the same result. If we choose to love our neighbor, friends, family members, strangers and even our enemies, the world would be a much better, more peaceful place. Like a beautiful garden, the world is more pleasing to look at when we fill it with different people from diverse backgrounds.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I’d like to invite you to look around your community. What do you see? If you only see prosperous, comfortable people – might I suggest that you look a little harder? Do you know that more than 700 million people live in poverty and neglect around the world? There are many folks suffering in our midst – homeless women without access to feminine care products and undergarments, paroled women who have nowhere safe to live and begin a new life, hungry school-aged children, lonely single moms, folks of different religions and backgrounds who have been shunned by their communities and so much more. Let’s choose love and reach out to help wherever we can. Every small act of love is a gift to those who receive it and to those who give it. We can respond to the hatred of the past and present by offering an abundance of love to those who are like us and, more importantly, to those who are not.

“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

Ecclesiastes 13:14
Two hearts filled with love – Nona and Emma Rose.

6 thoughts on “The empty ballet shoe”

  1. I am literally sobbing at Emma’s recount to you! How painful and unfair and sad.
    This reminds me that we have lots to be thankful for.
    Thank you Jen…and Emma.

  2. What a beautifully written piece. It brought me to tears as I witnessed through your daughter’s eyes the evil in those camps and that still surrounds us today. The ballet slipper and all that it represents – innocence and lives savagely snuffed out – is heartbreaking. Thank you for this…and the reminder that love was and is the only answer. God bless you.

  3. I’ve read several novels of the Holocaust and struggle to understand why anyone could participate in so many countless hate-filled acts of brutality. I know that I would be totally overwhelmed by the experience your sweet Emma experienced. Is evil and depravity a mystery or is it learned behavior? I am so impacted by the many men and women whose bodies were devastated by cruel and constant inhumane treatment, but whose souls withstood the horrific degradation and pain inflicted on them. How blessed your daughter is to have you as both mom and mentor. Your sharing is impactful yet shared from your gentle soul. Thank you, Jen.

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