Saturday, 6 April 2013

Poland Pilgrimage, Auschwitz, and Easter

The End of Our Lenten Journey 

Lent has been wonderful this year as we fasted as a family and increased the time we spent in prayer and went on a pilgrimage.  This month we have a lot of pictures so we hope you enjoy it!

Here is a picture of the three munchkins on the Feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas (as per the old Ordo). Our rector and Monseigneur granted all students and staff a dispensation from their fasting to celebrate St. Thomas as he is the Patron Saint of our Institute. 

St. Patrick's Day

This day found us, of course, dressing in green and having a yummy Irish feast with the ITI community...

... which of course included Guinness!

Becca's first trip to the Vienna Opera House- The Marriage of Figaro (Intermission)

Habemus Papam!

All of a sudden we here people shouting outside around 7:30pm as we are putting the kids to bed.  White smoke had been seen and we all rushed to the common room to watch and celebrate who our new Holy Father would be.  It was very exciting for everyone!

And then it took a long time for our new Pope to be announced and thus the boys fell fast asleep...

Here students and professors wait in anticipation to see whom the Holy Spirit has chosen to lead the Church.

None of us expected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio - Pope Francis and we rejoiced at hearing his first message.  

Pilgrimage to Poland

Why Poland?  Poland is a Catholic country with many holy sites.  For us specifically there were a few holy sites we wanted to visit and to pray at.  In particular we wanted the kids to see the place where St. Maximillion Kolbe was martyred.  Becca wanted to pray at the chapel of the Divine Mercy where St. Faustina died.  Kenton was to see the place where St. Edith Stein was martyred and get to know Bl. John Paul II better.  We also wanted to pray before the icon of Our Lady of Czeestochowa that was painted by St. Luke - but this one will have to saved for another time.

We drove to Piekary, Poland from Trumau.  It took 6 hours.  We drove the Czech Republic and into Poland.  We took 3 other students with us in a 9 passenger van.  The navigator we were using was working very well till we entered Poland. Then it went wonky.  There was much construction and we ended up driving around for an hour completely lost in the Polish country side and towns.  Finally, with the help from some locals and our guide (via phone) we made it to Piekary - just outside of Krakow.

Here is a picture from our window.  We stayed at a Catholic High School campus in the dorms.  In the distance you can see the towers of one of the many many monasteries here in Poland.

The Salt Mine in Wieliczka - a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Palm Sunday: 

We entered the salt mine descends 327m below the ground for a total length of 245km.  The miners built a chapel underneath the ground in which to pray and have daily Holy Mass - it is here we visited and celebrated Palm Sunday Mass.

Our group:
Piotr - our guide
Franz, Matt, Leah, Elisabeth and the Biffert family.

We descended by elevator deep into the earth and then had to walk even deeper.  

Here is the salt all over the walls.  The stones are leeching salt everywhere!

Here is the salt mine chapel.  Everything is carved either out of salt stone or crystal salt.  In this picture we see the altar with a salt-stone crucifix and Mary carved out of salt behind holding a light.

The chandeliers are all made from salt.

Kate loved exploring everywhere!

Here is a nativity carved into the wall with a salt baby Jesus.

Here is a confessional - a neat way to do it I thought.

After Holy Mass in the salt mine we headed to Wadowice - the birth place of Bl. Pope John Paul II

Here is the 'Sanctuary of God's Queen Mother' and it gets its name from the famous icon of Mary. A merchant lost called on Mary for help when he was lost in the nearby moors and then found his way.

Here is the icon of 'Our Lady of Perpetual Help' - a very famous icon that many come to venerate. And below is the baptismal font that Bl. Pope John Paul II was baptized in as a baby.

The pilgrimage would not be complete without eating the famous Pope Cakes.  These were Bl. JPII's favourite dessert and in his college years he had a contest to see who could eat the most.


From Wadowice we headed off for Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.  This is a pilgrimage site for many of the Polish during Holy Week and as well harbours the famous icon of the Madonna of Kalwaria or the Weeping Madonna.  The icon was seen crying tears of blood in the 1600's and over 1 million pilgrims come here every year to see it.  When Bl. JPII's mother died when he was young, his dad took him here and pointed to the Weeping Madonna and said to him 'This is now your mother'.  Ever since, JPII had a strong devotion to his Mother Mary.

This is a wondrous place to pray.  It is beautiful and lifts your heart and eyes to the Heavens.  Many penitents were seen on their knees in front of the Madonna or in various chapels connected with the main sanctuary.  In the hills surrounding the cathedral there are 50 stations of the cross.  A pilgrim could follow Christ's passion to the cross for the first 25 or so.  Then legend has it that Mary walked the way of the cross back after Jesus died and she was the first one to do the Way of the Cross.  So after station #25 you begin a journey back to the beginning in the footsteps of Mary - reflecting on her sorrow.

The Polish come here on Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry of Jesus is enacted out.  Below is a market that Tristan and Benedict are checking out.

In the following videos you'll see the masses following Jesus up the road to the Cathedral.  We were able to participate in it as they were singing 'Hosanna' to the King of Kings.

Here they are acting out the story when Jesus was angry in the temple.  Somewhere in there the actor Jesus released a cage of doves that flew over our heads.

Here Benedict is watching the acting from atop Franz's shoulders.

Another Palm Sunday tradition in Poland is bouquets of catkins.  These are represent the palm branches, but also remind us of spring and renewal.  Here Kate is waving her catkin as Jesus is 'triumphantly entering Jerusalem'.

We had some time to pray after the events and so we headed to the chapels to pray before the holy icons.  Here was a beautiful one of Jesus with the sun shining on him and lighting up the whole room in gold light.

The next day we headed to the inner city of Krakow and the Royal Palace - Waval.
In the Royal Palace is a Royal Chapel where some of the Polish Saints are kept and of course the sepulchre's of the Royalty are here too.

Here is the sepulchre of St. Stanislaus.  Stanislaus was the Bishop of Krakow and was martyred. He was cut in half for denouncing the kings cruelty.  His body was found reunited together.  The Polish always believed that Poland would be reunited like St. Stanislaus' body was.  And so they were in the late 1700's.

Chopin is Becca's favourite composer.  He is Polish but is buried in France- but we found a copy of his tombstone in a crypt in Poland.  It was a fluke and a blessing as Rebecca had wanted to visit some sites of Chopin but we decided against it b/c it was too out of the way for this trip. She was very happy!

This picture is taken outside the chapel in the courtyard on top of the castle.

This was the various quarters of the royal folk looking down on a courtyard where various contests and games were held.

This is the symbol for Mary (Maria) above one of the doors.  Can you see why?

Benedict and Tristan loved to look for the dragon heads situated around the castle.

Here is a picture of Krakow from the castle walls.

Here the kids are listening Piotr as he tells the story of the Krakow dragon.

The Easter markets were beginning this week in the heart of Krakow so we spent time looking at the sights.
Not sure what this head was for... art I guess...

Winter and a giant teapot!

Here are a plethora of catkins for sale (like Kate was holding in the picture prior).

A nice family picture on a freezing afternoon in Krakow.  Little Kate is asleep on my back.

We bought the boys some weapons and they had great fun infuriating the pigeons.

Benedict the Soldier!

Benedict hunting for our supper!

Here's a couple funny videos of Benedict chasing pigeons - or at least we as a family thought they were pretty hilarious.

He came mighty close to this pigeon I must say.

Our typical Polish meals consisted of a soup as a starter.  Then bread, meat, cheese and sausage, sausage, sausage.  Oh... the sausage. We had to de-tox when we got home :).

Divine Mercy Chapel

One of our highlights was to go to the Divine Mercy Chapel.  This chapel houses the order of Divine Mercy sisters established by St. Faustina and this also where she died.  In the chapel was the 2nd picture painted of Jesus the Divine Mercy given to St. Faustina by Christ.  The first one painted is in Lithuania.  When St. Faustina saw the picture Jesus had commissioned her to have painted she cried because it could not come close to capturing Christ's beauty.  Jesus told her that it is the message behind the painting that people needed to hear: that He longs to pour out his mercy on the world.

Becca and I both have a strong devotion to the Divine Mercy and we were able to pray as a family the chaplet at 3pm (the hour Jesus died) with the sisters in front of the Divine Mercy painting.  This was important to us.

This is a picture of the typical communist apartment buildings built after WWII when the communists took over Poland.

Bl. Pope John Paul II Sanctuary

This sanctuary was still a bit in construction and is a beautiful tribute to one of the greatest Pope's we've ever had.

Here is the top of his sepluchure given to Poland after he was declared Blessed.  His relic (his blood) is in this book in a vile for people to kiss as we see Winter doing in this picture.

At a Polish mass in the sanctuary, Becca was asked to do the Old Testament reading.  That was a special privilege.

Many buildings are black because many folks still burn coal for heating in Poland.


We struggled a lot about whether to take the kids to this concentration camp and after much deliberation we decided to go ahead.  It turned out that there wasn't a lot of gruesome photos and no video footage (we were trying to avoid these) and the experience was a healthy one.  There were three Auschwitz camps - this is the main one.

ARBEIT MACHT FREI: Work Makes you Free
The entry gate to the hell inside.

 In this picture you can see the double rows of electrified barb wire and the guard houses all along the outside.  There were a total of 700 escapes from Auschwitz and 400 were recaptured.

For our family, one of the main reasons for coming here was to pay hommage to St. Maximillion Kolbe and to make his story real for the kids.  Here is the square were he stood that cold morning.  One victim had escaped and so all the victims had to stand in the square until he was found.  After many hours of not being found the Nazis began to kill 10 per hour.  One man chosen fell on his knees and begged for mercy because he had a family.  Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered his life in place of the man.  The soldier agreed and sent him and 9 others to the starvation chambers.

Here is the plaque commemorating St. Maximillion's sacrifice.

The following are pictures from inside the barracks where the victims were held.

On these mats of straw they would squeeze over 500 prisoners.

Here is the starvation cell.  St. Maximillion Kolbe cared for the other 9 men and prayed for them as they were dying.  After 2 weeks he was the only one left alive.  The Nazi doctor came in and injected him with poison.  This is the cell where he died.

St. Maximillion Kolbe

Many of the priests still tried to perform Holy Mass for the other Catholic victims.  Here is St. Maximillion's rosary, Bible and some of the bread smuggled in for communion.

This passage way, as you can guess, was the firing range.  Victims had to walk naked to the wall in front of the soldiers and were then shot.  St. Maximillion's starvation cell is the second ground cell on the right.

These next series of pictures and videos are all the items taken from the prisoners by the Nazis to be sent back to Germany and used by Germans.  The pictures don't do justice to the unbelievable amount of victims who lost their lives.

These are a few of the placards up around the facility:

I must admit feeling a strong sense of justice with this next site.  This is the gallows where victims were hanged.  The corrupt basterd demonic mastermind loser jerk behind Auschwitz was hung on his own gallows and died here.

This is the smoke stack from the crematorium where the gassed bodies were burnt.  It is said the continual smell of burning bodies was almost unbearable to the citizens in the surrounding area.

Then we drove a few km's to the Birkenau (Auschwitch II).

Birkenau was the place where the trains load with victims were first brought and sorted.  Sorted meaning: able to work or should be killed right away.

Here at this spot where Tristan is standing is where the train stopped.  All able men were sent to the right barracks and able women to the left.  Anyone not considered able was brought to far end of the camp where there use to be two massive furnaces and they were murdered.

Here is also the last record we have of St. Edith Stein the Carmelite nun.  St. Edith Stein died on Aug. 9, 1942 here in Birkenau.  She also gave her life for others and was a martyr for her faith. She is testified to having looked after the children in the Holland camps because the mothers were falling into insanity.  She kept a calm demeanour, advocated on behalf of the victims, ministered and held the dying and went calmly to her death forgiving the Nazis as she did.

These are the male barracks.

The bunks were all built at slants so that they could fit more bunks into each barrack.  There were fights for the top bunks because you could only use the latrines at certain times and often bladder control was lost in the bunks.  Being on the bottom bunks was to get the worst of it all.

The Latrine.  Victims would volunteer to clean out the latrines as they were less likely to be approached by SS officers because of the potential of disease and their uncleanness.

Last Day in Poland

Our last day in Poland we went to the Cardinal's palace and received a pilgrim's blessing from the Cardinal before we left.  Oh yeah - and a nice box of chocolates for the kids!

We spent our last couple hours in old town Krakow just doing the tourist thing and taking some photos.

This is St. Andrew's very small parish in the centre of Krakow.

Kenton's March Reading List:

Edith Stein: Biography
Women in the Priesthood: A systematic analysis in the light of the Order of Creation and Redemption by Manfred Hauke

Sermon from the Vineyard

It was very poignant that we went to Auschwitz right before Good Friday.  It was good to reflect on death, the purpose of it, anxiety of it, the helplessness of it, the suffering of it ...
At this time I was reading the biography of St. Edith Stein (Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross is her Carmelite name) and it her grasp of suffering and death moved me.  Here is an excerpt from the last letter she wrote from the convent in Holland as the Nazis were taking over:

Dear Reverend Mother,
Please permit me to offer myself to the Heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement for true peace, that if possible the reign of Antichrist might be broken without another world war...
I joyfully accept in advance the death God has appointed  for me, in perfect submission to his most holy will. May the Lord accept my life and eath for the honor and glory of his name, for the needs of his Holy Church...for the Jewish people... for the deliverance of Germany...

In another letter written to the prioress she stated:
Do you see the eyes of the Crucified looking at you with a searching gaze?  They are asking you a question: Are you, in all seriousness, ready to enter once again into a covenant with the Crucified? What are you going to answer?

The peace in which she faced her death... her willing acceptance to suffer for others... she reminded me of Jesus.  And I had to ask myself the question: am I ready to enter once again into a covenant with the Crucified - even it means suffering for others?

Easter: Christ is Risen!  Surrexit Christus!

Holy Thursday

We celebrated Holy Thursday with a Seder Meal and a footwashing ceremony.  With this Seder Meal recalled the Passover in Egypt and celebrated the institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood at the Last Supper.

As the Holy Thursday Mass was too late to take the kids to - we did our own foot washing ceremony.  Very fun!

Good Friday

Wearing black, we went to Heilgenkreuz Abby to pray the Stations of the Cross as a family and then went to the Liturgy for the veneration of the cross.  We were able to kiss a piece of the actual cross that Jesus hung on! 

The sanctuary was very cold - as most Churches are in Austria.  The service was beautiful but long.  The monks here do gregorian chant and produce CD's as well.

Holy Saturday

We had an hour of silence to remember Jesus being in the tomb.  Then we prepared for Sunday. We made our Paschal Candle as seen below - and it kinda turned into a Divine Mercy Candle as well.

In the evening, we put the kids to bed and just Kenton went to the Easter vigil.  Kenton drove some students into Vienna and enjoyed the Vigil in the Extraordinary Form at the Kapuzinerkirche.

Easter Sunday: Christ is Risen! Surrexit Christus!

We had a Easter Egg hunt, brought a basket of food to Divine Liturgy and had it blessed.  Then everyone took their blessed baskets of food and we had a wonderful brunch breaking our Lenten fast.  Then that evening we had another community Easter dinner.  It was a fantastic way to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.

Pictures for the Grandparents

Crazy Biffert kid dance videos!

Kate in Boots!

We miss you all this Easter.  
Pax Vobiscum,

Love, Kenton, Rebecca, Winter, Tristan, Benedict, Kate and the new baby

Mailing Address:
Schloss Trumau
Schlossgasse 21
2521 Trumau, Austria


  1. I am amazed that you are able to write about a visit to Auschwitz without mentioning the words Jew or Jewish once.

  2. What a cool post! The photos are so sweet tho! I can't stop looking <3