By Salvatore Cernuzio
Lidia Maksymowicz, a Polish woman of Belarusian origin who survived the Nazi concentration camps, uncovered her arm today during the greetings after the General Audience, revealing her tattoo as a former prisoner of Auschwitz. Pope Francis gazed at her for a few moments, then bent down and kissed the number that after 76 years reminds her daily of the horror she experienced. As when he visited the camp in 2016, the Pope had no words, only a spontaneous, instinctive, affectionate gesture – a gesture, she tells Vatican News in a slightly fading voice, fraught with fatigue and emotion, that “has strengthened me and reconciled me with the world.”
Sharing her witness
“With the Holy Father, we understood each other with our eyes, we didn’t have to say anything to each other, there was no need for words,” she explains. Now living in Krakow, Lidia is one of the last survivors of the Holocaust in Europe, and is currently visiting Italy as a guest of the Living Memory association of Castellamonte (Turin) to share her story with the young. Her testimony has been recorded in a documentary about her life, entitled “La bambina che non sapeva odiare” (The little girl who didn’t know how to hate).
Lidia wanted to take advantage of her Italian visit – which had already been postponed several times due to the pandemic – to come to Rome and meet the Pope whom she loves deeply: “After John Paul II, I love Pope Francis. I follow his ceremonies through the TV, I pray every day for him, I am faithful and affectionate toward him.”
The eagerly awaited meeting occurred on a special day for this dignified, elderly woman: Wednesday is Mother’s Day in Poland. “For me it is a special occasion,” she said, “because I have had two mothers: the one who gave me birth, and who was stolen from me in the concentration camp when I was three years old; and the Polish mother who adopted me once I was free and to whom I owe my salvation.”
Three gifts for the Pontiff: memory, hope, prayer
In those few moments at the end of the audience, Lidia was not able to share her story with the Pope. But she gave him three gifts that symbolize what are now the cornerstones of her life: memory, hope, and prayer. Memory, represented by a handkerchief with a blue-and-white stripe with the letter “P” for Poland, on a red triangular background, which all Polish prisoners use in memorial ceremonies. Hope, symbolized by a picture, painted by her assistant Renata Rechlik, that portrays her as a child, hand in hand with her mother, as they watch from afar the tracks that lead to the entrance to the Birkenau camp and marked the beginning of the end for millions of Jews and other prisoners. Finally, prayer: Into the hands of the Pontiff, Lidia placed a rosary with the image of St. John Paul II, blessed by her godson Fr Dariusz. “It is what I use every day to pray.
Deported at age 3
Lidia never stopped believing in God, despite the evil that was heaped on her when she was only three years old. In 1941, along with her mother and her maternal grandparents, she was torn from her home and her affections, deported because they were suspected of collaborating with the partisans.
“I was little, I was just a few years old, but already had a lot of experience after having lived through scenes of war in the former Soviet Union. I was ready for the pain, for the evil done by men against other men, but I did not expect to experience what I experienced in Auschwitz.”
She described the horrible events: “I was deported on a train fit only for beasts, maybe not even for that. When the doors opened, I saw terrible scenes. My grandparents were separated from us and from each other, then sent to a barracks with a chimney from which smoke came out with an atrocious stench. My mother and I — dirty, hungry, afraid — we obeyed the soldiers who shouted incomprehensible words while the dogs barked. We didn’t understand anything, we did everything they said, we were terrified.”
Identified in the camp as Polish prisoners, with the “P” sewn on their striped uniforms, Lidia’s mother was transferred to the workers’ barracks, while Lidia was sent to a “house full of children of different ages and nationalities.” It was the barracks in which Josef Mengele worked, a man who even then was known as the “angel of death”. That house was the reservoir from which Mengele drew the victims of his experiments: pregnant women, twin babies, people with deformities. Lidia had been sent to him as a “pretty and healthy child.” After almost eighty years, she no longer recalls what Mengele did with her little body; but she remembers well “the pain” and his gaze: “He was an atrocious person, without limits or scruples. Day after day many people lost their lives at his hands. After the war some of his books were found with references to tattooed numbers, including mine.”
Meeting her birth mother after 17 years
Once liberated from the death camp, Lidia lived an incredible life. She was taken in by a Polish couple who she considers her true family. She was taken to Russia, to Moscow, where she says the Soviet authorities wanted to use her story for political purposes; and later returned to Krakow. In 1962, she was reunited with her birth mother through the Red Cross. “I never stopped looking for her, even though I thought she was dead,” she recalled. “We met again after 17 years.” Their affection had diminished over the many years of separation, as had the memories of those three years they lived together before the bond was broken by a prison guard. After so many years, for Lidia, her birth mother — who in the meantime had created a new family — was a figure from the past to whom, however, she had great respect. They hugged, they cried, they exchanged a few words… but Lidia chose to stay with her adoptive family, while always recognizing her as “my first mother.”
An appeal to young people: “Never let that atrocity return”
Today, Lidia Maksymowicz says she is tired. But she clings to life with all her strength because she has a mission to fulfil: To keep the memory of the horrors of Holocaust alive in the memory of new generations, who have grown up in an age when the spectres of racism and nationalism seem to be flourishing again. By way of Vatican News and Vatican Radio, Lidia made an appeal to today’s youth: “In your young hands is the future of the world. Listen to my words, go and visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, and see to it that this atrocity never returns. That history must never be repeated.”