Amid the hills of rural Pennsylvania, where the Holocaust's horrors seem long ago and far away, a Polish parish is converting a church basement into a museum evoking the concentration camp where the "Saint of Auschwitz" died 47 years ago Sunday.
"I lived through the cruelties and atrocities of World War II, and I would like the people in this country to have some idea what transpired," said Stanislaw Dziob, 55, an engineer from Krakow, Poland.He and another visitor from Poland are transforming the basement of St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church into a museum made to look and feel like the concentration camp where St. Maximilian Kolbe died.
While honoring all those killed by the Nazis, the museum spotlights the Polish victims, especially Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who volunteered to die so a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz might live.
The 47-year-old priest, No. 16670 to his Nazi torturers, died by lethal injection on Aug. 14, 1941. He was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 10, 1982. A week later, a shrine to the saint was dedicated in the shadow of St. Thomas, an anchor of this ethnic, former coal mining town 50 miles south of Pittsburgh.
"So often in the United States, people speak of the extermination of 6 million Jews, quite forgetting the extermination of (millions of) Poles," Dziob said, speaking softly in Polish. Many of the Jews killed by the Nazis were Poles as well.
Busloads of Roman Catholics from Pennsylvania and neighboring states, most of them Polish-Americans, regularly descend on the shrine, a small, stone structure topped with barbed wire and holding the ashes of Holocaust victims.
Many visitors are moved to tears when they hear the church's pastor, the Rev. Lawrence Hoppe, tell of the supreme sacrifice made by the frail, tubercular priest from Zdunska Wola, Poland.
Even though it is incomplete, visitors also can visit the museum. Its dedication is planned for Aug. 14, 1989. Unlike the shrine, the museum is meant to reach beyond religion, according to Hoppe.
"I see the shrine as a place to come and pray, to develop some piety and some closer relationship with God," said Hoppe, 54, who is of Polish descent and translated for his Polish visitors. "The museum I see as more intellectual, academic."
Built in six cubicles lining two walls of the dimly lit basement, the museum is also more brutal to the senses. To lessen the shock, Hoppe and others plan to increase the intensity of the exhibits over time.
"We would not shock the public too much at once, (rather) prepare them, bring people into a theme of suffering, a theme of the terribly horrendous effects of war," said Waclaw Rybotycki, 42, an artist and architect at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow.
It is called the Expo Museum - "expo" meaning to expose the cruelty of the Nazis - and has the blessing of Francis Gajowniczek, 86, the Pole whose life was spared by Kolbe's martyrdom.
Dziob and Rybotycki, who began planning the museum with Hoppe's predecessor, arrived last month from Poland.
They brought with them 70 items for a display depicting the life of St. Maximilian and the atrocities at Auschwitz in Poland, the most notorious concentration camp. They received help in compiling the collection from the National Museum in Krakow, the museum at Auschwitz and the Franciscan community founded by Kolbe in 1927 outside Warsaw.
The displays will include re-creations of death-camp cells, photographs, tombstone-shaped plaques, an eternal flame and an oil painting by Rybotycki showing St. Maximilian about to die.
Edith Stein, a Jewish-born Carmelite nun from Poland who died in 1942 in Auschwitz's gas chambers, will be honored, and there will be scenes from the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
A stone Wall of Honor will commemorate U.S. servicemen who liberated the concentration camps.
Despite the despair, the overriding theme of the museum is the struggle between good and evil and love's ultimate triumph over hate.
"You cannot have peace unless you have justice," said Hoppe, who hopes the museum and shrine, through St. Maximilian's example, can help "prevent World War III, World War IV and any future world wars."