Zoe Susser was among well over a million Catholics who made a pilgrimage to Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day this week.
But she was one of the few who passed through the gates of Auschwitz, the concentration camp an hour outside the city, and wondered if she was stepping on the graves of her own relatives.
Zoe, a 16-year-old high school junior from Ashburn, Va., grew up hearing her grandparents’ stories of this place, this stain on the world where both her grandmother and grandfather were imprisoned when they were not much older than she is now. She visited for the first time during World Youth Day.
Last week when Pope Francis visited Auschwitz – an icon of Zoe’s Catholic faith paying tribute to the history of her grandparents’ Jewish one.
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“I think it’s very important for everyone, no matter what religion, to see something like that. To recognize that it did happen, an atrocity,” Zoe said.
Krakow is host this year to the massive World Youth Day event, which attracted an estimated 3 million people the last time it was held, in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.
Walking the streets of Krakow, knowing her grandparents might have set foot in the same places, helped her realize how far they came in their lives, she said. “It’s a very emotional experience that I don’t know how many other people are having here.”
Her grandparents were born in Krakow and went to school together as youths. Before their childhoods ended, the Nazis took over Poland. They were imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, then in concentration camps. Each spent time in Auschwitz; each saw immediate family members die there.
Zoe’s grandfather told her, before he died two years ago, about the horrors of that time – the hunger, the illness, the terror of being shot for making a single motion during roll calls that went on for hours in the freezing cold.
With the Allies closing in, Nazi troops took her grandfather and other surviving prisoners on a forced march. One night, with Allied tanks in earshot, her grandfather and a friend climbed inside a hay bale. They managed to avoid detection when soldiers stuck their bayonets in it to check for runaways.
They climbed out of the hay bale to meet their liberators.
“He always used to remember that day as a second birth,” said Ron Stusser, Zoe’s father. “May 1. He marked it every year.
After the war, each of Zoe’s grandparents immigrated to New Jersey, where a friend set them up on a blind date. They were elated to discover their old school chum was their mystery date that day. Marriage followed, and a Jewish son, Ron. He married and divorced a Catholic woman, raised his three children Catholic, but still brought the kids to the grandparents’ house for Jewish holidays.
And now Ron is chaperoning Zoe and other youths from St. Theresa Parish in Ashburn, Va., among more than 150 from the Arlington diocese joining the massive crowds at the World Youth Day event in Krakow.
Ron said his mother, who is now 93, didn’t have much to say about the trip. “She was never one to speak about the war. She didn’t tell those stories. I think they were too emotional for her,” he said. “Luckily, my father was just the opposite. He wanted people to hear the stories.”
Zoe always wanted to listen.
“If he was still alive, he would love to come with us, show us around,” Ron said. “I think he would be very impressed and pleased that we came.”