January 27, 2021, commemorates the 76th anniversary of the biggest concentration camp, Auschwitz, being shut down during the Second World War.
Back in 1992, the Winnipeg Christian singer/songwriter Steve Bell was touring Poland playing music alongside his Jesuit priest and friend Dougie. During that time, they had a day off and decided to go visit Auschwitz.
"I was always fascinated by it, the story, so I wanted to go. This local pastor took us but he said, 'You really shouldn't go.' I thought I know the story and I know what happened, so we went. It really was the biggest trauma of my life, and I was totally unprepared for it."
While the trip was just shy of 20 years ago, Bell remembers it vividly.
"There are certain scenes, like when you walk into the gas chamber. Auschwitz is a cluster of camps and Birkenau is one of them. The main one is preserved like a museum that you can go through, but the other ones they have let basically fall apart. Some places you see a whole field and all that's left of the dorms are chimneys. It's so stark. You're walking on ground that so many tears fell upon."
While no one occupies this area anymore, Bell says the grief, terror, and trauma were palpable. What made it more powerful for Bell was the fact that he was accompanied by Dougie who had been a prisoner and spent two years in a Nazi camp.
"He was a wreck," says Bell. "What most of us don't realize is how deeply these things affect us. Human beings are resilient and we learn how to place things in files and file them away somewhere, not realizing that they're still active files."
While Dougie hadn't shared too much with Bell at that point, in the middle of walking the grounds at Birkenau Dougie suddenly collapsed to the ground in a crumble of heaving grief. Later he shared more details of that horrific time in his life with Bell.
Shortly after his visit to the concentration camp, roughly 6 months after, Bell started to write a piece of music that came to him out of nowhere.
"I sat down at the piano one day, I wasn't thinking of Auschwitz at all, but my hands found this melody. The more I played this song, grief welled up inside of me, overpowering grief," says Bell.
On the third day of writing Bell says that the tears came back with a vengeance, but this time, those grim faces lining the walls of the death camp suddenly came at him in rapid succession, one after another.
"The Nazis took photos of everyone before they killed them. These gaunt, hollow eyes, these are all people within an hour or two of their death. When I finally got past that, being on the floor in the fetal position, I was able to sit up and finish the song."
There are no words to 'Moon over Birkenau', just a beautiful and haunting melody on the piano with an orchestra in the background.
Back when Bell wrote the song, he was showing it to a few people before releasing it. One woman's response was quite unique.
"She knew nothing of the song and the first time she heard it, she just started weeping and at the end of it she said, 'That's a death song.'"
Bell believes it's important to be educated on the holocaust and take time to remember, especially on days like this.
"For us to really understand the depth of human depravity and how far we can go and how fast. Germany was a sophisticated society, not like a backwater bunch of people. These were people steeped in beauty, music, dance, high art, and philosophy. It wasn't a big period of time from between them being like the rest of us to being a murderous society," he says.