Manfred Deselaers (ed.)

Dialog u progu Auschwitz
Centrum Dialogu i Modlitwy w Oswiecimiu

(Kraków: Wydawnictwo UNUM); pp. 279
Manfred Deselaers, the editor of Dialog u progu Auschwitz (Dialogue at the Threshold of Auschwitz), is a German priest who has lived in Poland for fifteen years and has worked since 1990 to facilitate reconciliation among Poles, Germans, and Jews. At the Oswiecim Center for Dialogue and Prayer, which was created in 1992, he has aimed to improve relations between Christians and Jews. For his achievements, in 2000 the Polish Council of Christians and Jews awarded Father Deselaers the title of Man of Reconciliation.

In the introduction to Dialog u progu Auschwitz, Deselaers states that contemporary visitors to Auschwitz must face the death camp’s history, and must absorb its message and moral and existential consequences. His text does not claim the right to provide answers to questions about Auschwitz; rather, it seeks to inspire readers to ask questions themselves and to understand the relevance of Auschwitz to every individual.

The book is a collection of sixteen papers presented originally to Polish students at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer. More recently, the Center’s programs have adopted a more international approach, and has invited Christian and Jewish scholars from Germany, Israel, Poland, and the United States to serve as presenters. The papers are arranged into two sections, titled Historical Testimonies and Symbolical Meaning of Auschwitz. Although the general title of the collection and the subject matter of the introduction imply that contributors have limited their subjects to the topic of Auschwitz, the first part of the book actually contains lectures about other camps; indeed, these papers treat Auschwitz only marginally. For example, in ‘The Testimony of a Polish Prisoner of the Concentration Camps’, Leon Lendzion describes the camps at Stutthof and Sachsenhausen. Similarly, Wieslaw Jan Wysocki, a member of the Polish Bishop’s Conference’s Committee for Dialogue with Non-Christian Religions, titles his paper ‘The Testimony of the Religious Life of the Prisoner Concentration Camps’, and refers particularly to Stutthof, Sachsenhausen, and Dachau. The reader soon grasps that the name Auschwitz has general symbolic meaning.

In the final paper of the first section, curator Teresa Swiebocka of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum describes the impossibility of fully comprehending Auschwitz, the most infamous place of genocide and terror. She reminds readers that at this death camp, the Nazis disposed of, at the very least, 1.1 million Jews, approximately 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Russians, and tens of thousands of people of other nationalities.

Thus, Auschwitz has become an emblem for all people. For Poles, Auschwitz symbolizes German occupation. The terrible place of death is symbolic for Gypsies as well: on 2 August 1944, a final group of Gypsy prisoners, numbering about 3,000, were murdered in gas chambers in an act commemorated today as the Day of National Remembrance. Despite the symbolism for other nationalities, however, we must remember that 90 percent of the victims at Auschwitz were Jews. In dialogues between Christians and Jews, the word Auschwitz itself has become symbolic: it encapsulates the extermination of the Jewish people during the period of Nazi rule. However, it is often replaced by such other words as Holocaust, annihilation, or genocide. In the paper that bridges the first and the second sections of Dialog u progu Auschwitz, Swiebocka adopts the vocabulary of many other researchers and uses two terms to describe the genocide: Holocaust and Shoah. Modern theologians now tend to prefer the latter word, stressing that this designation allows them to emphasize the uniqueness of the genocide of the Jewish people during the Nazi era.

Honest questions about the annihilation of millions must also address the role of individuals who did not specifically follow Nazi ideology. We must ask experts such as Swiebocka, who deal with the history of World War II, if it was solely Nazis who were responsible for the genocide. Informative works on that topic include Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) and Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992). Though the antisemitism of the Nazis had its distinct features, perpetrators of Jewish killings were often implementing the policies of German authorities in the spirit of obedience or conformity. Other groups in the Soviet Union and the Baltic States collaborated with Romanians, Ukrainians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, and were part of the Einsatzgruppen or killing squads who were trained to kill the Jewish people.

The second part of the text consists of uncompromising reflections by Christian and Jewish scholars on the subject of the symbolic meaning of Auschwitz and the future of theology after the Holocaust. Moving and impressive are the reflections of Lukasz Kamykowski, a professor at the Papal Theological Academy of Kraków, who recalls the beginning of his priesthood and alludes to the mass recited by John Paul II at Auschwitz on 7 June 1979, during the Pope’s first pilgrimage to Poland. Kamykowski writes of how at that time he thought about ‘the humility and the quiet of God . . . who strengthens the weak in hope, and who stands out against the proudhearted, against murderers and the mighty of the world’. For Kamykowski and many others, the meetings at Auschwitz have shown that the events are still alive and that the history remains always open-ended.

The text reveals how Christians have struggled to develop a theology of Auschwitz after the extermination of Jews. While semi-scientific racial theories and specific historical, ideological, economic, and social realities can be offered as a way to explain Nazism as a German phenomenon, church documents themselves show how Christian antisemitism was rooted in the theologies of supercession, liturgy, hymns, prayers, services, and sermons. These features formed the basis of modern racial antisemitism by stigmatizing not only Judaism as a religion but Jews themselves, facilitating opprobrium and contempt, as modern Christian theologians and historians contend based on research into newly published Church documents. A new and positive approach of the churches to the Jewish people was born in the ruins of European Jewry when Christians finally acknowledged this source of antisemitism.

Issues of conflict remain, however, particularly in situations concerning certain Christian theologians who in trying to fathom the problem of the Holocaust have sometimes been accused of ‘Christianizing’ Jewish victims and taking advantage of them for their own theological purposes. A counter response on the theology of Auschwitz comes from Michel de Goedt, a Benedictine from Jerusalem, who emphasizes that the Nazi murderers of Jews were violently opposed to the Name of God and to the people who gave witness to the Lord in the world. The same idea, writes de Goedt, is found in the fourth Gospel, where the Passion of Christ is described as rejection of Jesus and of the Name of God revealed by Him.

Dialog u progu Auschwitz also delves into the significance of the Holocaust from a Jewish point of view. Sacha Pecaric, an Orthodox rabbi from Kraków and director of religious programming for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, states that even after the Shoah, one must not ask God why the Holocaust occurred. The only possible attitude for Pecaric is still to trust ‘that the world is not meaningless, that history is composed of many elements and that one cannot understand everything all at once’.

Another Jewish response is offered by Michael Signer, an American Reform rabbi and professor at Notre Dame University. He begins by speculating about Jews who try to understand the Holocaust in the context of continuity of Jewish history. Signer’s discussion then is linked with the earlier words of Rabbi Pecaric, as Signer reminds readers that Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum, the German rabbi and disciple of Franz Rosenzweig, who settled in London and was one of the founders there of Leo Baeck College,maintained that God used Adolf Hitler and the Nazis for purification of the sinful world. Maybaum compared the Holocaust with the Passion, claiming that ‘Jesus was an innocent sacrifice, chosen by God himself to redeem humankind.’ Signer, by contrast, notes that many Jewish theologians hold the opinion that the Holocaust was an unprecedented experience in Jewish history, representing a rupture and making it impossible to interpret its meaning in the large continuum of Jewish history. He notes Rabbi Richard Rubenstein’s theory that after the extermination, Jews cannot explain the history of Israel and the covenant with God or its irreversibility in traditional ways; according to Rubenstein, affirmations of the concept of God’s people and the election of Israel are senseless. Signer also notes the words of Emil Fackenheim, the rabbi and philosopher who died in 2003, who emphasized that after the unique catastrophe, Jews had to obey a new 614th commandment in order to be actively Jewish, thus denying Hitler a posthumous victory (according to traditional Judaism, the number of commandments that God gave to the Jewish people numbered 613). Fackenheim spoke in plain terms, stating that for the Jewish people to survive as Jews, they had to ‘remember in their guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust’. Jews, he asserted, are forbidden to despair of God or to deny His existence. They are forbidden, too, ‘to despair of the world as a place which is to become the Kingdom of God lest they help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted’.

The cover illustration to Dialog u progu Auschwitz shows the gate at the entrance to the camp. After reading the book, Christians can indeed feel as if they have been there, and must come to accept and reconcile themselves to the fact that for centuries their theologies, teachings, and practices were antisemitic. Michael de Goedt demonstrates ways in which Christian traditions influenced ‘in a manner difficult to describe precisely’ the conditions that made the Holocaust possible. It is necessary to add that ‘pseudo-traditions’--the concepts that contemporary theologians use for referring to these anti-Jewish tendencies, attitudes, and teachings, are still present in ordinary Christian lives, though official church documents welcome Jews positively and are open to dialogue. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the extermination of the Jewish people there are some groups of believers who claim that the old Israel has been replaced by the new Israel, which is now the Church.

In crossing the threshold of Auschwitz, it is important to relinquish forever any anti-Jewish theologies and daily prejudices. Christians must bury all theologies of substitution. Although L. Kamykowski writes that there are ways of presenting a mysterious relation between the Church and the Jewish people after the coming of Jesus Christ, Christian scholars have had many problems explaining this issue. Meanwhile, Christian theologians stress that Israel, after the establishment of Christianity, continues to be a creative and fruitful community, bearing--often heroically--the real witness to the living God, who is worshiped in churches through daily and solemn liturgies and Psalms, the common prayers of the Jews and the Christians. The long-lasting separation of the Church and Israel, according to Kamykowski and many other thinkers, cannot be overcome only by human efforts.

Dialog u progu Auschwitz is full of hope. A well-known writer, Halina Birenbaum, who had been a concentration-camp prisoner at Majdanek, Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe, confirms that in present-day Auschwitz she feels that she is a pilgrim at a holy place. In the street of Oswiecim--the town in which the camp was built--she experiences the joy of victory and confronts the meaningfulness of her life. For her, Oswiecim is a symbolic town. Hers is a lesson that should be mastered by others so the story of Auschwitz will never happen again. Another former prisoner at Auschwitz and Ebensee, Marian Kolodziej (today a designer who has produced more than one hundred scenery projects), writes: ‘I am today, from the perspective of my past life, completely certain that if I am what I am, it is through the experience of the camps, through the experience of that hell. I have been learning and learning to be myself ever since.’