The battle of Auschwitz
The British Government is suggesting an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day to be observed on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. The sensitivities involved are evoked by this account of the controversy in recent years between Christians and Jews over the Auschwitz site. IN 1984, a group of Carmelite nuns took over a building known as the old theatre adjacent to the walls of the Auschwitz concentration camp. From the Catholic perspective, their desire to pray for the expiation of crimes committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau was laudable, since, as well as being the graveyard of one and a half million Jews, Auschwitz had witnessed the martyrdom of leaders of the Polish resistance and Soviet prisoners of war. By praying for the souls of all the victims, the Carmelites seemed to reflect Christian solidarity with Jewish suffering. Catholics were not to know that Jewish tradition saw fit to leave desolate a site of martyrdom rather than make it sacred.
At first the presence of the convent was accepted by the tiny Polish-Jewish community, whose principal concern was that the nuns should maintain a low profile. The following year, however, the Belgian branch of the Catholic agency Aid to the Church in Need issued a bulletin calling for funds to repair the convent, which it described as a gift for the Pope, a spiritual fortress and a guarantee of the conversion of stray brothers. The bulletin?s triumphalist tone struck a discordant note in the Jewish world and drew hostile reactions from many quarters, most significantly from the influential World Jewish Congress based in New York. Although activists in Christian-Jewish relations did their best during the years that followed to defuse the tension, the situation during the summer of 1989 reached a point aptly described by a committed Polish Jew as religious war.
The intervening years had seen a group of prominent cardinals in dialogue at Geneva with high-ranking representatives of European Jewry in an effort to reach a resolution. After two meetings, first on 22 July 1986 and then on 22 February 1987, it was agreed that a centre for prayer, information and reconciliation should be built some 500 metres from the borders of Auschwitz and should incorporate a new convent where the Carmelite sisters would be accommodated. The signatories to the agreement included the French cardinals, Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris (himself Jewish), and Decourtray, Archbishop of Lyons; the Belgian Primate, Cardinal Danneels; and Cardinal Macharski, Archbishop of Cracow. A deadline for the Carmelites to move was set for February 1989, two years after the agreement. Significantly, the Polish Primate, Cardinal Josef Glemp, was not party to the negotiations.
One important result of the Geneva declarations was to send a message to the Jewish world that the problem was being dealt with. What wasn?t taken into account by the negotiators was that expectations were being raised that could not be fulfilled. On a practical level, it was unlikely in Communist Poland that the building of the new centre outside the walls of the camp would be started, let alone completed, before the deadline, particularly as the Communist regime was in no hurry to help the Church out of its quandary. Furthermore, canon law precludes those outside a particular diocese from negotiating about matters pertaining to that diocese, and of the Geneva signoratories only Cardinal Macharski had a local interest. So what in Jewish eyes was an impressive declaration by four cardinals was virtually null and void in church law.
With February 1989 approaching and no solution in sight, the deadline was postponed until July. At the site of the convent, however, 22 February was marked in a way that was to dominate the Auschwitz controversy long after the sisters had finally moved. It was surely no coincidence that that day was chosen for the erection in the garden of the convent of a large eight-metre cross, originally used ten years earlier for a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II at Birkenau. The cross was placed at a spot marking the gravel ditch where some 140 Polish resistance fighters were shot early in the Second World War.
The cross, erected in a spirit of defiance, was a symbol to the Carmelites and their local supporters that the convent was there to stay. Dominating the landscape, it proved, and has continued to prove, extremely provocative to Jews, even those Polish Jews who had originally tolerated the convent. Yet, within Poland, the erection of the cross that February passed unnoticed. Many Poles believed that it was put up in the autumn of 1989, in the heat of the religious war.
The months before the expiry of the new deadline were marked by a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity by a handful of figures prominent in Christian-Jewish relations. In Britain, Sir Sigmund Sternberg, who had been made a papal knight in 1985, took it on himself to use his contacts with church leaders and with the Polish embassy in London to try to arrange temporary accommodation for the nuns away from Auschwitz.
In Poland the head of the commission for Christian-Jewish dialogue, Henryk Muszynski, now Archbishop of Gniezno, brought the developing crisis to the urgent attention of the Vatican, which had hitherto remained silent on the matter. In the event, the Vatican?s involvement and the intervention of the Pope himself were to prove crucial to the final resolution of the conflict.
In the United States, where Jewish impatience with the impasse was particularly intense, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who had long been active on the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, strove to impart an informed perspective which took into account the feelings of both sides. Tanenbaum was particularly concerned to nip in the bud a proposal by various Jewish organisations for a boycott of meetings with the Pope.
But the efforts of these voices of moderation were overtaken by events which were to plunge the situation into greater turmoil. On 14 July 1989, a group of seven American Jews led by Rabbi Avi Weiss from Riverdale, New York, arrived at the gates of the convent. Weiss has been portrayed as a hotheaded fanatic, but he is, in fact, mild-mannered and given to playing the guitar, preaching peace and love and conducting services in a happy-clappy fashion. It was anger at what he perceived as an attempt to Christianise the Holocaust that brought him to Auschwitz.
Although the demonstration that Friday afternoon in July was not the violent assault on the Carmelites suggested by some press reports, particularly in Britain, it was undoubtedly inappropriate. Outraged by the incursion of these strange men in prayer-shawls into the courtyard of the convent, workmen appeared at the windows of the convent, jeered at the Jews and proceeded to drench them with buckets of paint and cement. Once the Jews were outside the convent, the workmen punched and kicked them in full view of bystanders, including a policeman and a priest.
If Poles were scandalised by the antics of Weiss and his followers, the Jewish world was horrified by reports of the treatment to which they had been subjected. Further demonstrations by Jews at the gates of Auschwitz and elsewhere followed in rapid succession. Particularly evocative was the slogan used by representatives of Jewish youth organisations demonstrating outside the residence of the nuncio in Paris: Pas de croix sur nos cendres ? No cross over our ashes.
It was at this point that the then nuncio in London, Archbishop Luigi Barbarito, urged Sternberg to make a direct approach to the Catholic hierarchy in Poland. Sternberg was reluctant, since he had not met Cardinal Macharski and had only a nodding acquaintance with the Primate, Cardinal Glemp.
He took up the challenge, however, and exchanged a series of telexes with Macharski. But the cardinal, in contrast, was in little mood for compromise. Although he had signed the Geneva Declaration, he now backtracked from his earlier commitment to oversee the building of the proposed centre. His recalcitrance was, undoubtedly, a result of the religious war but only served to perpetuate it.
As the Communist era came to a close, the end of August 1989 saw General Jaruzelski replaced as Polish Prime Minister by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a patriot and a Christian deeply sympathetic to Jews and Judaism. This potentially helpful change was neutralised by the notorious Czestochowa homily in which Cardinal Glemp, while ostensibly appealing for peace and dialogue, gave vent to a series of anti-Semitic stereotypes, including the charge that Jews had the mass media at their disposal in many countries. Glemp?s referral to the attack on the convent by Weiss and his followers, and his suggestion that they had to be restrained from killing the sisters or destroying the building, was particularly unfortunate.
It was at this point that Archbishop Muszynski?s commission for dialogue with Judaism issued a communiqu? in favour of proceeding with the centre proposed in the Geneva Accords. The communiqu? was sent to the Vatican, where it was endorsed by Cardinal Willebrands of the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism. The cardinal announced to the press on 19 September that the Vatican backed the building of the new centre and would offer financial assistance for the project.
The Vatican announcement was welcomed in many quarters but seemed to pass Cardinal Glemp by. The Polish Primate was in Bristol that day, having decided to come to England after a planned trip to the United States had been cancelled in the wake of his Czestochowa outburst. At a press conference, he was none too conciliatory, mounting a critique of what he called J ewish Shoah theology and dismissing the Geneva Accords as wishful thinking.
Glemp?s insensitive posture was particularly embarrassing to Sternberg, who had arranged to attend a dinner at the Polish ambassador?s residence the following evening to which the Polish Primate had been invited. Sternberg was to be accompanied by the then Chief Rabbi and President of the Board of Deputies. Both pulled out following Glemp?s press conference and urged Sternberg to do the same.
Sternberg, however, did not shirk from the challenge. His aim was to get the cardinal to sign a letter agreeing to implement the Geneva Declaration. As an inducement, he was ready to make a favourable announcement to Clifford Longley, then Religious Affairs editor at The Times.
Longley recalls receiving a telephone call at 9 p.m. just in time to redraft the critical editorial about Glemp he had prepared for the first edition of the paper. While the story has it that Glemp poured out his heart to Sternberg and then signed, Sternberg insists that the heart to heart came later.
Getting Glemp on side brought the religious war to an end although tensions continued to simmer when the nuns did not move to any temporary accommodation. The Vatican, nonetheless, in the person of Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who took over in 1990 from Cardinal Willebrands as head of the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, continued to back the development of the new centre outside the walls as a suitable home for the Carmelites.
Once the new convent was finally ready for occupation at the beginning of 1993, there was still reluctance on the part of the Carmelites to leave the building where they had been living. Many Poles supported the nuns in their opposition to the move. With world leaders ready to come to Warsaw to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on 19 April 1993, this recalcitrance, exacerbated by the open hostility of the Mother Superior to any move, was causing the Church in Poland considerable embarrassment. It was then that Pope John Paul II himself intervened in a letter to the Carmelites dated 9 April.
Now, in conformity with the will of the Church, you will change your place, while remaining in the same town of Auschwitz, wrote John Paul II. This will be, for each of you, a moment of trial. I pray that Christ crucified will help you to know his will and the vocation for each of you in the Carmelite life.
While Vatican spokesmen denied that the letter amounted to an order, the message was clear enough. While the nuns took their time in leaving the old theatre, most were eventually resettled in the new convent in the newly-built centre. But the Mother Superior and one or two others went elsewhere.
The large cross did not accompany the sisters to the new convent and has continued to dominate the Auschwitz skyline. When negotiations to have it moved started early in 1998, they were countered by the so-called Defenders of the Cross, who planted more than 200 crosses of varying size around the gravel pit. These were removed by the police in June this year, but the large cross remains. Nevertheless, Polish-Jewish relations have flourished in the ten years since the Glemp letter. Last week Sir Sigmund Sternberg received his third Polish award. In response to the appreciation expressed by the Polish Ambassador, Stanislaw Komorowski, for his work of reconciliation, he urged Poles and Jews to join in preserving Auschwitz-Birkenau as ground hallowed by the blood of both peoples, a place where Poles and Jews were united in their suffering.
? Emma Klein is writing a monograph on the Auschwitz controversy.