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The Challenge of Auschwitz Today
Auschwitz challenges us today because it has become a symbol. It is first of all a symbol of the Shoah, (the Holocaust), but not only of that. This will be developed later.
It can be asked if Auschwitz is the best symbol of the Shoah? There are arguments in its favour — the scale of the enterprise ("the commerce of death"), the efficiency of the organisation (transports, gas chambers, showers), the inventive technology (Zyklon B Gas). Nevertheless it is open to discussion whether Auschwitz was predestined to be the exclusive symbol of the Shoah. It was also after all also a work camp. Its "end product" was not only death but also work, which accounts for the relatively high number of survivors. Perhaps Treblinka would be a better symbol. It was solely a death camp, had a comparable number of victims to Auschwitz and almost no survivors. However it is hardly a question today for symbols are not created, they arise naturally. Auschwitz has become THE symbol of the Shoah precisely beause of the number of survivors and the literary testimony of some of them (e.g. Tadeusz Borowski and Primo Levi).
A Second Symbolic Meaning
Auschwitz and its crematorium will certainly remain THE symbol of the Shoah. At the same time it cannot be denied that Auschwitz is also the symbol of the suffering of the Poles during the Nazi occupation, for the camp had a special role in Hitler's policy of oppressing the Poles. This double symbolism must be accepted. The two symbolic meanings must co-exist and not compete. This is the first part of the challenge of Auschwitz today.
I think that the symbolic importance of the camp will increase. But the more Auschwitz becomes loaded with symbolism, the more it will give rise to controversy — witness the affair of the Carmelite Convent. I fully support the Geneva agreement transferring the cloister a little further away. It seems this would enable the Carmelites to fulfil their noble intention of lifting the fatal shadow from Auschwitz by prayer (though for all I know the Sisters may see things differently). I did not protest against the original location of the Carmel because Auschwitz was not exclusively a Jewish camp; because the camp has become a place of mass tourism and a spiritual dimension is needed, and because the convent building is outside the barbed wire. Nevertheless I fully shared the fears and anxieties which gave rise to Jewish opposition. They concerned the Jewish significance of Auschwitz, which it was feared, would be diluted by the increased Christian presence. There was also the problem of the anonymity of the victims.
For many years there has been a deliberate "dejudaizing" of the museum exhibits which ignores the fact that the majority of the victims were Jewish and were gassed simply because they were Jewish. This is a shameful falsification but it is relatively easy to put right. All that is needed is to supply the guides and the exhibition with the missing information about the Jews. Much has already been done in recent years. Because of the goodwill of the museum employees this will be completed soon. The deepest level of the problem, however, remains.
Commemorating the Tragedy of the Shoah
It was the Communist powers and not the Church that concealed the Jewish dimension of Auschwitz. I have believed and still do believe that the Jews who want to restore the truth about the tragedy of fifty years ago can find allies precisely among church people of good will, including those who want to emphasize the presence of the Church in the camp. In the long dispute over the wording of the inscription on the monument of Birkenau, I agreed (with other Jews and Christians) that a biblical quotation would introduce another dimension. Some Jews, former prisoners in the camp, disagreed with the proposal. This was not a dispute between Jews and the Church. Nevertheless I do see undue christianization as a threat. It is a difficult challenge because it is not due to illwill on the Church's side (as some Jews think) but to differences in forms of commemoration. It is natural for Christians to erect a cross and statues of saints and I respect that. However this is alien to Judaism. At Auschwitz all should be able to pray in their own way without the intrusion of any sign or flag in this place. To erect a cross (as I understand it) is a sign of Christian domination.
The Anonymity of the Victims
A sign of goodwill by the Church would be a great help. Crosses and statues are not necessary in the precincts of the camps. A greater problem still is that of the anonymity of the victims. The million and a half victims constitute a faceless mass. We see the crowd but we do not distinguish the features. That is a frightening triumph for Hitlerism. The Catholic Church has dealt with this problem in its own way and, I believe, without any illwill. It beatified Father Maximilian Kolbe and the Carmelite Edith Stein. I do not question the Church's right to do this, but the consequencesare alarming. These two persons appear to represent the victims of Auschwitz and yet they are not typical victims. A priest and a baptised Jewess have been made to represent victims of a very different identity. This would be shocking even if the name of the one did not evoke antisemitic publications and the other the rejection of Judaism. The problem is not easy to overcome. I could wish in this situation that whoever promotes devotion to St. Maximilian would at least remind those participating of the different identity of the other victims.
The Meaning of Suffering
Finally there is another difficult challenge —that is the different Christian and Jewish approaches to suffering, and therefore to the meaning of the camp. Christians give a redemptive meaning to suffering which is weaker and not so prominent in the Jewish tradition. The Christian interpretation lends to Jewish deaths in the gas chambers a wider meaning than the usual Jewish view.
These theological subtleties can find their way into the Auschwitz exhibition. However the most difficult questions will emerge quite apart from distinctions between Jews and Christians, Poles and Germans, etc. The exhibits and commentaries should ask future generations what they would have done as individuals had they been present at that time and in that place? How would they have behaved... as prisoners?... as guards?
Difficult questions! I wonder if we have the moral right to put them to visitors?... or to others? But I also wonder if we have the right not to put them?
• Dr. Stanislaw Krajewski is co-President of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews.