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The Convent at Auschwitz Recalls a Polish Past Most Want to Forget

September 17, 1989|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty teaches the history of religion at the University of Chicago and is senior editor of the Christian Century

CHICAGO — While the Polish Carmelite nuns keep their vigil of prayer at Auschwitz, the world watches and argues. These Catholics established a convent in a building at the entrance to the concentration camp where, in the Nazi era, more Jews were murdered than anywhere else. At that Polish site they force a choice of pasts on all who look on.

One choice is between their and their defenders' version of Auschwitz history and the version held by Jews and everyone else. These women want to pray at the camp because non-Jews--most presumably Catholic--were also killed there. They would pray for the souls of these Catholics. The nuns wanted to be a sign of desire for atonement between peoples. With original good will they also hoped to show concern for Jews--none of whom can accept their form of concern and who have now come to despise it. Their staying is a mark of ill-will that reinforces old images of Polish deafness to Jewish cries.

To Jews, for whom Auschwitz is a place so profane that no Catholic house of prayer in an old Zyklon-B storage house can consecrate it, the past says: Leave this scene alone. Let this hell speak of the horrors done here where millions of Jews were killed. Let this be a memorial to such Jews and anyone else killed here. Whatever else this place is, Catholic Poland, it is not yours to preempt.

Cardinal Jozef Glemp, Poland's primate, poses a choice of pasts more starkly. He would break carefully worked-out agreements to move the convent and demean his colleagues who made these covenants. Opposing his version of the issues stand four Catholic cardinals who negotiated a move of the Carmelites from Auschwitz, many Poles and people everywhere who fear that Glemp gives voice to a Polish history that haunts the world. It is a history of anti-Semitism.

Glemp's offensive recent sermon included one barely concealed anti-Jewish sentiment per line. Those who wish present-day Poles well in what--this incident aside--appeared to be their finest hour, interpret the present differently because they read the past from a different angle. They know why Jews cringe or rage when a Glemp profanes the sound waves and rewrites the past.

Edward H. Flannery, the priest who 30 years ago wrote "The Anguish of the Jews," showed an awareness of that history. He described how Poland had been a "happy haven" for displaced people. When Spain persecuted and exiled Jews, Flannery wrote, "Poland became a blessed refuge." Four centuries ago, Polish Jews "enjoyed a new golden age."

Then came outsiders, Cossack barbarians, who in 1648 killed from 100,000 to 500,000 Jews. Poles took up the anti-Semitic themes. They also undertook anti-Jewish actions and forced the ghetto and persecution on Jews--because they were Jews. In 1881, Russian outsiders began pogroms that found domestic Polish sympathizers. Then Hitler's people built Auschwitz while most of Catholic Poland was silent. Worse, it sometimes spoke. For just one example: In 1936, Cardinal Hlond, Glemp's predecessor as primate, in a pastoral order publicly encouraged a boycott of Jewish businesses. It is easy to see why the few Jews left in Poland cannot surrender Auschwitz even to peripheral Polish Gentiles who would forget or rewrite that history.

So the Carmelites and Glemp have chosen one past. They have their sympathizers in Poland and elsewhere--but other Poles and Catholics, who also know the history, want to do something different. Being aware of a choice of pasts does not mean that people can change the past. The past is not even past, said novelist William Faulkner, it is present to haunt us. Auschwitz haunts us now.

If one cannot change the past, the choices it poses allow for people to change the present. The past now exists through the stories about it, through the attitudes we hold and actions we take. Profane Auschwitz is so important because the story has become sacred. Philosopher Theodor Adorno has said most of history is suffering. To forget the story, or never to tell it, is to dishonor the sufferers and thus to become inhumane. Whenever the story is told, hearers can change their attitudes, and with new attitudes can alter the present. They do this by repenting.

Max Scheler, the philosopher about whom Pope John Paul II wrote his doctoral thesis, made clear how this happens. Repenting, Scheler wrote, is not "rueful introspection." It does not ask, "alas, what have I done?" Some have said repentance means acknowledging, "Alas! What kind of person I am." Scheler moves further: We repent that we were "such a person as could do that." In repenting, persons acquire a new vantage. They "mount" to a new plane and see their former selves in a light that helps them effect a better future.

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