On the 75th anniversary of the liberation, remove the church at Auschwitz

The church is situated in Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, the actual “theater of death” where 1.1 million Jews were murdered, constituting 95% of its victims.

Birkenau Church (photo credit: REUTERS)
Birkenau Church
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approaches on January 27, survivors are preparing to gather to commemorate the event, testifying to their faith in life over death. Political and religious leaders from around the world will be there, too, declaring that what happened in that dark abyss will never happen again. Brooding over all the assembled with be what is today the greatest violation of Holocaust memory: the Birkenau Church.
The church is situated in Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, the actual “theater of death” where 1.1 million Jews were murdered, constituting 95% of its victims. This fully operating church is housed in a building that had once served as the Nazi commandant’s headquarters where Jewish inmates, especially women, were tortured and raped. Allied photos clearly show that the church is within the perimeter of the camp. From just about anywhere in Birkenau, looking up, one sees the church’s towering crosses casting their shadows over the death camp.
The Birkenau Church, with its inescapable Christian presence, represents one of today’s most imminent threats to the integrity of Holocaust memory. With the camps decaying, and when the survivors are gone, and when we, the second generation, are also gone, all that will be left in Birkenau will be the church and its crosses. Visitors and the world will come to believe that the Holocaust was an attempt at Christian genocide, when it was in fact an effort to completely and systematically wipe out all of the Jewish people.
Alternatively, the presence of the Birkenau Church might lead the visitor of the future to conclude that the Catholic Church was in the forefront of speaking out in defense of Jews targeted for annihilation, when in fact, in those dark times, it turned its back on Jews desperate for help. While there were “righteous gentiles” who, at great risk, saved Jewish lives, the Vatican was nowhere to be found.
In describing the establishment of the Birkenau Church in his book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, former priest James Carroll wrote, “When suffering is seen to serve a universal plan of salvation, its particular character as tragic and evil is always diminished... [t]he elimination of Jewishness from the place where Jews were eliminated, makes the evil worse.”
WHEN WE first protested the presence of the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz more than three decades ago, the locals kept reminding us that Auschwitz is a German name; they only knew of Oswiecim, the Polish name of the town. It was their way of saying that Poland had nothing to do with what occurred at that site.
This, of course, is a matter of serious debate, compounded today by the government’s recent attempt to criminalize references to Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities. But with regard to the Birkenau Church, it is common knowledge that it is there with the government’s approval. Today, the Polish government has the power to demand that the church be moved elsewhere, an action that would make clear that when Poland is in control, it will do the right thing.
Pope Francis, too, can also make the difference. In the matter of the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, it was only when Pope John Paul II insisted that the nuns move out of the building they had occupied in Auschwitz I, which during the Holocaust had been used to store the canisters of Zyklon B gas, that the nuns vacated the convent and it was closed. Pope Francis can also step forward and do the same with regard to the Birkenau Church.
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly sensitive to interfaith matters, including the importance of building and maintaining good Jewish-Catholic relations. Still, the Birkenau Church does not belong at the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.
So on the 27th of January, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, we will be there as the survivors and the dignitaries gather for the commemoration ceremony. At its conclusion, we will walk the short distance to the Birkenau Church, raise our placards, and in dignity and peace, demand that the Birkenau Church be removed.
Our hope is that survivors and others good people assembled there will join us, raising a voice of moral conscience – of Jewish conscience – on behalf of the six million who cannot speak for themselves, our brothers and sisters whose “blood cries out from the ground,” demanding justice.
The writer is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, NY. He is a longtime activist for Jewish causes, human rights and defending Holocaust memory.