48 Hours in Auschwitz

Last year I took a forty-eight hour trip to Poland for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  I went with a small delegation of rabbis to protest and raise awareness to the ongoing existence of a church in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The church occupies a building that was used by the Nazis. In fact, it was in the Nazi headquarters that Jews, especially women, were abused. And it was from these headquarters that instructions on how to systematically murder the Jews were issued. 

It was a quick journey into our people’s greatest nightmare. The murder scene remains after so many years, with the bones of our ancestors resurfacing from the depths of the earth after the heavy Polish rains. Not even time or nature can hide the horrors that transpired here. The ashes of our people are literally scattered throughout this God forsaken place. In the stillness of the night you can hear the dead crying if you listen closely.“Don’t forget us” they whisper. I keep looking for them as if they will come back but this world is lost forever.

As I roamed through the blood stained dirt I wondered why I even came. After all, you can’t escape from here without leaving a part of yourself. But I remember. My being, my very presence on this soil is enough. Breathing in its air is a protest. My boots imprint in its mud is a form of resistance. I don’t ever want to come back but I know I will. 

My initial involvement came from a deeply emotional place over the church’s violation of a solemn agreement signed in 1987 by European cardinals and European Jewish leaders that there will “be no permanent Catholic place of worship on the site of the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.” It is also in violation of the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Culture and Natural Heritage. Poland is a signatory to the convention, and Auschwitz-Birkenau is on this World Heritage list. The trip however revealed that the church is reflective of a much larger issue. Holocaust history is in serious jeopardy. 

Take the church as one example.“This church isn’t on the territory of the camp, and the building didn’t belong to the camp – there’s, therefore, no basis for removing it,” said Father Mateusz Kierczak, communications director of the Bielsko-Zywiec Diocese. Bartosz Bartyzel, spokesman for the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, said that the building housing the Virgin Mary church was outside the camp area. He added that it had not been fully constructed at the camp’s 1945 liberation and had not, therefore, served as the commandant’s headquarters. These statements are historically inaccurate as Allied aerial photographs clearly indicate that the headquarters, as well as the barracks, were in the Birkenau complex and the building was in use by the Nazis before the camp was liberated in 1945. 

Look at Poland’s Holocaust law as another example. While the language has been toned down after a massive outcry from Israel, the law still bans any accusations that Poles were complicit in Nazi crimes committed on Polish soil. Polish President Andrzej Duda is on the record saying, “There was no participation by Poland or the Polish people as a nation in the Holocaust,” he said on Monday. This is simply untrue. We know that 340 Polish Jews were murdered, some 300 of whom were locked inside a barn that was set on fire in 1941 in the Jedwabne pogrom by Poles and German police. In 1936, the Polish Ministry of Commerce ordered all shops throughout Poland to include, as part of the shop sign, the name of the owner as it appeared on his birth certificate. According to Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert, “This made the fact that the owner was Jewish to every Pole, and provided instant incitement for the anti-Semite.” 

No one is accusing Poland of mass complicity with the Nazis, but ignoring history is dangerous and a desecration to the those who were killed. James Carroll, a former priest, who in his acclaimed Constantine’s Sword, 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.” This elimination of Jewishness that Carrol describes is happening today in Auschwitz. In one day my fellow rabbis were denied entry into the Auschwitz liberation ceremony in the camp and were issued a summons for “trespassing” in Auschwitz while protesting at the church. Let the irony of a Jew being denied entry into Auschwitz sick in for a moment. 

“Never forget” has been the mantra of the Holocaust remembrance, but recent studies have found that many Americans lack basic knowledge around the Holocaust. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. With rising antisemitism across the globe and an increase prevalence of Holocaust revisionist history one has to wonder if the time has come for the Jewish community to rethink how we go about Holocaust memory and education. The church is just the beginning. 

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of Base BKLYN in Crown Heights and the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul.
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