lady painting

 

Aug 2001 Journal

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Crossed Lines?

THE BATTLE FOR AUSCHWITZ, Emma Klein, Vallentine Mitchell, 2001.

Once every two years, thousands of young Jews demonstrate their concern for due remembrance of the Holocaust by joining the ‘March of the Living’ which retraces, in silence, the footsteps of the Jewish martyrs from the huts of Auschwitz to the gas chambers of Birkenau. It is a poignant gesture. But its symbolic significance gains even greater weight when it is considered in the context of the events described by Emma Klein in her new book.

This slim volume is the result of painstaking (and no doubt, at times, painful) research into the increasing ‘Christianisation’ of death camp remembrance. She records the circumstances leading to the Catholic-Jewish conflict, which began in August 1984 when fifteen Carmelite nuns established a convent in a building close to the former Auschwitz camp. Since the premises had once been used to store Zyklon B gas, the objection by several Jewish organisations to the convent’s siting was not unpredictable. All the same, their response came as a surprise to Polish Christians, who did not see why their own suffering under the Nazis should not also be symbolised by Auschwitz. But the erection in 1989 of a large wooden cross on the convent lawn was bound to give even more serious offence to Jews and the ‘slide towards confrontation’ was under way. By the end of that year, battle was joined in earnest and years of verbal exchanges, diplomatic interventions, religious disputations, and heartache where comfort should have prevailed, ensued. Before long, the conflict assumed world-wide dimensions involving rabbis, priests, bishops, cardinals, politicians, journalists, broadcasters.

Among those who have, over the years, sought to repair the damage to Jewish-Christian relations has been Sir Sigmund Sternberg. Unfortunately, his efforts to restore the situation peaceably to a position less demanding on Jewish susceptibilities were all too frequently hampered by scepticism on the one hand and undisguised antisemitism on the other. The struggle continued until, at last, in May 1993, the nuns were to be rehoused in a more appropriate location, still near the camp but less hurtful to Jewish feelings. They refused to move and left Oswiecim altogether. But the large wooden cross has remained – and so has the problem. In her concluding chapter, the author surmises that the resolution of this embarrassing impasse might be found in an eventual – albeit reluctant – acceptance by Jews of the Christian Cross as a suitable memorial for Jewish as well as Christian martyrdom. But she also acknowledges that the end of the battle for Auschwitz is not yet in sight. She is to be congratulated on her careful and commendably objective formulation of, as Jonathan Webber puts it in his Introduction, “at least some of the main questions.”
David Maier

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