Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Manfred Deselaers – The Contribution of CDiM to dialogue 1990-2013

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Manfred Deselaers
 

The Contribution of
the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim
to Christian – Jewish dialogue 1990-2013


In 1988, John Paul II said, “Among numerous initiatives that are being under- taken in the spirit of the Council for Jewish-Christian dialogue, I would like to mention a Centre for Information, Education, Meeting and Prayer that is being prepared in Poland. It is to facilitate the research on the Shoah and on the martyrdom of the Polish people and of other European peoples at the time of National Socialism, as well as to help with the spiritual confrontation with these problems. One can hope that it would bear abundant fruit and could also serve as an example for other nations.” [1]

Sixteen years later, Pope Benedict XVI said, “By God’s grace, together with the purification of memory demanded by this place of horror, a number of initiatives have sprung up with the aim of imposing a limit upon evil and confirming goodness.  Just now I was able to bless the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer.  In the immediate neighbourhood the Carmelite nuns carry on their life of hiddenness, knowing that they are united in a special way to the mystery of Christ’s Cross and reminding us of the faith of Christians, which declares that God himself descended into the hell of suffering and suffers with us. […] So there is hope that this place of horror will gradually become a place for constructive thinking, and that remembrance will foster resistance to evil and the triumph of love.” [2]

The Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim (the Centre) [3], run by Krakowska Fundacja Centrum Informacji, Spotkań, Dialogu, Wychowania i Modlitwy (Kraków Foundation Centre for Information, Meetings, Dialogue, Education and Prayer), was established in 1992. It is a Catholic institution, founded by Archbishop Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, in cooperation with bishops of Europe and representatives of Jewish organizations. The intention of the founders of the Centre, built in the vicinity of the former Auschwitz concentration camp, was to create a place for reflection, education, sharing and prayer for all those who are moved by what happened here. The Centre commemorates the victims and contributes to the creation of mutual respect, reconciliation and peace in the world.

Difficult Beginnings

The decision to create the Centre for Information, Meetings, Dialogue, Education and Prayer in Oświęcim was taken during the meeting of representatives of Jewish organizations and the Catholic Church in Geneva in 1987 [4]. However, the implementation of this important idea was not easy. At that time, Poland was still under communist rule, and the authorities did not favour the establishment of new Catholic institutions. After 1989, following the fall of communism in Poland, the process of the social order restructuring did not facilitate organizational issues. At the time, in December 1989, Cardinal Franciszek Macharski established the “Kraków Foundation Centre for Information, Meetings, Dialogue, Education and Prayer” in order to build a new convent for the Carmelite nuns and the Centre for Dialogue. The construction of the new convent and the Centre for Dialogue were commenced simultaneously in order to start the educational activities as soon as possible. The Kraków Archdiocese did not have sufficient funds to implement such a large scale project on its own. The creation of organizational structures [5], the construction of facilities [6], sponsor acquisition [7], and the beginning of educational activities went on at the same time. When in 1992 the Centre opened its doors to the guests, there was a difficult atmosphere with palpable tensions of the ‘Carmel dispute’ and reactions to anything connected with this subject were often very emotional, as if it was touching open wounds.
 
The difficulty of running the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim can be illustrated by the following quote from the report of the Foundation Board from 1996, “The entire activity of the Centre is carried out within the limited Reception area. At our disposal we have approximately 40 beds in dormitory – style standard rooms.  This is due to the fact that the Centre has been organized in a building adapted to its needs, the lack of funds to implement the original project made this necessary. The project foresaw a separate hotel building, ensuring appropriate comfort to its users [8]. […] The technical level of our offer does not allow us to increase prices for our services, thus the revenue hardly covers the expenses incurred to support the institution. Throughout the year we achieve a financial balance, and sometimes we file a loss. Based on the opinion of our guests, it can be assumed that they assess their stay here as very fruitful, taking into consideration the very difficult and demanding context of the place.  Often for guests staying at the Centre was a great spiritual experience and opportunity to participate in the liturgy together with the Carmelite nuns in their convent chapel. The ecclesiastical roots of the facilities of the Centre should lead to the question as to the balance between historical themes and religious elements. For a house of Christian provenance, the question still remains a challenge. The matter is of a very delicate nature in the light of accusations regarding the ‘Christianization of Auschwitz’ that keep appearing (also addressed to the Centre).” [9] The last sentence refers to, among others, the Catholic organization Pax Christi in Germany which viciously criticized the first advertising brochure of the Centre for Dialogue. The brochure was withdrawn.
It is necessary to keep all of that in mind in order to appropriately assess the achievements of the Centre. In this article, I concentrate on the presentation of the development of educational activities. In order to present the role of the Centre in the development of Christian – Jewish dialogue in Poland, one must describe the full programme of activities of the Centre.

House of Hospitality

The Centre for Dialogue and Prayer is located in Oświęcim, not in Auschwitz. People from all  over the world come, however, “to Auschwitz”, to reflect on this Memorial Site Auschwitz-Birkenau upon the war times when under the German occupation the city of Oświęcim was renamed Auschwitz and mass extermination was organized in the concentration camps. This is why we say that the Centre of Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim wishes to serve its guests “at the edge of Auschwitz”. [10]
The Centre has its Catholic identity; on the other hand, it is open to everyone, regardless of nationality or religion. The transparency of one’s own identity facilitates dialogue, it does not harm it. The task of the Centre, as a Catholic institution, is pastoral care at the edge of Auschwitz, the care for people moved by what happened here, with full respect for the separate identity of each.
People of various identities, not only Jews and Poles, died in Auschwitz. They came from all over Europe. Today people from all over the world come to Oświęcim and they bring with them various backgrounds. This is why meetings at the edge of Auschwitz are so multifaceted and exceed the boundaries of Jewish – Christian dialogue.
In Auschwitz we touch issues that are like open wounds. Sometimes it is difficult to talk about them, sometimes it is better to remain silent. The very presence itself is more important than words.
 
The Centre for Dialogue and Prayer fulfills its vocation by being a house of hospitality at the edge of Auschwitz. Since 1991 a priest from the Kraków Archdiocese has been working in the Centre as its director: Father Jacek Mola (1991 – 1993), Father Piotr Wrona (1993 – 2001), and since 2001 Father Jan Nowak.  In 1995 Father Manfred Deselaers, Ph. D, Pastor of the German Bishop’s Conference,  began working  in the Centre,  and  from 2009 Sister Mary O’Sullivan, an Irish Sister of Mercy.
Today, the Centre offers approximately 145 beds in single, twin and multiple shared rooms, it has well-equipped conference rooms and a few smaller meeting rooms, a chapel and an interreligious oratory, a restaurant,  café and a camping site. These facilities are necessary so that the guests can concentrate on visiting the camps, seminar sessions, reflection, dialogue and prayer. The friendly staff help guests to feel safe at the edge of Auschwitz.
Recently, participants of an international meditation group wrote to the Centre: “It was incredibly helpful to come back to the Centre after each visit to the camp. We found the rest and peace we needed to balance this intense field of suffering and pain.” [11]
Four dimensions define the educational work of the Centre, each of which starts from silence and listening: Knowledge – be silent and listen to the voice of the soil of Oświęcim; Reflection – be silent and listen to the voice of one’s own heart; Dialogue – be silent and listen to the voice of another person; and Prayer – be silent and listen to or look for the voice of God.

Knowledge

All programmes start with a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. One needs to confront and learn more about what “Auschwitz” was, that is why cooperation with the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim is important for the very foundations of our educational work. The Memorial offers the possibility to visit the camp with a guide, access to archives or collections of prisoners’ artwork, as well as lectures or multimedia presentations concerning various aspects of camp life.
The Centre facilitates meetings with, very few by now, former prisoners. These are mostly Poles, with a few Jews among them as well. Over the years, this group included among others: Wilhelm Brasse (+2012), Wacław Długoborski, Adam Jurkiewicz (+1997), August Kowalczyk (+2012), Ignacy Krasnokucki, Henryk Mandelbaum (died 2008), Edward Paczkowski, Józef Paczyński, Zofia Pohorecka (+2004), Zofia Posmysz, Kazimierz Smoleń (+2012), Tadeusz Sobolewicz, Karol Tendera, Hanna Ulatowska, Jacek Zieliniewicz. Since 1992, as a frequent guest at the Centre we hosted Halina Birenbaum, a Jewish writer born in Warsaw, now living in Israel. She is the author of the first publication of the Centre [12] These meetings are in a sense the heart of our educational work as they bring the human dimension of the tragedy closer, and, at the same time, open up paths of new friendship.
The Centre has at the disposal of the guests a library with books and videos as well as a collection of other educational materials that help one to become better acquainted with the history of Auschwitz.
The everyday educational work is mainly with groups whose aim is to get to know the Memorial of Auschwitz (visit the former camp, meeting with a former prisoner) and reflection upon this experience.
In the summer of 1991, when the first building of the Centre was still under construction, international youth groups were already hosted here. They also helped with the construction. Their programme included a visit to the former camp, reflections on history and reconciliation as well as prayer. They listened to lectures, e.g. by Prof. Jonathan Webber, about Jewish mourning traditions. Father Grzegorz Ryś summed up the first years of the educational activities of the Centre, “The first building of the «Centre» was opened at the beginning of 1992. The beginnings were marked by the organization of language courses, lectures and seminars based on the thematic triad «Bible - History – Dialogue». However, very soon the scope of both the form and subject matter were widened substantially.  Also 1992 the «Centre» became actively involved in the humanitarian aid for war – afflicted Bosnia. In May 1993, the Centre hosted the Dalai Lama. Between December 1993 and June 1994, it organized 43 various meetings (often lasting a few days) for a wide array of organizations -  school groups,  university summer camps from Poland  and Germany,  Italian seminarians,  and the Committee for Dialogue with Judaism of the Polish Episcopal Conference. In June 1995 among other events, there was a Polish – Israeli meeting of writers of books for children and youth (5th – 8th June) and an international symposium for journalists - «National minorities in Central Europe: an obstacle or a bridge» (16th – 18th June). Two months later, during a series of three-day-seminars entitled «Turning Point '95», 367 persons from 33 countries stayed at the Centre. In October 1997 a Polish – German scientific session «Childhood and Sacrum» took place. Between 1st November 1998 and 25th October 1999, the Centre hosted 46 groups from: Italy, Germany, Finland, France, Great Britain, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Israel and Japan, as well as many individual visitors, including those whose stay was  partially or  fully sponsored by the Centre (former prisoners, pensioners, teachers, disabled persons.)” [13]
In 2013 the Centre hosted 126 educational groups from 17 countries. Together with other guests, a total of 6241 persons from 44 countries availed of guest accommodation for 16, 468 overnight stays. Apart from that, many groups and individual visitors come to the Centre after a visit to the former camp, looking for some rest or conversation.
 
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Contact


Krakowska Fundacja
Centrum Dialogu i Modlitwy
w Oświęcimiu
ul. M. Kolbego 1, 32-602 Oświęcim

tel.: +48 (33) 843 10 00
tel.: +48 (33) 843 08 88
fax: +48 (33) 843 10 01

Education Department: education@cdim.pl
Reception: reception@cdim.pl

GPS: 50.022956°N, 19.19906°E

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