Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Pope John Paul II and Auschwitz - Part II

Manfred Deselaers

Pope John Paul II and Auschwitz - part II



Quite unexpectedly for many Poles, suddenly from abroad, strong protests against the convent at Auschwitz were voiced from the Jewish side.[24] This came as a surprise and appeared at first to many as a continuation of the Nazi and communist struggle against Christianity and the aspirations of Polish independence.

The wound inflicted by Auschwitz proved to be deep and still open, affecting the identity of both parties, and the essence of Christian-Jewish relations.

The conflict demonstrated that whatever happens in Oswiecim in the context of the memory of Auschwitz spreads out to the whole world and especially to Christian-Jewish relations. Similarly, what is going on in the world has an impact on how people who visit the memorial site of Auschwitz look at it. That is why the Pope could not be indifferent to what happens in Auschwitz, even though it is far from Rome. We know that from his childhood the fate of the Jews was close to the Pope, and the memory of the Holocaust remained an important theme of his pontificate.[25]

During the Second Vatican Council in which Cardinal Wojtyla took part, the Catholic Church - under the influence of the tragedy of the Jewish people during World War II - fundamentally changed its attitude towards the Jews, which is expressed in the conciliar document Nostra Aetate, 1965.

John Paul II as Pope did a lot to continue and deepen the process of Christian-Jewish reconciliation. I give only one example here: In 1986, he visited the Synagogue of Rome, where he spoke his famous words "You are our dearly beloved brothers, and - you can say - our elder brothers.” This implied a religious relationship to the Jewish people. "Probing into its own mystery, the Church of Christ discovers the bond which links it with Judaism. The Jewish religion is not for our religion an external reality, but something internal." [26]

On many levels Christian-Jewish dialogue began in the West after the Second Vatican Council. In the Communist era the Church in Poland did not participate in this dialogue.

Under Communism the special Jewish dimension of the place Auschwitz-Birkenau was not spoken about, neither from the Communist nor from the Catholic side. In Poland, almost no one knew that more than 90% of those murdered were Jews.[27]

In 1986 a very difficult dialogue began in Geneva, Switzerland with talks between Jewish and Catholic representatives from different countries, among them Cardinals. At its conclusion, they jointly emphasized in the Declaration Zakhor - Remember, that "the lonely sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau are recognized today as symbols of the Final Solution, under which title the Nazis carried out the extermination (known as the Shoah) of six million Jews, one and a half million of whom were children, simply because they were Jews.” Everyone was invited to “bow our heads and, in the silence of our hearts, remember the Shoah. May our silent prayer help us today and tomorrow to better respect the rights of others, of all others, to life, liberty and dignity. Let us remember all of those murdered at Auschwitz and Birkenau — Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Russian prisoners of war". [28]

One year later a very difficult decision was made to move the Carmelite nuns to a newly built monastery a short distance away and not so close to the wall of the former camp. Pope John Paul II wrote to the nuns: "You came to Auschwitz in order to be love in the heart of the Church. Need one explain how much the Church's heart ought to be present in this very place, how much Christ's love is needed, that love with which He loved each person to the end. How much that love is needed here, where hate and contempt raged throughout entire years, gathering a harvest of destruction and death among people of so many nations?

Presently, in accord with the will of the Church, your community is to relocate to another place in Auschwitz. [...]

Auschwitz and all that is associated therewith as a tragic heritage of Europe and humanity remains the task of Carmel. The task which remains embraces all that the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp connotes in the memories of the nations: in the memory of the sons and daughters of Israel as well as all the vibrations of the camp in the experiences of Poles and in the history of our Fatherland.”[29] Moving "to another place in the same Auschwitz" is not resignation, but an expression of that mission, for which the nuns came here: to be witnesses "to that love with which Christ loved humankind to the end." The Pope stressed that this applies in particular to all that connects to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the memory of the sons and daughters of Israel, and in the memory of Poles.

At the same time the Catholic Centre for Education, Information, Encounter, Dialogue and Prayer was to be created.[30] John Paul II described its task in 1988 in Mauthausen in Austria, as follows:

“Among numerous initiatives that are being undertaken today in the spirit of the Council, are initiatives in Jewish-Christian dialogue, I would like to mention the Centre for Information, Education, Meeting and Prayer that is being prepared in Poland. It is to facilitate research on the Shoah and on the martyrdom of the Polish people and other European peoples at the time of National Socialism, as well as to help with the spiritual confrontation with these problems. One hopes that it will bear abundant fruit and also serve as an example for other nations.”[31]

The dispute over the Carmelite Convent in Auschwitz revealed the importance of the Jewish dimension of the place. The Pope during his first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979, when visiting Auschwitz had stopped at the inscription in Hebrew at the monument at Birkenau and said:

In particular I pause with you, dear participants in this encounter, before the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription awakens the memory of the People whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination. This People draws its origin from Abraham, our father in faith, as was expressed by Paul of Tarsus (Rom 4, 12). The very people that received from God the commandment "Thou shalt not kill", itself experienced in a special measure what is meant by killing. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference.”[32]

The Pope did everything within his power to make sure that the conflict did not become a reason for a deepening antagonism between Jews and Christians, but rather it would be a road to reconciliation.

In Poland referring to the tragedy of WWII which took place here, during a meeting with representatives of the Jewish community in Warsaw on June 14, 1987  he said: "Your threat was our threat. Our threat was not realized to the same extent and did not manage to accomplish so much. This terrible sacrifice you bore, you can say bore for others who also had to be exterminated. [...] you are now a great voice of warning for all humanity [...] I think that in this way you fulfil your special calling [...] in your name the Pope also raises  a voice of warning [...] "[33]

At the Wednesday audience in Rome September 26, 1990, during a lecture in the context of meditations on the Mother of God, John Paul II recalled the words of Nostra Aetate and said:

"There is still one nation, one special people: the people of the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, who are the heritage of the faith of Abraham. The Church in the Apostle Paul has the words about his descendants," To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenant, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ "(Romans 9: 4-5). Christ and the apostles. And you yourself, O virgin Mother, daughter of Zion. This nation lived with us for generations, arm in arm, on the same land, which became like a new homeland of its scattering. This nation experienced the cruel murder of millions of its sons and daughters. They were first branded with their particular sign.  Then they were forced into separate districts in ghettos, then transported to the gas chambers for death - only because they were children of this nation. Murderers did this on our land in order to dishonour it. You cannot defile the earth with the death of innocent victims. Through such death, the earth becomes a holy relic. The people who lived with us for many generations remained with us after this terrible death of millions of its sons and daughters. Together we await the Day of Judgment and the Resurrection."[34]

In all of these texts the brotherhood between the two nations and religions is emphasized, it is a summons to full mutual respect and sensitivity to the suffering of others. This is expressed also in the prayer of John Paul II for the Jewish people from the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw 11.06.1999:

“Hear our prayers for the Jewish People, whom you still consider dear because of their forefathers. [...] Support them, so that they may know love and respect from those who still do not understand the extent of their sufferings, and from those who out of concern and solidarity  share their pain of the wounds that have been inflicted on them. Remember  the new generations,  young people and children, so that they are constantly faithful to what is the special mystery of their vocation. ... "[35]

Edith Stein

In this process, which was also a search of Catholic identity in the face of Auschwitz, Edith Stein, Sister Benedicta of the Cross, played an important role. John Paul II beatified her in 1987, canonized in 1998, and in 1999 he declared her one of the Patrons of Europe. Coming from a German Jewish family, she became a prominent philosopher, was socially engaged, entered the Church and later became a Carmelite nun. She was killed in Auschwitz during the Holocaust because of her Jewish origins.

What does it mean that Edith Stein is a Patron saint of Europe? It means, when Catholics today are looking for their role in Europe, they should ask their Patrons for orientation. They therefore also have to ask Edith Stein, she who reminds them of Auschwitz. The memory of the Shoah became a part of modern European Catholic identity.

 In his homily during her canonization Pope JP II said: "From now on, as we celebrate the memory of this new saint, from year to year we must also remember the Shoah, that cruel plan to exterminate a people, a plan to which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters fell victim. May the Lord let his face shine upon them and grant them peace (cf. Nm 6:25f.).” [36]

 It is not therefore about the "Christianization of the memory of Auschwitz" in which there is no respect for non baptized Jews, as is often suspected, rather, it is in terms of respect for the Jewish victims from the perspective of Christian faith, hope and love.

In 1933, Edith Stein entered the Carmel of Cologne, where she takes the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1938, she wrote in a letter: "I must tell Mother (the Mother Superior of the monastery) that I took my religious name already as a postulant, I received it exactly as I had asked for. Under the cross I understood the suffering of the people of God which then was beginning. I thought that those who understand that this is the cross of Jesus, of Christ, must take it onto themselves in the name of the others. Today I know much better what it means to be married to God in the sign of the cross. However, the whole fullness you can never understand because it is mystery."[37]

When the Pope in 1999, declared Edith Stein a Patron of Europe, he wrote: "Her cry connects to the cry of all the victims of this terrible tragedy, but at the same time is united with the cry of Christ, who gave human suffering a mysterious and enduring fruitfulness. The image of her holiness will always be associated with the drama of her martyr's death, she suffered along with many others. It continues as a proclamation of the gospel of the cross. [...] To declare St. Edith Stein a Patron of Europe means to raise above the old continent a banner of respect, tolerance and openness, calling all people to mutual understanding and acceptance, regardless of ethnic, cultural and religious differences, and to try to build a truly fraternal society."[38]


Examination of Conscience

But in the difficult dialogue between Christians and Jews it was not only about a brotherhood of common destiny and mutual respect. The theme of Christian guilt with roots in a Christian anti-Jewish tradition constantly returned. It indirectly shared the responsibility for the tragedy that led to the Holocaust.

 In 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a plan was drawn up to publish a joint pastoral letter from the Bishops' Conferences of Germany and Poland.  However, this did not happen. Instead there were two letters written.[39] The Bishops did not want to give the impression that in Auschwitz Germans and Poles were in a similar role in their asking of forgiveness from the Jews. And rightly so because in Auschwitz the Poles were victims and not the perpetrators.

However, without a consideration of conscience there cannot be an adequate response to the challenge of Auschwitz. Already in 1979, the Pope said in Birkenau: "Yet another painful reckoning with the conscience of mankind."[40] In 1989, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, he wrote, "that the memory of the murderous war, which took place on the continent with a Christian tradition, calls us Catholics to an examination of conscience about the state of the evangelization of Europe".[41]

In 1994, in his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the Pope calls the Church to an examination of conscience, repentance and conversion: "When, therefore, approaching the end of the second millennium of Christianity, it is right that the Church be more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children , recalling all those times in the past, when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of giving witness to a life inspired by the values of faith, demonstrated to the world examples of thinking and acting, which were truly a source of counter-witness and scandal. "[42]

In 1998, the Vatican published the document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah", to which John Paul II in his Foreword wrote:

“On numerous occasions during my Pontificate I have recalled with a sense of deep sorrow the sufferings of the Jewish people during the Second World War. The crime which has become known as the Shoah remains an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close. As we prepare for the beginning of the Third Millennium of Christianity, the Church is aware that the joy of a Jubilee is above all the joy that is based on the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and neighbour. Therefore she encourages her sons and daughters to purify their hearts, through repentance of past errors and infidelities. She calls them to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our time."[43]

In the Jubilee Year 2000, in the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome during Lent, an important penitential liturgy was celebrated. Pope John Paul II prayed in words which later were written on a piece of paper and put by him into the former Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land:

God of our fathers,
you chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring your Name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened
by the behaviour of those
who in the course of history
have caused these children of yours to suffer,
and asking your forgiveness
we wish to commit ourselves
to genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant.

At the Yad Vashem Shoah Memorial in Jerusalem he said:

" As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.

The Church rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the Creator inherent in every human being.

In this place of solemn remembrance, I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people suffered in the 20th century will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews. Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather the mutual respect required of those who adore the one Creator and Lord, and look to Abraham as our common father in faith."[45]

The Mercy of God

Providence wished that near to Auschwitz, in Krakow's Lagiewniki, through the initiative of St. Faustina the message of Divine Mercy began to spread throughout the whole world. Divine Mercy is also a response to Auschwitz.

In 2002, during his last pilgrimage to Poland, Pope John Paul II consecrated the new Basilica in Lagiewniki to Divine Mercy and entrusted the world to Divine Mercy. In his homily he said:

"We wish to proclaim that there is no other source of hope for mankind apart from the mercy of God. […] On the one hand, the Holy Spirit enables us, through Christ’s Cross, to acknowledge sin, every sin, in the full dimension of evil which it contains and inwardly conceals. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit permits us, again through Christ’s Cross, to see sin in the light of the mysterium pietatis, that is, of the merciful and forgiving love of God. […] How greatly today’s world needs God’s mercy! In every continent, from the depth of human suffering, a cry for mercy seems to rise up. Where hatred and the thirst for revenge dominate, where war brings suffering and death to the innocent, there the grace of mercy is needed in order to settle human minds and hearts and to bring about peace. […] The fire of mercy needs to be passed on to the world. In the mercy of God the world will find peace and humanity will find happiness! […] May you be witnesses to mercy!"[46]

After Mass, he added stirring words: "At the end of this solemn liturgy, I desire to say that many of my personal memories are tied to this place. During the Nazi occupation, I was working in the nearby Solvay factory […] with the wooden shoes on my feet. They are the shoes that we used to wear then. How could one imagine, that one day that man with the wooden shoes would consecrate a Basilica of the Divine Mercy at Lagiewniki in Kraków."[47]


The memory of Auschwitz is a painful wound and it will remain so for many years. This wound should not destroy our faith in people and in God; therefore it was necessary to find a way to trust, reconciliation and a common responsibility for the future.  It has been a difficult road. It was the power of faith in the dignity of every human being, the trust in God's faithfulness to the covenant and in His mercy, the courage to overcome evil with good, that helped to pave the difficult roads. Of key importance here was the unique contribution of holy Pope John Paul II.

[24] See Peter Forecki, Od Shoah do strachu. Spory o polsko-żydowską przeszłość i pamięć w debatach publicznych [From the Shoah to fear. Disputes about Polish-Jewish history and memory in public debates], Publisher Poznan, Poznan 2010, p. 186.

[25] See Fr. Wojciech Szukalski, universal message resulting from the teaching of John Paul II on the Shoah. In: Dialogue at the threshold of Auschwitz. Volume 2, Perspectives theology after Auschwitz. Krakow-Auschwitz-Lublin 2010, pp. 147-205.

[27] In Auschwitz - Birkenau  about a million Jews were killed, 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti i Roma, 15,000 Soviet POWs and others. More about the number of victims can be found at http://en.auschwitz.org/h/

[28] Auschwitz. Konflikty i Dialog, p. 177.  Own translation.

[29] John Paul II, Letter to the Carmelite Sisters. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/it/letters/1993/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_19930409_suore-carmelo.html [Italian; accessed 2015-02-10]. Own translation.

[30] Today, "Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim", see www.cdim.pl .

[31] From the speech of John Paul II in Mauthausen, Austria, 24.06.1988. In: "Auschwitz. Conflicts and dialogue", p. 182. Own translation.

[32] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790607_polonia-brzezinka_en.html [accessed 2014-09-09].

[33] Żydzi i judaizm w dokumentach Kościoła i nauczaniu Jana Paweł II (1965-1989), [Jews and Judaism in the documents of the Church and the teaching of John Paul II (1965-1989)], developed by Fr. Waldemar Chrostowski and Fr. Richard Rubinkiewicz SDB, the Academy of Catholic Theology, Warsaw, 1990, p. 198. Own translation.

[34] ZNAK 490, Kraków 1996, p. 61.

[35] In: Weksler - Waszkinel, Romuald Jakub, Zgłębiając tajemnicę Kościoła [Exploring the mystery of the Church], published by WAM, Cracow, 2003, p 35. Own translation.

[36] Homily of Pope John Paul II delivered during Mass. Canonization of Edith Stein, 11.10.1998. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1998/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_11101998_stein_en.html [accessed 2015-02-10].

[37] Letter from 12.09.1938. In: Edith Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, p. 295. Trans. Josephine Koeppel OCD. ICS Publications, Washinton 1993.

[38] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter “Motu Propio” issued for the proclamation of St Brigid of Sweden, St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as patronesses of Europe, Rome 1.10.1999, Nr.9.

[39] Oświadczenie Komisji Episkopatu Polski do Dialogu z Judaizmem na 50 rocznicę wyzwolenia obozu zagłady Auschwitz- Birkenau w Oświęcimiu 27.01.1995.
Wort der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz aus Anlass des 50. Jahrestages der Befreiung des Vernichtungslagers Auschwitz, 27.01.1995.

[40] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790607_polonia-brzezinka_en.html [accessed 2014-09-12].

[41] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Rome, 27 August 1989, No. 12. http://chomikuj.pl/NNnetka/religia/Jan+Pawe*c5*82+II-+adhortacje*2c+listy/LIST+50+rocznica+II+wojny,33507165.doc [accessed 2014-07-08]. Own translation.

[43] John Paul II Apostolic Letter, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoahhttp://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_16031998_shoah_en.html [accessed 2014-08-19].

[45] Speech by John Paul II during his visit to Yad Vashem 23.03.2000. http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/about/events/pope/john_paul/speech.asp [accessed 2014-08-20].


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