Respect for the religious dignity of each person

Dialogue on the treatment of the religious dimension at Auschwitz

Oświęcim, february 1998

At the instigation of the Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Auschwitz, Jews and Christians committed to dialogue met from 13-16 December 1997 in Auschwitz and Krakow. They came from Poland, Germany and the United States to reflect on the question of a religious approach to the Auschwitz reality. Several tensions and mi­sunderstandings have appeared surrounding the presence of symbols like the Cross or the Star of David, as well as the postulate of their absence. The first objective of the meeting was to establish a climate of trust so that each of the in­terventions could reflect a particular sensitivity. The meeting was held in private, the participants did not intend to represent any institution or group officially. The result of the discussion is a list of questions put forward as an invitation for exchange and consideration. The partici­pants hope that the queries they have e­laborated as tools, will accelerate the process leading, beyond existing ten­sions, to seek ways of respecting the religious dignity of each person.


  • Henryk Halkowski, Krakow.
  • Fr. Hanspeter Heinz, Professor of Pastoral Theology, University of Augsburg.
  • Fr. Łukasz Kamykowski, Professor of Fundamental Theology, Papal Theological Akademy, Krakow.
  • Herbert Immenkötter, Professor of Church History, University of Augsburg.
  • Fr. Klaus Kienzler, Professor of Fundamental Theology, University of Augsburg.
  • Rabbi Michael A. Signer, Professor of Judaism, University of Notre Dame, USA.
  • Stefan Wilkanowicz, kath. Journalist, Vicepresident of the Internat. Council of the State Museum Auschwitz‑Birkenau.
  • Manfred Deselaers, Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Auschwitz.

The religious meaning of Auschwitz-Birkenau

  • What is Auschwitz from a Jewish and a Christian perspective?
  • What is the most appropriate frame of reference for reflecting on Auschwitz-Birkenau: cemetary, mass grave, battlefield? What are the consequences of these frames of reference for different religious communities?
  • What can we do to ameliorate the Christianisation or secularisation/atheisation of Auschwitz?
  • Are the testimonies of Auschwitz survivors the highest authority to define the religious identity of the camp?
  • Since there are some people who argue that God was absent in Auschwitz-Birke­nau, should there be no religious symbols or quotations from sacred texts within or near the camp?
  • From a religious perspective, is there a unique geography to Auschwitz-Birkenau which makes some locations in the camp more ‘sacred’ or require greater respect than others (crematoria, ramp, the cell of Maximilian Kolbe)?
  • From a religious perspective, should the buildings and physical environment of Auschwitz-Birkenau be restored, reconstructed or permitted to decay?
  • What are the consequences of the fact that both earth (ashes) and heavens (smoke) are the ‘burial places’ of the Auschwitz-Birkenau victims (see Paul Celan, Todesfuge)? Do these images mean that what occurred in these camps and others has world-wide consequences because the smoke and ashes perfuse the heavens?

Religious encounter in Auschwitz

  • What is the meaning of the ‘religious dignity of persons’? Does every person have the right to express his/her religious conviction in an open or public manner?
  • What are the concrete consequences of religious dignity in Auschwitz regarding victims, believers, tourists?
  • How should visitors to Auschwitz and Birkenau respect the special needs of the population who live near the camps?
  • How do we realise or act on our religious convictions without obviously offending people with other religious convictions? For example, what is an appropriate reaction to a Christian eucharistic celebration in the camp? Who should have the ultimate authority to make this decision?
  • What are the consequences of the fact that some religious symbols (the cross) and some martyrs (Maximilian Kolbe) may provoke contradictory responses?
  • How shall we deal with different identities when they contradict each other? For example, is the cross i the camp a sign of the Christianization of Auschwitz or is it an opportunity to learn about religious identity? Another example: Is wearing of an Israeli flag a sign of religious conviction?
  • How can we discern the difference between the private expression of a person who visits Auschwitz and collective religious ceremonies? (Is there a distinction between a small group who prays and a pilgrimage made by a diocese?)
  • What contributions can religious perspectives bring to the problem of shifting stereo­types about Auschwitz-Birkenau (e.g. “Polish” concentration camps and “German-Jewish” reconciliation)?
  • Is there a more constructive approach to the religious meaning of Auschwitz than making a single group into a scapegoat?
  • How is the Christian-Jewish dialogue influenced by the fact that from a German per­spective Christians are situated on the perpetrator’s side, from a Polish perspective on the victim’s side of Auschwitz?
  • What interventions from Jews not living in Poland might contribute to constructive or destructive dialogue about the camps?
  • What is the realtionship between a discussion of the religious dignity of persons in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the aims of ecumenical pluralism and interreligious dialo­gue?

Aims of visiting Auschwitz

  • What should be done to protect Auschwitz-Birkenau from the banalization of violence or the desensitization of visitors to the dignity of the victims?
  • What values and fundamental questions for young people can be provoked by visiting the camps?
  • What are the consequences for young people visiting the camp who are accustomed to a culture of violence by the mass media?
  • Toward what present and future actions does reflection on Auschwitz-Birkenau provoke us: forgiveness? reconciliation? satisfaction? etc. What concrete steps might we take about these actions beyond the claim that all religious communities ‘need more time’ to reach their conclusions?