Prof. Dr Łukasz Kamykowski

A Christian Europe with the ruins of the Auschwitz crematoria

three perspectives: Jews, Germans, and Poles

When in the Europe of today one speaks of religion from a Christian point of view, one cannot overlook a fact which astonishes us greatly as Christians. The truth is that we meet with strong resistance from certain influential circles when we call to mind particular matters-of-fact which concern both the history and the topical state of Europe with regards to its future. It is not only the words ” Christian values” – the foundation for the common Europe of today – that arouse such resistance but also the mentioning of its ” Christian roots.”

The topic chosen for this lecture touches upon a difficulty which – as I believe – can yet shed some light on our understanding of this resistance and, through mutual understanding, can offer some help regarding our view of the religious dimension of Europe today and in the future. I would like to broaden our discussion about this dimension by an important aspect, the symbol of which are the ruins of Auschwitz, namely the offence caused by a Europe with Christian roots.

Right from the start, some reservations have to be made so that not too much be expected from this lecture. What I am going to present is a working hypothesis, surely not sufficiently documented, which generated from open conversations in this ”triangle” mentioned in the title, from a dialogue in which I either participated personally or which I know of from direct reports of those involved. One can find more details in ”Dialog u progu Auschwitz” (Dialogue at the threshold of Auschwitz), edited by Manfred Deselaers, or in an older publication, ”Auschwitz. Konflikty i dialog” (Auschwitz. Conflict and Dialogue), edited by Marek Glownia and Stefan Wilkanowicz. Obviously, it is an undue simplification to speak of only three perspectives and to bring them in connection with three peoples even under the important assumption that – for me – each of these three concerns those who regard history and the present from the point of view of their religions. As a starting point, I wish to examine the religious dimension of the look at Europe after Auschwitz as given by Jews, Germans and Poles; in doing so, I take all proper names as symbolic key words for the problem thus stated.

First of all, I shall try to elaborate some theses concerning the view of Europe after Auschwitz of each of the groups mentioned and then to express some ideas on how the entirety of all three perspectives effects a deeper understanding of the religious dimension of Europe and how it helps to shape this dimension more rationally in the future.

The Jewish Perspective

In a sense, the Jewish perspective is the easiest. Auschwitz is annihilation. Annihilation is the last word said to the Jews of the former Europe, a Europe with Christian roots, a Europe founded on Christian values. From this perspective, Auschwitz as the final consequence unambiguously passes sentence on that Europe. That Europe cast out Jews, and they – willingly or unwillingly – left it, as it were, forever; at least that was their intention. If they come back, it is only to honour their dead, to call to mind the murdered world which does not exist anymore. The only possible land for Jews today – again, that is a huge simplification – is either Israel or America. Two worlds, based on different principles than the Christian Europe of the past in which everything somehow happened in the shadow of the Cross, which accused Jews of ”murdering God,” and where the separation between state and church has never been clearly stated. The Europe of the future – if it should be at all possible for Jews to live in, if it could ever be trustworthy again – is a Europe cut off from that past and from those roots. One can shade this image a little, make the nuances more obvious and understandable. Among Jews of European descent (and until their annihilation they were the majority) there is – understandably – a certain nostalgia for that world, which, though religiously always considered a stay on foreign ground, the ”diaspora,” still for many centuries gave opportunity for their own tradition to take form and into which they put their heart and soul. It is a world which in its entirety does not only evoke negative memories, for which organizations of former inhabitants and their descendants bear witness – inhabitants of cities and small towns scattered over Europe, particularly in Middle and Eastern Europe. (As an instance of perfidiousness, one can call to mind the former inhabitants of Oswiecim which was called Ospitzim in Yiddish, a name that etymologically was connected with the idea of hospitality.) The European world of Jewish culture always developed alongside the mainstream of the history, politics, science and art in Europe, even though under a mutually shared sky, in the same climate and country. It developed, accompanied by the permanent feeling of insecurity and danger, closer or farther away, which in the consciousness of the Jews was connected with what in the partly shared European world always remained most strange, namely the religion of the majority: Christianity.

In the waves of dislike and hatred for Jews, which came and went in Europe throughout the centuries, as well as in the humiliating tribute they had to pay the European political powers in one form or another for a relatively peaceful life, there were too often, if not always, elements of the religion of the majority who arrogantly looked down upon the stubbornly impious Jews. Therefore, they were hardly aware of the fact that the annihilation of the years 1942-45 was planned and carried out by a regime which relied upon a different neo-pagan ideology, breaking away from Christianity. Anyway, it is of secondary importance for them considering that this system had grown in a Christian Europe, that it boasted with stengthening European civilization, and that it was realized by European Christians.

Let us now try to assess the significance of such a perspective for our understanding of Europe and its relationship to religion. The point of view presented above, which – let me remind you – is systematically called ”Jewish,” does not permit a one-sided idealization of the European past. It reminds us of the vast difference between what Christianity was meant to be for the world and what it has in actual fact been in the history of Europe so far. It lets us see Europe from the outside, so to speak, through the eyes of all those – not only Jews but also Roma, Slavs from the Balkans, and Muslims – who, living in Europe, never accepted it fully in its order shaped by Christians and who tried to find room in this Europe for their own whole world. By their very existence, Jews remind us of the fact that the roots of European civilization are strongly pre-European. They make the fear of the expression ”Christian roots” at least partly understandable as their fear of a return to the past when the form in which Christianity manifested itself never gave them the chances that different historically realized models of an interrelationship between the secular community and religion seem to offer. It is in the shaping of this relationship where the United States differs from Europe, yet they share a cultural heritage. Also the state of Israel, which came into existence after World War II, based its hope on justice and peace at its foundation as a state with laical character.

On the other hand, this outward distance of the Jews to Europe with its religious roots and its religious form is a shortcoming which results from their perspective. Europe must be understood and recognized critically but also continually, especially from its inside, by the Europeans themselves, by those who called it to life, who were responsible for its achievements and its failures. In this sense, one cannot ignore the perspective which we – again systematically – refer to as German.

Two German Tendencies

The connection the Germans have with Europe is close indeed – in the past as well as in the present and in the foreseeable future. They have always been one of the most important parts in its make-up: starting with the time when in the West they took upon themselves both the idea of a Christian empire and the effort of its realization… to the period when in the dramatic conflict, whose burden they carried in themselves, between Reformation and Catholic Counterreformation, the modern form of interrelationship between religion and political order was forged… till later when socialism and Christian social ethics came into existence following the time of uprising against the grave social injustice of the Industrial Revolution… and finally, when from the ruins of World War II a new Europe tried to rise, one which wanted to eliminate the evil causes of European wars.

The Germans were always an active subject at the centre of the radical changes in Europe, and as such they worked out the positive values of these changes; they paid their due and – to an enormous extent – took upon themselves the responsibility for the character of Europe, particularly its special relationship with Christianity or – as seen from the ”other side” – the concrete application of the Gospel to the shaping of the secular, political, and social order in Europe. Two contrary attitudes can result from this – and they actually do – which in two different ways try to wipe out this fatal past and completely undo it.

One attitude, the spontaneous and easier one, shows itself in forgetting the past, in minimalizing it and compensating for it with something else. Germans do not all the time want to call to mind the worst when thinking of a ”Christian Europe” or ”the Christian roots of Europe.” For, one says, that belongs to the past and has been paid for in many ways – not the least with defeat in World War II. It is necessary to remember other positive and time-honoured aspects of Christianity and the German contribution to just that Christianity in particular. It is necessary (and truthful) to recall the fact that the wrongs suffered do not only lie on ”the other” side but also on ”our” side. One should make it clear that a relatively small minority terrorized and subdued a majority who learnt too late that they were no longer able to resist effectively. One has to cry out that in this dark period of history German heroism was even more difficult since directed not against terrorism from the outside but against ”our own people.” This attitude also contains the tendency to share the responsibility for Auschwitz, to transfer it to the Church as such or the whole Christian world, to the countries which collaborated or passively accepted the annihilation of the Jews and which even drew profit out of it, albeit silently – this tendency leads to the general accusation of human nature after the fall. One should not despise this tendency or condemn it downright. It also reveals an important dimension of the truth not only about concrete history, but also about man, about the unity of the Church and the human race, even about the necessity of forgiveness; this is a dimension which cannot easily be seen from the other perspectives.

But there is also another German attempt to come to terms with the shadow of Auschwitz: it is more courageous and consciously set against the tendency presented above. It is the deliberate choice to consider Auschwitz seriously as a negation of the former Europe with Christian roots and as a warning for the future. This attempt requires the will not to forget that which one would like to forget. To keep this past in mind and to make a completely new start, to break with the dark tradition. It means creating a different Europe, a different society, a different Christianity, a different Church – something new ”after Auschwitz”, radically different from what was ”before”. This means above all to take the rejection of a Europe with Christian roots seriously, and in doing so stand by the victims of Auschwitz, which is to be understood as a symbol of the annihilation of the Jews – as it is in the Jewish perspective. It means to cast a new eye on this people and its religion in the light of that criticism – to see that which unites rather than (and sometimes apart from) that which separates. It means to bear the responsibility for the Anti-Judaism of the former Europe and its influence on the sad truth that racists made the Jews the degenerate ”race”, the poisoned blood which threatened the future of the world – all this under the sign of the swastika, still a kind of cross after all. It means to recreate a Church which – never forgetting its own share in the guilt – knows that in Europe it cannot insist on any rights and privileges, that it must become basically trustworthy again, above all through its ”option for the poor”, rendering service to the weak, the underprivileged, the outcast. That attitude ist surely comprehensible and respectable and should not be left unconsidered because one can and must learn a lot from it. But it, too, loses sight of certain elements which are important for our deliberations. It tends to take the German view for the European one, the attidtude of the Church (or Churches) in Germany towards Jews and Judaism as a (factual or at least desirable) perspective of the Church on the whole. This view ignores the fact that as regards the tragedy of Auschwitz it is not the only expression of the relationship between Christianity, Jewry and Europe.

The Poles and Auschwitz

The Poles also experience Europe ”from the inside”. They have understood themselves from the beginning of their history as those who had a part in its creation, well knowing that their role in Europe was never central. However, they are convinced that they had to play a vital role there and still do. An important element of this role was to protect Europe from being dominated by the Germans, from becoming a merely Germanic Europe. For that reason incidentally they were inclined to take the pope’s position rather than that of the emperor in those quarrels which lasted throughout the whole (Latin) Middle Ages. And they are also inclined to keep in mind more what was negative on the side of Germany in the millennium of interrelationship, what was a threat to the Polish political identity, than various positive influences in the realm of art, religious life, theology. The pride of the Poles ist their ”Golden Age” under the Jagiellonians, from the middle of the 15th to the end of the 16th centuries and the then created system of democracy and tolerance, as a result of which most threatened and persecuted Ashkenazi Jews left the West of Europe and moved to Poland, the multi-national and multi-cultural Res Publica. The Poles like to remember that in contrast to the religious wars in the West, Poland was a country without stakes, that the Pope’s legates sarcastically called it Paradisum Iudeorum in their reports to Rome.The later crisis and the decline of the state contributed to a further idealization of this time of hope in a resurrected Poland and at the same time deepened the distrust both of the western and the eastern neighbours. The bitter experiences of the years between the Wars (1918-1939) began to show that when recreating a state system the reality could not match the dreams of a peaceful unity of the Poles themselves, let alone of many nations – among them Jews – , living together under the shared roof of a Poland reborn.

Against this background, Auschwitz – the Concentration Camp erected in the spring of 1940 to terrorize and subjugate that part of Poland just conquered by the Germans – became a symbol, even before it was the site of annihilation for Jews transported there from all over Europe. It became the symbol of the will to put an end to Poland as such, and that already at the time when all those who represented Polish civilization were sentenced to elimination: Catholics, among them many priests, as well as Protestants and Jews. And Auschwitz was soon to become the symbol of resistance against this brute ”Wille zur Macht” (”will to power”) and the symbol of martyrdom, of victory through faith. When thinking of Auschwitz the Poles do not see the Christian faith as the dark background of the creator of this hell called Concentration Camp; instead they see it in its purest form, faith manifested in love – like a beam of light within the Camp -, always on the side of the prisoners who – like Maksymilian Kolbe – put their trust in the power of faith and gave meaning to this nightmare. Mostly they do not confine this trust to those who were able to see the affinity between their fate and that of Christ on Golgotha and regard their attitude consciously as the imitation of Christ’s Passion. They recognize it also in Jews who died confessing the faith of Israel in the one God; they look at them – as it were – spontaneously also from the standpoint of the Cross. They understand the Jews in so far as their attitude, their faith resembles their own and as this faith similarly proved its heroism in the hour of death. For the Poles (we must not forget the simplification of our representation) the opposites in Auschwitz can be drawn along the lines: godless perpetrators – godfearing victims. In this persepctive differences between the victims of Auschwitz vanish; it is here where the person was humiliated, where humanity received a murderous blow from an inhuman totalitarian system. Therefore the Poles cannot understand why the Cross should be removed from Auschwitz – the only hope of those who did not surrender and whom they knew well as members of their families, countrymen and members of the Church. And therefore they cannot comprehend why one should be ashamed of Europe’s Christian roots, of the Christian values that remain guidelines for the future, when it was just those that helped to sustain human dignity, European dignity, even when murderously trampled into the dust of Auschwitz. To them the experience of Christianity in the last century is positive in the highest degree: it integrates, connects and gives hope. For this reason they see the hope for Europe in a return to its Christian roots.

Naturally, this perspective has its weaknesses, too, and keeps the truth partly hidden. When looking at Auschwitz it ignores the depth of the Universal Church which consists of sinners and saints across national boarders, it destroys the solidarity between the Christian Germans who were involved in National Socialism and the Christian Poles who were the victims of this system and this ideology – it destroys, without really being aware of it, the solidarity of ”Christian Europe”. On the other hand it refutes any Polish responsibility for the annihilation of the Jews by overemphasizing the heroism of those who gave them help.

The dynamics of changing cconsciousness and the value of integrating the different perspectives

We have pointed out a number of times that our explanations are rather schematic. The first correction one has to make regarding the perspectives presented here, if they should be at all suitable for our understanding of the topic ”Religion in Europe,” has to do with the dynamics of their change. Even though one can still come across representatives of those views ”in their pure form”, one has to say that the last twenty-five years have been marked by the establishing and furthering of dialogues on each side of the triangle and in this triangle as a whole. Obviously, the chances for transformation have been brought about by tremendous changes in politics and civilization all over the world. However, that would be meaningless if this chance were not seized by people of faith and good will on all sides.One of the symbolic expressions of these dynamics is just this twenty-fifth anniversary of exchange and cooperation between our universities which we are celebrating in these days. It can be a symbol of one of the important dimensions of those transformations which helped to overcome negative stereotypes and view the Germans in a positive light; one of the main reasons for this is the fact that during the ”fall” of Communism in Eastern Europe Germany gave help and encouragement in many ways – at least in Poland.

Since the liberation of Poland from Communist ideological and political dependencies Polish-Jewish contacts and discussions have developed, too, also in the religious field. In Poland this dialogue is rather difficult: memories of Jews are vague and stereotype; Jews of today usually come from afar for a brief stay to find traces of their ancestors, and often they do not have the wish or the strength to establish closer contacts, which does not change attitudes or lessen distrust on the side of the Poles.

There are meetings – though rather too infrequently – in which representatives of all three perspectives discussed here participate – with Auschwitz near and in view. Their influences on society are not far-reaching. But mutual distrust diminishes while mutual understanding and respect for the other positions grow. The course of those conversations and their results cannot be summarized here. Instead, at the end we try to answer the question how the deepened view of the painful aspects of Europ’s past can bei helpful for the future, particulary as regards the role of religion.

It looks as if only that religious consideration of the past which does not – if anyhow possible- exclude anything or anyone, a past symbolized by Auschwitz, could be beneficial for the Church and for Europe. The Church would then have the chance to discover herself more fully, to see the way she has gone not only in the light of the ideals she tried to realize but also considering what became of them: what is a true reason for pride, what calls forth a deep sense of shame and necessitates conversion. The Church, which recognizes the truth more fully and thus becomes more humble, has the chance to bear witness more convincingly and, let us hope, in doing so, can still become trustworthy in Europe. If the Church in Europe does not only see those dividing lines in the past which resulted from formal dogmatic and organizational differences, but also those which – in the political conflicts – almost made it impossible for her members to recognize their brothers (and sisters) in Christ in those who were fighting on the other side of the barricades and the Front, then she could be more catholic, not in the denominational but in the literal sense, and thus able to be of service to the reconciliation of the peoples in a more convincing way.
It is of particualr value that the Church has recognized her connection with Israel, not only in her genesis referring to extra- and pre-European history, but with Israel today. This recognition makes the Church (also in Europe) not identify with Europe or see it as an absolute. By keeping a distance, she makes a relationship with Europe, its institutions and goals easier which is cooperative and critical at the same time. It is easy to see that this would be of the greatest use for Europe, too, so that it does not lose itself in self-satisfaction and egoism, so that it does not betray itself.

Naturally, all those are only dreams. But on the occasion of this celebration, when we thank God and human beings for the humble stretch of road which we have gone together in our intellectual, interhuman and religious contacts, when we encourage each other to continue on that journey and to deepen the network of our contacts, on such an occasion one may well dream, and it is worthwhile dreaming a little…

Translated from the German translation by Annegreth Fuehr