An Overview of ‘Auschwitz’ from the Polish Perspective
This text has the character of a personal testimony or a memory of what the topic of “Auschwitz” meant and still means in my life. From my memories I choose and share two images and then I give a summary of my further encounters with the camp. I also try to add a hermeneutic commentary that would extract a more general meaning from the presented images.
The First Memory: Remembering Grandpa
The first memory comes from my early childhood, from the time when one starts asking why other children have grandmas and grandpas whereas we have only one “granny”.
On the days of All Saints and All Souls, together with my parents and brothers I used to visit the Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow. Most of the departed from our family had been buried there. We would light candles and say prayers for my father’s parents and sister, whose graves were there among others. But the grave of my other grandfather was not in the cemetery. My mother would take us to a little quadrangular monument on top of which stood a sphere. Attached to it with metal hoops were some structures resembling soup bowls (Mother called them ‘urns’) with various names on them, all very difficult to read: “Buchenwald”, “Dachau”, “Sachsenhausen”, “Ravensbruck”… Around the monument many candles were lighting and lots of people stood with their heads down, mute and motionless – only their faces reflected the light of the candles. Mother also handed us candles and whispered that we should light them and put them next to the others. She always told us to pray a lot for “Henek” – that was her Dad and our Grandpa – “because he needs this very much”.
When we asked (also in a whisper) if he was here, mother would shake her head in refusal and point to the urn with the longest and most difficult of all the names: “Auschwitz-Birkenau”. She answered: “He died in the camp, in Auschwitz” and promised to explain what it really meant, but… not here.
In the course of time we actually learned from her, how one night during the occupation, the Gestapo came to take him; they pulled him from his bed and she never saw him again. Granny (her mother) went the next day to the Gestapo office in Pomorska Street. They told her he had been transported to Auschwitz. Then, about a month later, a notification of his death came from the camp, dated 27th May, 1942. Later the family learned that on that particular night they took all the reserve officers of the Polish Army who had not yet been arrested.
There is one more important thing that needs to be mentioned from my childhood memories. At that time all schools were organizing mandatory excursions to Auschwitz. Our mother always found some explanation for the teachers and she never let us take part in such a school trip. Moreover, she never went there: neither herself, nor with us, claiming: “it makes no sense”.
Therefore, I was in the camp for the first time as a student with the university chaplaincy of St. Anna’s in Krakow for a vigil before the beatification of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. I participated in the prayer vigil and Way of the Cross along the wire fences of the camp, but faithful to my Mother’s position, I refused to “visit the museum” on the following day.
What I have recounted, as I personally remember, is obviously only a single example of how Auschwitz is remembered in Poland and what it associates in the minds of the people of my generation. In different families the memories will vary. However, I dare to comment in a generalizing way, paying attention to some characteristic features in the short account above.
In Poland the word “Oświęcim” (which means Auschwitz) sometimes (I would even say: often) goes right through the heart of family memories. The first thing that Auschwitz brings to mind is a memory of someone dear who was killed there or possibly survived. This applies at least to people born in the 1950s and older. Our parents knew very well what Auschwitz was and they wanted to pass the memory on to their children themselves – they considered it their duty, a heavy one, and no one had the right to be a substitute for them in this. Such a family tradition constituted the basis of any further knowledge about the camp that we could later obtain. It had undeniable advantages, but also some deficiencies.
First of all, no one in Poland could question the fact of Auschwitz, even if they had never visited the place themselves: people who should be home were absent. It was not the place itself, but the memory of particular people which was most important. Remembering them led to some basic respect and solemnity in dealing with the issues connected to Auschwitz. People could not speak about the camp in any way they liked; it was also inappropriate to talk too much. There are certain things when commemorating the dead that should be concealed; those who died in inhuman conditions have a right to this even more than anyone else. The eyes of those who survived bore witness to this truth and discouraged the asking of stupid questions. However, they might have discouraged not only stupid questions, but also such as would enable family traditions to be seen more objectively in a broader background, to see them through the eyes of others. Besides that, the external conditions of Poland at the time made such a confrontation even more difficult.
Although probably few took such a radical position on the transformation of the camp into a museum of horror as my mother did, there were some who felt that “sightseeing” in the Auschwitz camp defiles the tragedy of millions. This place cannot be visited in a way people visit historic places like battlefields, which are connected with the glory of those who died fighting in the defence of national freedom. Maybe the will to know how it really was is also not enough. “It makes no sense”, no matter how much you learn about it, it cannot be understood. Something else is needed: to pray for them.
The Context of Faith
The lighted circle of hundreds of candles surrounding the monument of the Nazi camp victims in the cemetery, meant for me as well as I believe most Polish people, the only possible meeting point with that past. The context of faith was for us the only meaningful approach to it. The faith, though in each single heart shaky as candlelight in the autumn wind, gathers people in a circle which protects their little lights from the wind and creates a space in which people stay silent about the things that cannot be spoken, no longer alone – but with God. Therefore, they are also with those who already are with God. Then you remain silent not about the events of the past which cannot be undone, but about those, who are in His hands and for Him – are living. Then you can go on living without understanding everything.
This basic circle of light was broadened by other lights, by the testimonies of martyrs who ensured by their heroic faithfulness that keeping to the circle of faith was right. Those testimonies meant that God supports and confirms such a stance. The first of the martyrs, the message of whom was spreading by word of mouth (since the official media under the communist regime was not interested in such propaganda), was Fr Maximilian Kolbe. The fact that he had given his life for a fellow camp prisoner underlined the hope that humanity is still possible and should be searched and defended along the lines of faith – hope – love. This was especially important in a time when terror, though organized according to a different ideology and weakening with every decade, was the context of thinking about one’s own fate and humanity – for anyone who was not afraid to think. That is why Fr Maximilian (long before he was officially beatified and later canonized by the Church) became for the people in Poland the key to the question about Auschwitz. With time we learned about other heroes and heroines of the Nazi camps: Janusz Korczak, Stanisława Leszczyńska, Edith Stein. They were received in a similar way without asking about their religious affiliation. What mattered was faith in God and in the human person, hope for the human being.
Until the end of the 1970s such a line of thinking was the only one possible for me. This was crowned by another experience I wish to mention here.
Second Memory: Pontifical Mass in the Camp
The second memory is from the first months of my priesthood, more precisely from June 1979.
It was during the first pilgrimage of the newly elected Pope John Paul II to Poland. The itinerary of the pilgrimage included Mass in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. As a newly ordained priest I was told to go to Oświęcim on my own to help with the distribution of Holy Communion during the Mass. Despite some difficulties I managed to get on time to the right place, which was getting more and more crowded by numerous pilgrims pushing one another amidst the ruins of barracks on the outskirts of the Birkenau camp.
Many have analyzed the Pope’s homily of that Mass. I remembered little of it other than what gave a special atmosphere to the whole celebration, and this was the great respect towards all the victims of this camp, whoever they had been. In my memory, first of all remained forever the image of the distribution of Holy Communion to this enormous crowd of the living at the place created for mass death, and then the growing awareness that God does not leave the last word to death. It was an experience of the strong faithfulness of God that makes Him relentlessly go towards people, wherever they found themselves, if only their faith creates a space for receiving from Him the sign set by His saving Word. In His name, I was treading carefully, trying not to fall in a hole left by the foundations of a barrack, nor to trample the belongings of the pilgrims participating in the Mass, towards the lines of people craning their heads in hope. I reminded them of the word of the promise (“Body of Christ”), accepted their confirmation of faith (“Amen”) and distributed the Bread of Life. I was thinking with great thankfulness about the humility and silence of God who in such a way shows His faithfulness to the humiliated and crushed, strengthens the weak in hope, and opposes the haughtiness of scoffers, murderers, the rulers of this world; he neither discusses nor argues with them, but gives life even more abundantly, divine life of love which is stronger than death.
My childhood memory of the faith and hope of those who prayed in the cemeteries for those who died in camps, found its confirmation and consolidation here in Birkenau.
At that time, I believed this was the last word of God about Auschwitz, that all that could and should additionally be said about that place had happened before my very eyes. However, soon after I learned this is not so. But before I share the new story, let me again add a few words of commentary to that unforgettable experience.
I wish to explain why I considered such an experience so much a Polish and Catholic one, completely sufficient for the interpretation of the atrocities which were aimed mainly at Jews and done on the initiative of ex-Christians by the hands of many Christians. I also wish to explain why I have grounds for thinking that the majority of my fellow countrymen shared this perspective. Moreover, I believe it is still for many of them the only possible way to feel and think about Auschwitz.
The Bipolarity of Poland in my Youth
All my childhood and adolescent experiences took place in a country under communist rule imposed on Poland with the entering of the Red Army in 1945. The communist regime dictated to the society their worldview as being the only correct atheist ideology. In this situation the entire world was divided into two camps: “us” and “them”. “We” stood for the believers, Poles, Catholics, honest people, while “they” were the red, communists, atheists, or careerists who sold themselves to the regime. There was the world of faith and the world of non-faith; the world taking God into account and the world built against God.
It did not matter if such a division was absolutely sharp in practice. Obviously enough, people knew well it was not so and that the gray area in between was quite broad. Of course there were dishonest people among the “believers”, of course there were decent ones among the “unbelievers”, there were decent people among the “Russians”, moreover, (allegedly) there were some among the Germans.
What really mattered was that the only important question was whether God exists or not. There actually seemed to be no other option. Everything else in the interpretation of the world was a consequence of the former. Furthermore, it seemed a simple and straightforward consequence. Theoretically, it was known that the world of faith is not homogenous; that there are Christians of other denominations (somewhere); that there are adherents of other religions (somewhere), e.g. believing Jews. However, in everyday life we did not meet them, so we imagined them according to our own image, failing to treat the theoretical differences more seriously than differences in clothing or habits. From such a perspective, unconsciously, the decent Jews who (also) died in the camps were considered as only a bit different from Poles, only a bit different from Catholics: they believed in God, they were saying prayers on their way to be killed. Whereas the Germans who attacked Poland in 1939 (only such German people were present in our everyday life through the memories of our parents and grandparents), were even a worse kind of atheist than the communists. In the camps they tortured to death so many priests! Germans never came to one’s mind in a different role when thinking about the faith or Church. I remember when as a 14-year-old boy I had to face the problem which for many was caused by the letter of the Polish bishops to the German bishops about forgiveness. (For some, the letter constituted a genuine difficulty, others pretended to have difficulties because of the official propaganda) One of my discoveries was, “so they (the Germans) also have bishops that means they are believers!?”
To go back now, after this digression, to what I said about my experience of fullness during the Pontifical Mass in the camp, it might be easier to understand that connecting spiritually through the Catholic liturgy with the living God, for whom everything lives, and who was there giving new life in hope to the crowd of believers, in no way did I see this fullness as something against the great numbers of those killed. On the contrary, for me, for us, it was the continuation of this world of the believers which the godless had tried to annihilate. God came to the aid of His people.
The Polish Version of Remembering the Camp
To give further explanation as to why in Poland the term “Auschwitz” resounds in a different way than elsewhere, I need to add another digression linked to the first one and to be understood together with it. Poles have their own tradition of the camp in Oświęcim; they already had this before they learned about the extermination of the Jews there, and even before it started. “Tylko świnie siedzą w kinie, a Polacy w Oświęcimie” (Only swine sit in the cinema, when Poles sit in Auschwitz) – was a sign written by the underground members on the walls of cinemas which were left by the “Master race” for the use of the non-German inhabitants in the General Government at the time when the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz was used to spread terror in the conquered country even before it became the extermination camp aimed especially at Jews. If the generation of my parents were talking about the extermination (as I remember it from what I heard in my childhood), they associated it rather with the ghettos established by the Germans and their “liquidation.” From our perspective the most important symbol of the extermination was constituted by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Auschwitz on the other hand, was associated with the German occupation of Poland. It was seen as yet another attempt, undertaken by Hitler, to erase our state from the history and life of Europe, with the heroism of those who were not broken even in the most inhuman conditions, and also (though less clearly, in the background) with the memory of those who were broken before they were killed. It was somehow known also that later there were transports of victims from the whole of Europe brought in cattle wagons, who were sent straight to the gas chambers. Who were these people? They were those against whom the madness of the godless Third Reich raged, among them – Jews, but the extent of it was not known.
The Communist Blurring of Truth
In the People’s Republic of Poland, discovering the whole truth about Auschwitz was difficult because even though it was generally clear that the communists manipulated the data about the camp (overestimating the role of communists in the camp resistance movement), there was no possibility for objective verification. It was easy to notice that the official version, for example at school, differed from what we learned from the older generation. But the picture that could be opposed to the mass propaganda was based on individual relations in which most often the mentioning of the concentration camp obscured the place of the total extermination and did not offer any statistics. Therefore, this situation strengthened the belief in the official “data” of the propaganda: four million victims coming from all the countries conquered by the Germans, without any mention that in all these countries the aim was first of all the extermination of Jews.
Further Story: Many Faces of Auschwitz
My perspective on Auschwitz began to alter not long after the memorable pilgrimage of John Paul II to Poland. It was, however, connected to a situation which was rather extraordinary for a Pole at that time. In the summer of 1979, I went to Rome to continue my theological studies.
Soon after I arrived in Italy, I heard for the first time serious objections that the number of the camp victims was highly overestimated. When I tried to defend my undisputed belief in the data I had, for the first time in my life I noticed some gaps which made it impossible for me to be convincing. However, I could not concur with such a belittlement of the Auschwitz tragedy. Since this was an issue I had never been indifferent to, but now was questioned, my attention became heightened to any opportunity to learn something new about it, to widen my point of view.
The most important, yet unexpected, opportunity occurred after I came back to Poland and I came across the work of a Swiss Catholic theologian – Charles Journet. As I was looking for some theological topic concerning the Church, I noticed an important turnabout in his line of thinking which happened at the very moment when he learned about the extermination of Jews in the countries conquered by the Third Reich, and above all in Auschwitz (it was in the summer of 1944). Although Journet’s perspective was different to the one I was brought up with, it was a perspective which treated Auschwitz seriously. For him it resulted in the necessity to rethink the relationship between Israel and the Church. I took an interest in it.
My studies on the Israel-Church relationship began a few months before the attention of public opinion turned to the issue of the Carmelite convent in Oświęcim. Soon after this, the Polish Episcopate established the first institution in Poland for dialogue with Jews. I took part in a colloquium organized by it in Krakow and Tyniec. I also met Fr Manfred Deselaers when he came to live in Poland. All these events shed new light on the issue of Auschwitz, showing new aspects of it…
For me, this story is still lively and open. I am aware of the fact that my perspective is no longer the same as that of most people in my country who do not share with me the last stages of the memories presented above. However, despite the distance I have acquired to the “Polish perspective” with its one-sidedness, during this last stage of my experience, I believe I was able to present its most important features in an honest way. I also think I managed to show that it is still dear to me. Every time I think about Auschwitz the ethos of respect for the victims and their tragedy, which I owe to my Polish home, returns to me.
I hope that what I have shared might help others understand this perspective which for many might be new. This perspective is also important for comprehending the background of some tensions that still keep appearing around the issue of the Auschwitz camp.
-  While the main ideologists and executives of the Nazi apparatus consciously renounced the Christian faith in which they had been brought up (Protestant or Catholic), those who only “carried out orders” did not have this consciousness.
-  Not much more was actually known about the differences other than Jews put on hats while others took them off and the other way round.
-  It was difficult to visualize them not wearing uniforms.
-  I was encouraged also by my masters in fundamental theology: Rene Latourelle SI and Adam Kubiś.
Translated by Agnieszka Piskozub-Piwosz
Published in: Dialogue at the edge of Auschwitz. Krakow 2014, s. 33-42.