Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Joanna Barcik – We have Kolbe. Polish religious thinking as confronted by Auschwitz

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Joanna Barcik

“We have Kolbe”

Polish religious thinking as confronted by Auschwitz

Abstract. What is meant by “philosophy after Auschwitz”? How do we categorize thinkers into this discipline? Such categorization poses no problem where Jewish or German philosophers and theologians are concerned, but in Poland this type of thinking is commonly considered as virtually absent. Prof. Józef Tischner observed: “Heidegger says: ‘Man in his being was focused on his own being.’ Sartre says: ‘Hell is other people.’ Levi-Strauss says: ‘Hell is ourselves.’ Another structuralist says: ‘The end of the human person.’ And we have Kolbe.” The observation sounds ambiguous. On the one hand, it indicates the superiority of action, or “practical philosophy”, over purely speculative thinking, and it brings out philosophers’ ethical responsibility for theories they formulate. On the other hand, it suggests that Auschwitz as an event and a symbol may not have been thought out thoroughly enough. In this article, I seek to answer the question why the event of Auschwitz has had a different impact on Jewish and German religious thought than on thought in Poland, I discuss the ways in which the event comes to the surface, and I give an outline of Polish religious thinking “after Auschwitz”.

Poland is often said to lack systematic philosophy or theology “after Auschwitz”. This, as some claim, results from the absence of proper Polish theology in general. Nevertheless, the Poles do comprehend the Ereignis Auschwitz1 [Auschwitz-event] in some way. Among ex-prisoners themselves, there are believers who try to integrate that experience into their world-view. It is this endeavour that I will call religious thinking.

What is the basis for inclusion into this category? I have taken the idea from Józef Tischner, whose philosophy can itself be viewed as an example of such thinking. Tischner, who uses the term “philosophy after Auschwitz” (or rather “philosophy after Oświęcim”, according to the custom of his time) solely when referring to Prof. Antoni Kępiński (Tischner 2000: 410), centres on what this type of thinking ought to be like today. I have drawn on Tischner’s texts to list several characteristics:

1. This philosophy has Auschwitz as its central event and point of reference, which leads to rethinking the concept of the human person, of what the human person is capable of and how they can be saved. Auschwitz cannot be ignored, particularly by a Jew or a Christian who perceives history as the fundamental medium of revelation.

2. This philosophy focuses on the human person and their world, on all human affairs, including suffering. It is related closely to human life and experience, and interested in facts rather than in “necessary structures”. Why is this so important? Because there is no thinking separate from ethics. Tischner places much emphasis on this, especially when debating with Thomism. In his opinion, we have had enough of philosophy which fails to notice what is going on around, philosophy insensitive to reality, to human pain in particular. Its time is over.

3. This philosophy highlights the relationship between thinking and the ethical realm. It may be viewed as a reversal of the Enlightenment attitude: instead of treating reason as the highest critical authority, thinking is now subjected to the judgement of the suffering person’s conscience. Similarly, Johann Baptist Metz states that theology after Auschwitz, subjected to the “authority of suffering people”, must always be attentive to the voice of the victims (Metz 2006).

4. Philosophy after Auschwitz means critical thinking distrustful of all that resulted in Auschwitz. This critical faculty helps us to recognise that high culture and art, including the art of thinking, were unable to protect us against crime; even worse, the crime was justified by the very thinking which had pretensions to rationality and which developed in countries with thousand-year-old Christian traditions. “It makes one think,” Tischner notes. In a similar vein, Fr Franciszek Blachnicki and Fr Henryk Malak criticise modes of thinking and upbringing popular in their youth, claiming that neither humanist values propagated in scouting (Blachnicki) nor moral theology taught at the seminary (Malak) turned out to be sufficient support in the camps and prison. Consequently, the aim would be not only to point out wrong paths and alert wanderers to danger, but also to map out new routes. In order to identify the sources of the failure, philosophers ask questions which show their involvement or prove that they treat suffering as a problem. Thinking after Auschwitz means committed thinking which takes responsibility (instead of protesting: “Oświęcim? It’s not us, it’s atheists”).

5. It means dialogical thinking, too, inviting others to participate, to join in the journey whose destination is yet unknown, to surrender together to the “attraction of truth”. In Poland, it also means co-thinking with the Jews, with whom the Poles shared their lot at least in part. Tischner emphasises the importance of relationship, though he wonders whether it is still possible after so many acts of betrayal perpetrated in Oświęcim and Kolyma.

6. According to Antoni Kępiński and Gabriel Marcel, it is a “philosophy of tried-and-tested hope” (admittedly, there are also philosophies leaning towards despair). It should bring hope and consolation, but not ordinarily so, as Krzysztof Michalski (Michalski 2014: 165–166) points out: the philosophy cannot ignore the scandal of suffering and brutality, but it must give the strength to withstand them. The religious dimension comes here to the fore.

7. Finally, since it is religious thinking that has an impact on Christian philosophy and theology, which profess that God reveals Himself through history, we cannot omit the image of God it entails. This involves responsibility too: responsibility of the Church for the face of God presented to people. Tischner is positive that the image of God that failed to respond to human needs in Oświęcim must become a problem in our religious thinking (also, or rather primarily, in theological thinking), as it has done in Judaism.

Points 6 and 7 concern religious thinking in particular, which is the focus of my article. More precisely, I centre my analysis around attempts at “thinking after Auschwitz” made from the Roman Catholic perspective.

Is there any philosophy in Poland which fulfils all these conditions? Are there Polish philosophers who think along the lines suggested by Tischner? We cannot expect to find systematic thought. There is, however, religious thinking as described here, i.e. thinking powered by the tension between faith and reason (Tischner 2000: 336–357), illuminated by these two realities, which it finds closely related. It is thinking conscious both of its lack of self-containment and of its autonomy – or better, of its interdependence. This philosophy is expressed in literature as well, usually in the form of testimony. It makes use not so much of ready-made answers – Auschwitz has exposed the inadequacy of all such prefabricated answers – as of penetrating questions, sharpened and highlighted, and it lets the victims speak. It is the latter trait that protects it most strongly from turning into ideology, which is a constant threat to all committed thinking. Who thinks in this way?

1. Ex-prisoners, who bear witness and try to comprehend what happened, to place the events in the context of their faith and, in this light, to reflect on the human person. Some are theologians or philosophers, e.g. Fr Konstanty Michalski and Fr Franciszek Blachnicki. I think Antoni Kępiński, an ex-prisoner of the concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro, also belongs to this humanist group.

2. Theologians who view Auschwitz as locus theologicus (Wacław Hryniewicz, Roman Rogowski, Tomasz Węcławski/Polak, Karol Wojtyła,2 then John Paul II). This group includes theologians who consider Auschwitz as an important symbol calling for dialogue between Christians, Poles and Jews (Fr Czesław Bartnik and Fr Waldemar Chrostowski at a certain phase of their work, Halina Bortnowska, Fr Stanisław Musiał, Fr Michał Czajkowski, Fr Łukasz Kamykowski, Stanisław Obirek).

3. Philosophers who refer to Auschwitz more or less directly, treating this symbol as the starting point for discussion focused on anthropological issues (Józef Tischner, Leszek Kołakowski, Krzysztof Michalski, Karol Tarnowski, Jan Andrzej Kłoczowski, Tadeusz Gadacz).

The approaches obviously differ, but I want to draw on them to show what is typical of Polish religious interpretations of the symbol “Auschwitz”. It should be noted at the beginning that the Poles have their own tradition of the camp at Oświęcim, formed even before the role of Auschwitz in the Holocaust became widely known (see Kamykowski 2003: 105–115 and Horoszewicz 1992: 37–88). In his article under the significant title Auschwitz – symbol ofiar wielu narodów, sanktuarium Polaków (Auschwitz: a symbol of victims from many nations, a sanctuary of the Poles), Stanisław Kłodziński, an inmate of the camp and a close associate of Prof. Kępiński in his study of ex-prisoners, comments:
There is no need to argue that the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau is a symbol of all Nazi concentration camps, of all such places of extermination. What does it mean, then, that it is also a sanctuary of the Poles? What does it mean to Polish ex-prisoners of the Oświęcim camp, who did not divide their fellow inmates according to their nationality when that hell on earth was active, and who still think it was the place of mass murder unprecedented in the history of humankind? Of course, Oświęcim is primarily a symbol of terrible extermination of the Jews (although other camps, such as Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec or Chelm on the Ner witnessed the sole extermination of the Jews) (Kłodziński 1990: 37).

The first characteristic of Polish thinking after Auschwitz is the anthropological perspective. Unlike Jewish thinkers, the Poles do not usually ask about responsibility of God – with the exception of Karol Ludwik Koniński, who voices the question known from the camps: why does God permit evil if He can prevent it?
A preposterous and naive theodicy: God uses evil as a means, a stimulant to good – as if omnipotent God could not stimulate good with good! A naïve theodicy, too: God “permits evil” – as if any permission by someone who could prevent it were not a positive act of willing it to be exactly so! Consequently, if God is the Absolute of Being, then – putting it bluntly – God wants evil (Koniński 1962: 72).

While criticising the theodicy, however, Koniński does not reject the faith – on the contrary, he believes it should be professed bravely without false intellectual props:
“The whole world lieth in wickedness” – true, but we don’t need Christianity to teach us this. Rather, we need Christianity to answer the question why the world lieth in wickedness. Christianity answers with the Mystery or with shallow theodicy, or else with demonic theodicy. To persevere in Christianity nonetheless and not to give up one’s pessimism too easily, one has to use that pessimism every day, drilling with naked faith and dogged hope to cut through to the other side, the silent side, the hidden side (Koniński 1987: 170).

On the whole, though, Polish thinkers tend to view Auschwitz as resulting from the fact that the human person has turned away from God. Crucially, this does not mean God’s punishment, but rather a “natural consequence” of the human failure to fulfil the commandment of love – as if we were faced with the disjunction: either the great commandment or absolute evil. If we reject the teaching of Jesus, we enter on a path to organised genocide. This standpoint is expressed both in ex-prisoners’ testimonies and in theological or philosophical texts. Fr Henryk Malak, an inmate of the camps in Stutthof, Sachsenhausen and Dachau, writes:
The will defends itself desperately when faced with the question: Why are things this way? The frightening, painful awareness and desperate certainty of the answer are a torture! All this because… because we couldn’t put into practice the greatest of His commandments, the commandment of love. It’s because we felt satisfied by words pronounced with preacher’s bombast, but we didn’t manage to go into the trenches of the fight begun for justice, for mercy, for the practice of love (Malak 2012:138).
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