Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Łukasz Kamykowski – Auschwitz from the Polish Perspective

Strona: 2

Second Comment
 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[1]. 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[2] 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[3]), 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[4].
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...
Final Comment
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.
[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] It was difficult to visualize them not wearing uniforms.
[4] 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.

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