Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Manfred Deselaers – The Significance of Perspectives for a Theology after Auschwitz

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Manfred Deselaers

The Significance of Perspectives

for a Theology after Auschwitz1

The point of departure for all theology is the admonition of St. Peter:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.2

Questions about faith result from experiences that cause doubt. Therefore, testimonies and justifications of faith are responses to concrete experiences and to concrete persons, who on the basis of their own experiences ask us about the meaning of our faith.
Just as the earthquake of Lisbon in the year 1755 initiated a wave of theological reflections, the memory of “Auschwitz“ has led to one of the greatest theological challenges in our days. "Where was God in Auschwitz?" "How can God be good and almighty if He allows Auschwitz to happen?"  Who does not know these and similar questions? Also the questions "Where was the human being?" "Where were the Christians, where was the Church?" challenge our testimony of faith, but they also purify it. Profession of faith and examination of conscience always belong together.
In order to be able to reply to these challenging questions in a meaningful way, we have to take the reference point of the question seriously: What is it that we talk about when we say "Auschwitz"? What precisely happened in the former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz with its sub camps, Birkenau in particular, and why? And what is meant when Auschwitz is used as a symbolic word for a larger context? The first effort of a theology after Auschwitz therefore is to take the point of reference Auschwitz seriously and to get to know it as far as possible.
Interpreting an experience always means relating it to other experiences and to the meaning that these experiences have for our understanding of the world. The same experience will be perceived in a different way if seen in a different context, for instance, still within the framework of God's love to me or no longer within this framework.   The problems that arise due to the impossibility   of integrating the new experience of Auschwitz into the traditional terms of interpretation are directly related to the varying referential contexts of the enquirer. The second effort of a theology after Auschwitz therefore consists in understanding the context of reference from which the questions arise.
The relationship to Auschwitz as an event as well as the context of faith often varies greatly between the enquirer and the respondent. The answers which we give arise from our own worldview to which the new experience is being related.  It is therefore very easy to misunderstand one another. The third effort of a theology after Auschwitz consists therefore in the account concerning one’s relation to the experience of "Auschwitz" and concerning the religious context from which both the query and the reply arise.


The Facts

The word "Auschwitz" first of all represents a very specific historical event from which all symbolic meanings derive. Therefore, it is necessary to ask what constitutes this historical event.
"Auschwitz" is the German name for a Polish town which was incorporated into the German Reich after Poland was invaded in 1939 and abolished as a state. To eliminate the Polish resistance and the Polish ruling elite, a concentration camp, which expanded quickly, was established in this town in 1940.  In 1941 after the German attack on the Soviet Union, Soviet prisoners of war were taken to the camp. From 1942 onwards mass transports of Jews were brought there. In 1943 so-called "gypsies" - Sinti and Roma - and many others were also brought including political opponents, criminals, so-called anti-social elements, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals - from Czechoslovakia, Belarus, France, Russia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine and other countries, Germany included. Nine villages in the surrounding area were demolished and their inhabitants evicted, arrested or murdered in order to create the "Interessengebiet Auschwitz" (area of interest), 40 km² wide. Approximately 40 sub camps developed, about half of them at industrial plants, half at farms, many outside the area of interest.
Those who were taken to the camp as prisoners were no longer treated as human beings but as numbered labour. The average survival time of a prisoner was ten months. The degree of dehumanization, the terror, the threatening nearness of death is inconceivable to us today. Even former prisoners often cannot describe it. It is unthinkable how human beings can do this to other human beings. But it really did happen.
About 150,000 Polish prisoners were taken to the camp, and half of them were murdered. About 15,000 Russian prisoners-of-war were taken to the camp, and almost all were murdered.  About one million Jews were taken to Auschwitz; most of them were not sent into the camps as prisoners but were immediately murdered in gas chambers.  About 200,000 were taken to the camps, and half this number perished there.  About 23,000 Sinti and Roma were taken to the camps, and almost all were murdered. These are the major groups of victims. There are no graves; the ashes of the incinerated bodies were scattered. It is impossible to picture the abyss in which more than a million human beings vanished without a trace.
Our understanding will always only be an approximation, always only a surmising. And yet, this approximation, our attempt at getting to know the whole truth is necessary for the sheer respect that we owe the victims. Without this attempt, we cannot authentically speak of a "Theology after Auschwitz." Theology after Auschwitz begins with silence and with listening to the voices of the victims, to the voice of this land of Auschwitz.

The Symbol

Auschwitz was the largest concentration and extermination camp of the Third Reich, but not the only one. In its significance it stands, therefore, symbolically also for greater contexts. For example:
In Auschwitz we do not only think of the Jews who were murdered here but also of the whole tragedy of the Jews in Europe during Hitler's regime. It has become the symbol of the Holocaust of the Jews, the Shoah.
Auschwitz is a symbol of the fate of Poland during the Second World War.
Auschwitz is a symbol of the fate of the Sinti and Roma during the Second World War and of a continuing history of their discrimination.
The Soviet Army liberated the last prisoners in 1945; in the states of the former Soviet Union, the liberation of these prisoners is an important symbol of the memory of the "Great Patriotic War“,  of the liberation of Europe from Fascism.
Auschwitz possesses a great symbolic meaning for the fight of political prisoners from many countries, Socialists, Communists, and other resistance groups. 
For Jehovah's Witnesses, the memory of non-violence, persecution and death as a testimony of faith in Auschwitz is important.
For homosexuals who were one of the categories of prisoners even if there were only a few prisoners registered as homosexual, Auschwitz has acquired a symbolic significance for the Gay Movement.
For Germany, Auschwitz is an admonishing memory of the greatest failure and a call for conversion to good relationships with the various groups of former victims.

The Wound

Whoever takes Auschwitz seriously touches a wound which has not yet healed. It rouses a disquietude in us which is not easy to soothe. When a wound is touched, the reaction at times can be   very emotional and "not objective".  Often the essence cannot be grasped and expressed in words. Sometimes it is better to remain silent rather than to speak.  Often it is better not to touch the wound directly but to strengthen the life around it. But it is wrong to turn away. The issue, therefore, is a theology that takes the wound seriously.
This wound has to do with our own identity. Who, how, where would I have been then? Where do I turn for guidance, what do I really believe in? Who am I in my responsibility before human beings and before God? If it is difficult for me to answer these questions for myself, I have to admit that I understand even less what the memory of Auschwitz means for the other person whom I meet. Dialogue after Auschwitz is an encounter between wounded people.
This wound is not only in us; it also is in our relationships. Auschwitz did not begin with the murder of human beings. Auschwitz began with the annihilation of relationships between human beings. Poles were regarded as work animals, Jews as vermin. One could therefore have a clear conscience killing them. The questions which the memory of Auschwitz raises in theology, therefore, affects ethics maybe even more than dogmatic and fundamental theology. Healing after Auschwitz is the story of relations. Dialogue after Auschwitz begins with building confidence. Dialogue begins with silence and listening, listening to one another. This requires that I accept the other person and respect him or her as they are, in their otherness, with their wounds. The most important task of dialogue is the preparation of such an atmosphere of trust, of the ante-room as it were, so that the trust to enter may be established, and then to discuss in the living-room, convinced of mutual trustfulness. That also has a theological dimension.
In Auschwitz everything begins with silence and listening: silence and listening to the voice of this land of Auschwitz - what happened here at that time? Silence and listening to the voice of one’s own heart - what does this mean for me? Silence and listening to one another - what does it mean for you, and for our relationship with one another? Silence and listening to God....
The wound also exists in our relation to God. Pope Benedict XVI himself said on the occasion of his visit to Birkenau:
In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence - a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?  How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here.3

Testimonies of faith which do not result from a struggle with the challenge of this memory, which means from a respect for the victims, easily become empty phrases and an insult because they lack reverence.  
In the following paragraphs, I will briefly outline (a necessary abridgement) three theological perspectives of Auschwitz:  those of Catholic Poles, Religious Jews, and Christian Germans. It should above all become clear how strong the respective backgrounds are and therefore also the differences, which involuntarily become part of the dialogue about Auschwitz. I will go into more detail concerning the Polish perspective as it is the least known of the three. 
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