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Faulty History On Auschwitz Convent
Mon, 08/09/2010 - 20:00

The editorial “A Mosque Near Ground Zero” (July 30) creates faulty history about the Carmelite nuns at the convent adjoining Auschwitz. The convent generated searing controversy in 1989 when five colleagues and I joined Rabbi Avi Weiss in climbing over its fence in peaceful protest and, at the nuns’ behest, workmen in the building attacked us. 

The convent was in the same building the SS stored the Zyklon B gas pellets used in the gas chambers. Though certainly Poles were murdered at Auschwitz, leading European rabbis and Jewish organizations denounced the convent as utterly insensitive to “the very significant silence on part of the Church” during the Shoah. European Jewish leaders and Catholic cardinals signed an agreement in February 1987 that the nuns would vacate in two years. The nuns defiantly refused, expanding the convent by one-third, and it was the workmen doing the expansion five months after the deadline who so violently assaulted us, to widespread condemnation. Newsweek (July 31, 1989) said the attack was “one of the worst cases of anti-Semitism in Poland” in the previous 20 years.

To me and to many others, the nuns at the Auschwitz convent were not there for quiet, prayerful expiation, but for Catholic triumphalism at the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. Why then the towering 23-foot-high cross next to the convent?



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The convent was intended for peace and reconciliation. It was not intended as some sort of statement of Catholicism's triumph over Judaism. If you knew anything about Catholic teaching on Judaism and anti-Semitism, you would realize what a mistake you are making. Anti-Semitism is a sin, and Catholics have been atoning for their mistakes (and praising the bravery of the many Catholics who, guided by their faith, saved countless Jews during the Shoah) for quite some time now. One must recognize that Auschwitz means a lot to Poland and to Jews all over the world. Both the Poles and Jews must be able to commemorate the full meaning and tragedy of Auschwitz. For any one group to deny this for another is a perpetuation of the tragedy of Auschwitz. Denying a group of peaceful nuns the right to pray (for the priests and lay Catholics who died there) and to foster atonement and reconciliation for the church's many failures during the Holocaust is the wrong move. My grandfather died in Auschwitz because he was a Jew. He was helped for a while by Catholic nuns until he was discovered by the Nazis. I want a Catholic convent or monastery or some kind of presence there at Auschwitz.