Sign of Folly
The cross is made of stout beams, an intersection of railroad ties. It stands in a field of weeds that slopes down from the road. The field is abutted on one side by the old theater, where gas canisters were stored, also looted gold; where, much later, Carmelite nuns accomplished cloistered works of expiation, sparking fury; and where, now, a municipal archive is housed. On another side, the field runs up against the brick wall, the eastern limit of the main camp.
At more than twenty feet, the cross nearly matches the height of the wall, although not the wall’s rusted thistle of barbed wire. Immediately beyond are the camp barracks, the peaked roofs visible against the gray morning sky. The nearest building, close enough to hit with a stone thrown from the foot of the cross, is Barracks 13, also known as the death bunker or the starvation bunker. In one of its cells the Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe was martyred. He is now a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Kolbe is the reason for this cross.
In 1979, Karol Wojtyla came home to nearby Kraków as Pope John Paul II. He celebrated Mass in an open field for a million of his countrymen, and on the makeshift altar this same cross had been mounted - hence its size, large enough to prompt obeisance from the farthest member of the throng. Visiting the death camp, the pope prayed for and to Father Kolbe, who had voluntarily taken the place of a fellow inmate in the death bunker. The pope prayed for and to Edith Stein, the convert who had also died in the camp, and whom he would declare a Catholic saint in 1998. She was a Carmelite nun known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, but the Nazis murdered her for being a Jew. In his sermon that day, the pope called Auschwitz the “Golgotha of the modern world.”1 As he had at other times, John Paul II expressed the wish that a place of prayer and penance could be built at the site of the death camp to honor the Catholic martyrs and to atone for the murders: at Auschwitz and its subcamp, Birkenau, the Nazis killed perhaps as many as a quarter of a million non-Jewish Poles and something like a million and a half Jews. Fulfilling the pontiff’s hope, a group of Carmelite nuns moved into the old theater in the autumn of 1984. They intended especially to offer prayers in memory of their sister Teresa Benedicta. The mother superior of this group was herself named Teresa.2 The Carmelite presence at the gate of Auschwitz was immediately protested by leaders of Jewish groups throughout Europe and in the United States and Israel. “Stop praying for the Jews who were killed in the Shoah,” one group pleaded. “Let them rest in peace as Jews.”3 Jewish protesters invaded the grounds of the convent, carrying banners that said, “Leave Our Dead Alone!” and “Do Not Christianize Auschwitz and Shoah!”4 The protesters registered complaints about Father Kolbe, who before his arrest had been the publisher of a journal that had printed antisemitic articles, and about Edith Stein, whose conversion could only look to Jews like apostasy.
Polish Catholics from the nearby towns of Oswiecim and Birkenau rallied to the nuns’defense. Fights broke out. “One More Horror at Auschwitz,” read a headline in a British paper. “They crucified our God,” a boy screamed during one demonstration. “They killed Jesus.”5 At one point the nuns’ supporters arrived carrying the stout wooden cross from the papal altar in Kraków. They planted the cross in the field next to the old theater. However piously intended, it could seem a stark act of Christian sovereignty, a sacrilege. Eventually John Paul II intervened in the dispute, offering to fund a new convent building for the Carmelites a few hundred yards away. He prevailed on the nuns to move. The sisters did so in 1994. In the compromise that was worked out, Jewish leaders in turn accepted that the cross would remain in the field near the wall, but only temporarily.
In early 1998, the Polish government, perhaps responding to pressure from American senators friendly to Jews - pressure exerted just prior to the U.S. Senate’s vote on Poland’s admission to NATO - announced that the cross, like the convent before it, would be removed. “The cross overlooks the camp, which is unacceptable for Orthodox Jews,” a Polish official said, “because it imposes Christian symbols.” But a month later, before the removal had occurred, Poland’s Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, insisted that the cross should remain where it was. Jewish leaders again protested, prompting an expression of concern from the Vatican. At Auschwitz itself, Polish Catholics began to plant new crosses, appropriate to a cemetery, making the poiint that Catholics, too, died at the camp. The dispute raged throughout 1998, with escalations even to the point of homemade explosive devices beinnnnng planted in the field by radical Catholics. More than one hundred small crosses were put in the ground. Finally, in 1999, in an odd “compromise,” the Polish parliament passed a law requiring the removal of the smaller crosses but making the papal cross permanent. The small crosses were taken away by Polish officials, but the large cross remains at Auschwitz to this day.
What does the cross of Jesus Christ mean at such a place? What does it mean to Jews? What does it mean to Christians? Or to Polish Catholics? Or to those for whom religious symbols are empty? What does the cross there signal about our understanding of the past? And what of the future? If Auschwitz has become a sacred center of Jewish identity, what does the cross there imply about the relations between Jews and Christians, and between Judaism and Christianity? These questions were in my mind one November morning as I stood alone before that cross.
I thought of the pope’s designation of this place as Golgotha, and I recognized the ancient Christian impulse to associate extreme evil with the fate of Jesus, precisely as a way of refusing to be defeated by that evil. At the Golgotha of the crucifixion, death became the necessary mode of transcendence, first for Jesus and then, as Christians believe, for all. But I also thought of that banner, “Do Not Christianize Auschwitz and Shoah!” Can mechanized mass murder be a mode of transcendence? I could imagine the narrowed eyes of a Jewish protester as he detected in prayers offered before the cross at Auschwitz echoes of the old refrain “Jews out!” - only now was it Jewish anguish that was expected to yield before Christian hope? If Auschwitz must stand for Jews as the abyss in which meaning itself died, what happens when Auschwitz becomes the sanctuary of someone else’s recovered piety?
Christians are not the only ones who have shown themselves ready to use the memory of the six million to advance an ideology: Orthodox Jews can see a punishment for secularism; Zionists can see an organizing rationale for the state of Israel; opponents of “land for peace” can see a justification for a permanent garrison mentality.6 The “memorialists,” who have raised the new temples of Holocaust museums and memorials in the cities of the West, have anointed memory itself as the deepest source of meaning. The legend engraved at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the first Holocaust memorial, reads, “Forgetfulness is the way to exile. Remembrance is the way to redemption.” The God who led a people out of Egypt is, of course, a redeeming God, but at Auschwitz the question must have become, Are God’s saving acts only in the past? Some formerly religious Jews saw in the Holocaust o...