The Continuing Agony: From the Carmelite Convent to the Crosses at Auschwitz

By Krondorfer, Bjorn | Shofar, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Continuing Agony: From the Carmelite Convent to the Crosses at Auschwitz


Krondorfer, Bjorn, Shofar


edited by Alan L. Berger, Harry J. Cargas, and Susan Nowak. Academic Studies in the History of Judaism. Binghamton: Global Publications, SUNY at Binghamton, 2002. 327 pp. $25.00.

The aim of this anthology is to further dialogue between Jews and Christians, particularly between Polish Catholicism and Judaism, in light of the controversies over the establishment of the Carmelite convent and the appearances of religious symbols at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex. Although some of the issues were eventually resolved (the Carmelite nuns moved to a different building further away from the main camp and the Auschwitz Museum set a new policy in 1997 to remove all religious symbols from the grounds within the barbed wire fences), these events had severely strained the Jewish-Christians relations of the 1980s and still require our attention and some mending. Too many prejudices, religious polemics, insensitive comments, impulsive actions, and uncaring judgments had transpired during those years, poisoning the climate and escalating traditional misconceptions of the respective "Other." At the root of the problem, the editors of Continuing Agony maintain, lies the anti-Jewish legacy of Christianity. But insensitive portrayals of and generalization about Polish people have contributed their share and did not soothe the politically and religiously volatile situation. Whereas "on the Jewish side, there has been a tendency to view all Poles as murderers, as if they not the German Nazis had built the death camps," (p. 10) on the Christian side, there must be a commitment to identify and eliminate "antisemitic elements of Christian theologies" (p. 9). Berger, Cargas, and Nowak set themselves the task of countering the distorted views of the "Other" through unflinching analysis and a commitment to search for constructive theological alternatives.

The idea behind the book is noble. In many ways, it recalls the fairly comprehensive volume on the same subject, Memory Offended: The Auschwitz Convent Controversy (edited by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth, 1991). Continuing Agony seems to have been conceived of as an augmentation and appendage rather than a revision or refutation of Rittner's and Roth's earlier work. Inevitably, it goes over some of the same grounds but benefits from looking at an additional ten years of continued public debates between and among theologians, church officials and the general populace, as well as Jewish thinkers and Polish clergy, intellectuals and journalists.

The Continuing Agony is more of a collection of resources than a book with a cohesive intellectual, political, or theological agenda. Its strength is that it brings together a variety of voices and documents (a total of 26 entries), ranging from critical reflections by religious scholars known in the dialogue community in North America (like John Pawlikowski, Jacob Neusner, Harry James Cargas, and Eugene Fisher), to translated documents and letters from significant voices in Poland (Cardinal Josef Glemp, Archbishop Henryle Muszynski, and Stanislaw Musial, S.J.), and official statements, such as the Papal letter to the Carmelite nuns, the declaration of a dialogue committee of German Catholics, or the announcement by the National Polish American-Jewish Council concerning the placement of crosses at Auschwitz. The book's strength is also its major weakness. It is virtually impossible to read straight through because of its repetitiveness. …

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