Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Article excerpt

The Continuing Agony: From the Carmelite Convent to the Crosses at Auschwitz. Edited by Alan L. Berger, Harry James Cargas, and Susan E. Nowak. (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America. 2004. Pp. xxv, 269. $40.00 paperback.)

This volume assembles a variety of documents and commentaries related to the extraordinary controversy that broke out in the 1980's concerning the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, located outside the town of Oswiecim in Poland, and dragged on for longer than a decade amid furious argument over the proper ways to commemorate the most infamous site in the world. The flashpoints of this dispute were the establishment of a Carmelite convent in an abandoned camp building, and the subsequent planting of hundreds of Christian crosses on the Auschwitz grounds. For the most part, these acts were motivated by benevolent intentions of memorializing both Jews and gentiles murdered there, but they inspired painful or angry reactions in many Jewish quarters. The resulting debate raised a host of thorny issues, including fundamental theological differences between Christians and Jews, the moral and legal right of Catholic Poles to honor their dead on sovereign Polish territory, age-old Polish traditions of spontaneous display of crosses to link religion and patriotism, and Jewish sensitivities regarding the historical symbolic connotations of the Cross and the danger of "dejudaizing" the Holocaust. Along the way, this Auschwitz quarrel revived echoes of the bitter legacy of the past dividing Jews from Catholics, and Jews from Poles. Polish right-wing nationalist elements seized on the emotive "battle for the Cross" for their own purposes, considered unsavory by most, and both the Polish primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, and the Israeli prime minister of the day stooped to the unhelpful bandying of malicious stereotype. Resolution of the protracted impasse required a delicate process of negotiation among Church officialdom, Jewish representatives, and a series of embarrassed Polish governments, communist at first, democratic in the later stages of the dispute. …

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