Pilgrimage to Auschwitz : A Jew Finds Peace in Carmelites’ Convent
The process of reconciliation is based on the tenet that all parties will emerge from the dispute with respect and acknowledgment of one another’s position. Last spring I reached the conclusion that it was necessary for me, an American-born Jew, to make a pilgrimage to the death camps of Eastern Europe. It was to be an interior journey, a commitment made to myself: to look as unflinchingly as I could on the face of evil, to sit in grief for my people and all others who had been murdered, to bear as best I could the cosmic disappointment of it all, and then to ask unbearable, even impermissible questions: How can we heal this agony? What peace can be made? How can we give up the concept of enemy?
At Majdanek, at the mass grave of 18,400 Jews murdered in one night, the answer to that last question was clear: Stop the making of enemies.
From the beginning, I knew that I must not approach the camps as if I were going to museums or learning a history lesson. Something else was required.
For more than a year, I had been reading and thinking about almost nothing else but Nazis and Jews. If something was to be healed, obviously it had to be healed there, and my mind reeled from that thought. It came as a surprise, then, at the end of the journey, that I found some peace, even healing, among Christians--German and Polish women, nuns of the Carmelite order who have committed their lives to prayer in the places of greatest suffering, Auschwitz and Dachau.
It is uncommon to receive an invitation to the Auschwitz convent. The nuns there are cloistered. Silence and prayer are the order of their days. The nuns at Dachau are cloistered as well, but their chapel is accessible to the public, a sanctuary for visitors to grieve or meditate or otherwise assimilate the psychic assault of the camp.
I was apprehensive but also grateful when the nuns responded affirmatively to our request to visit them. I wanted the experience of sleeping, even dreaming in the camps. I had a vague feeling that the presence of the sisters might be comforting, their silence soothing, as I felt my way through grief and confusion. Still, I was not unaware of the bewildering, sometimes malevolent role of the Roman Catholic Church, both during the Shoah and afterwards.
I use the word Shoah because subtly embedded here is one of the most profound distinctions between Catholics and Jews and their responses to the Nazi death camps. In the words of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, who was born Jewish and whose mother died in Auschwitz: “I prefer to say ‘the Shoah’ (Hebrew for annihilation) rather than ‘the Holocaust,’ because holocaust means something else; it is a free offering given to give glory to God.”
As I understand it, for most Jews the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish people was so senseless and horrific that it can have no redemptive qualities. To suggest otherwise is a fraudulent, even dangerous, comfort. But for Catholics, the Holocaust meant the possibility of martyrdom, of offering oneself in the image of the redemptive offering of Christ, for the glory of God and the sake of all human beings.
It was in this spirit that the controversial Edith Stein, considered by some to have been the most formidable female intellectual of her time, perished in Auschwitz as a Jew although she was a Catholic convert and a Carmelite nun. She was beatified by the Church in 1987 under her religious name, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
It is this way of thinking, and the visibility of the Catholic presence at Auschwitz, which has led some Jews to protest that Catholicism is appropriating the Holocaust.
With this in mind, I and my husband, Michael Ortiz Hill, who is Catholic, stood at the door of Karmelitanki Bose at Oswiecim (as it is known in Polish). Hours before, we had both been shocked by the view of the convent’s 23-foot cross from the window of the chamber where Cyklon-B was used for the very first time.
Though the precise figures can’t be known, when we speak of the Nazi extermination program at Auschwitz, we are speaking about the murder of 3 million to 4 million Jews and 1 1/2 million non-Jews, many of them Catholics, and, as the mother superior noted, so many of them nuns and priests. “We pray for them all,” she said.
That evening and the next day, despite the language barrier, we focused on the power of prayer, the need to heal, ways to approach Auschwitz--and on the insistence by some Jewish leaders that the nuns quit Auschwitz because their presence usurps the most symbolic of all monuments to the Holocaust.
We experienced the depth and breadth of the compassion of these women as the mother superior recounted stories of those years of suffering, including her mother’s unsuccessful attempt to hide a Jewish child and her own encounter with the Nazis when she was 10 and they came to her family’s farm looking for Jews.
Ashamed of myself for envying her safety when it was my parents’ families that would eventually be found and killed, I was still deeply relieved to have personal acquaintance with those who had resisted the Nazis. In my anguish, I needed more than anything the assurance that some people did act morally and with spiritual conviction.
“Some Jews want Auschwitz for themselves,” my son Marc said when I returned home, “because they can’t bear the idea that anyone else may have suffered as much.” He is right, I thought, but I don’t want to co-opt the Shoah for myself or be a party to its exploitation by anyone, even Jews. To the contrary, I was relieved to hear the nuns speak also of the suffering of their people because it gave me hope that non-Jews would strive to see that this would never happen again. I did not want to walk through Auschwitz thinking “this is mine,” any more than I could bear the fact that Auschwitz-Birkenau had been built for the extermination of those who were mine.
The next day, when Michael and I dug our fingers into the soil at the crematories at Birkenau, we came up with handfuls of ashes and bones; I did not need or want to trace their genealogy. I had begun to realize while meditating before the brick ovens that if human beings could do this, then human beings could destroy the entire planet--that we are every one of us mortally endangered.
Auschwitz and Dachau are maintained by their respective governments as museums. Auschwitz is the most popular tourist attraction in all of Poland. But is it possible to understand the depth and horror of what occurred in such a secular setting? Meditation, prayer and contemplation are what open the heart to what is otherwise mere thought. Yet nowhere on the grounds of Auschwitz is there a place for meditation.
The Jewish exhibit at Auschwitz, with its now too familiar displays of photographs and documents, had unnerved me, an assault of outrage and pain offering neither succor nor understanding.
At Birkenau, I found shelter from the crowds in a remote barrack where I sat on the long, cement latrines while longing for a temple or chapel, some spiritual refuge where I could gather myself together or completely fall apart.
Days later, when we arrived at Dachau, I was gratified that the menorah atop the Jewish memorial in the camp is as visible from the convent as the cross is from the laboratory of death at Auschwitz. In the early morning, I lit all the candles in the memorial that I could reach, but within a short time it was overrun with people, conversing, snapping pictures; in the afternoon it was locked.
“Why don’t we have a chapel in each of the camps?” I wondered. “Because there’s no one left to do it,” Michael answered gently, reminding me that there were only a few hundred survivors in Berlin, Krakow, Warsaw and Vienna, cities that had once been major centers of Jewish life. So, I thought, it’s left to Christians to keep the vigil of prayer at our graves. The Church and Jewish leaders once reached a compromise (now in abeyance) to remove the nuns and establish a center for Christian-Jewish dialogue elsewhere. But this would not respond to the commonly felt need for a spiritual presence at the site of such horror and personal devastation.
The nuns at Dachau had greeted us with a special kindness in an effort to ease what they could of our pain. We listened to the extraordinary beauty of their voices at Vespers in the simple chapel built over the quarry, where priests who had resisted Nazism were routinely sentenced to death by hard labor. The service drew heavily from the Psalms, a comforting common liturgy. These women have the hardest task, I thought, trying to redeem the crimes done by their own people.
It came to me very strongly then what “Never again!” ultimately means: Never again, for anyone; never again shall people do such things, and never again shall people suffer such things. If that is to be ensured, I realized, it is essential for the nuns to stay in that place and do their soul-searing work.