Friday is the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the notorious death camp complex known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, where one million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The complex included Auschwitz I and, two miles away, the much larger Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau; that was where the Germans built four huge gas chambers, and where nearly all of the killings of Jews took place.
Of all the death factories created by Hitler’s Nazi regime to murder Jews, Birkenau was the most lethal. In the 1980s, Catholics in the village of Brzezinka (the Polish name for Birkenau) established a church in the camp. The church is topped by a large cross with another large cross in front of it. It occupies the building that was the Birkenau commandant’s headquarters, well within the perimeter of the Birkenau killing center, as shown in aerial photos. This violates a 1987 agreement signed by European cardinals and Jewish leaders that “there will be no permanent Catholic place of worship on the site of the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.”
This church must be moved. And Pope Francis has the power to move it.
I witnessed the kindness of the man who would become Pope Francis when I traveled to Buenos Aires immediately after the Jewish community center there was bombed by terrorists in 1994, killing 85 people. It was one of the largest attacks on Jews in the Diaspora since the Holocaust. I also met Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine Conservative rabbi. Together, we tried to offer solace to the bereaved.
In those difficult days, the archbishop of Argentina, a close friend of Rabbi Skorka, spoke with deep compassion and love, bringing succor to the Jewish community. Today, that archbishop is Pope Francis.
There is precedent for a pope taking action to preserve the accuracy of Holocaust memory. In 1993, after an outcry by Jewish groups, Pope John Paul II ordered a Carmelite convent to vacate a building in Auschwitz I. Pope Francis can similarly order the church out of the camp, an action that would display the same sense of conscience and compassion as his predecessor did by preserving the truthful memory of the Jews murdered in Birkenau, who can no longer speak for themselves.
By asking that the church be moved, we in the Jewish community are not suggesting that Catholics were not also killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Approximately 75,000 Polish Catholics were murdered there. But that was for reasons unconnected with their religious identity —- for example, political beliefs. In Birkenau itself, by contrast, about 95 percent of the murdered victims were Jews, slaughtered in a genocide.
We also aren’t suggesting that the people living in the village of Brzezinka be deprived of their parish church. A church should be built for them in the village, away from the camp. We recognize that a church is a sacred place. But the siting of that particular church distorts the impression of what Birkenau was — leading those who visit to believe that the camp was devoted to the mass murder of Polish Catholics rather than Jews. If the church isn’t moved, years from now visitors are likely to see it and its crosses, and to conclude, understandably, that it was a site of Christian genocide.
In fact, there was no program to murder Christians because they were Christians. The Nazi program was to exterminate all Jews. And it nearly succeeded in accomplishing that within Europe, with the systematic murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
It’s not easy for me to ask that the church move, knowing it might distress my Catholic brothers and sisters. I’m an Orthodox rabbi who cares deeply about interfaith relations. In April 2015, after Christians were singled out in an attack on a Kenyan university, our congregation in New York walked over to St. Gabriel’s, a few blocks away, to embrace and offer love to our Catholic counterparts. The Rev. John Knapp of St. Gabe’s and I stood together, tears streaming down our faces.
As a rabbi, I have deep respect for the people, symbols and places of worship of all faiths. I especially feel this toward Christians today as they are being singled out in Africa and the Middle East for murder, like Jews there and elsewhere throughout history.
Still, it must be said: A church does not belong at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. That is why, in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I led a group in an all-day sit-in at the Birkenau church, demanding that it be moved. In the end, we were arrested.
Now, however, with a different pope — one with a sensitivity to history and injustice that I saw firsthand in Buenos Aires — we hope that our plea will finally be answered.
Each year, fewer Holocaust survivors remain to testify to what happened in that terrible time. The most eloquent witness of all, Elie Wiesel, died this past year. Soon, all we’ll have are scholarly books and the physical remnants of history — most tellingly, the death camps. Those remnants, from which future visitors will learn about the Holocaust, will stand as the mute monuments of memory.
They should present history as it was, without distortions even if well meant, of symbols and houses of worship that misrepresent and misshape that memory. The future deserves no less, the past deserves no less, and neither do the Holocaust dead.
Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, is the founder of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat Rabbinical Schools and the author, most recently, of Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist.