A rabbi is pleading with the Polish government and Pope Francis to close the church at the concentration camp site of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss launched the powerful appeal from the electronic pages of JTA ahead of the commemoration January 27 of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.

The rabbi called the church at Birkenau “the greatest violation of Holocaust memory”, since “from just about anywhere” in the village, “looking up, one can see the church’s towering crosses casting their shadows over the death camp”.

“Some 1.1 million Jews were murdered in the camp, constituting 95 percent of its victims”, Weiss denounced.

“The church building once served as the Nazi commandant’s headquarters — Jewish inmates, especially women, were tortured and raped there”.

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The rabbi was adamant that the church at Birkenau – “operational and fully functional to this day” – “does not belong at the largest Jewish cemetery in the world”.

Not only is the church building in violation of a 1987 agreement of European cardinals and Jewish leaders that “there will be no permanent Catholic place of worship on the site of the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps”, and in violation of the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Culture and Natural Heritage.

For Weiss, what matters even more is that “with the camps decaying, and when the survivors are gone, and when we, the second generation, also are  gone, all that will be left at Birkenau will be the church and its crosses”. 

And that despite the fact that “in the dark times of the Holocaust, the Catholic Church” – including and especially the Vatican “turned its back on Jews desperate for help”, deplored the rabbi.

Why it matters

Weiss has been campaigning for decades to close the Birkenau church, even once being arrested and ordered to strip in an interrogation after a sit-in.

But the rabbi’s efforts have been in vain: a futility that has only intensified in recent months with the ultraconservative Polish Government’s criminalisation of references to Polish involvement in Nazi atrocities.

Though the extent of that Polish complicity might still be a talking point for some, “what’s not up for debate”, for Rabbi Weiss, “is that the Birkenau church operates today with the government’s approval”.

“The Polish government has the power to demand that the church be moved elsewhere, an action that would make clear that when Poland is in control, it will do the right thing”.

“Pope Francis, too, has the power to make a difference”, the rabbi recalled, citing the precedent of John Paul II’s forced closure of the Carmelite convent in Auschwitz in 1993.

What’s next

In an audience with a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center January 20, Pope Francis deplored the “unspeakable cruelty” and the “cry of suffering humanity” that rose up from the Jewish Holocaust, and also denounced the “barbaric resurgence of antisemitism”.

It’s sentiments like these Weiss is hoping will translate into action on the Pope’s part after the rabbi and sympathisers for his cause protest today at the Birkenau camp.

“The Carmelite convent protest, together with actions of the larger Jewish community, led to the closing of the convent”, Weiss recalled.

“Our hope is that now, too, survivors and other good people assembled at the commemoration of the Auschwitz liberation will join us in raising a voice of moral conscience — of Jewish conscience — on behalf of the six million who cannot speak for themselves, our brothers and sisters whose ‘blood cries out from the ground’ demanding justice”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.