An Open Letter to the Polish People on the Birkenau Church
To the people of Poland:
As we approach the 75th anniversary commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, I reach out to you in the spirit of peace. We are grateful to the righteous gentiles who, at great risk, saved Jewish lives during those dark years, and grateful as well to those in your government who have extended themselves to make sure that the commemoration ceremonies be conducted with honor and dignity.
And yet, we are concerned about the Birkenau church. The church occupies the building that was the Birkenau commandant’s headquarters, well within the perimeter of the Birkenau killing center, as shown in aerial photos.
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly sensitive to interfaith matters, including the importance of building and maintaining good Jewish-Catholic relations. Still, the Birkenau church does not belong at the largest Jewish cemetery in the world — 96% of the murdered in Birkenau, 1.1 million people, were Jews.
The church is in violation of the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, declaring certain sites inviolate. Auschwitz is on that heritage list. Poland is a signatory to the Convention. The church is also in violation of a solemn agreement signed in 1987 by European cardinals and European Jewish leaders that “there will be no permanent Catholic place of worship on the site of the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.”
The extent to which Poland was complicit in the Holocaust is a matter of serious debate, compounded by the government’s recent attempts to criminalize references to Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities. What is not up for debate 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 show that when Poland is in control, it will do the right thing.
To be sure, we are not suggesting that the people living in the village of Birkenau be deprived of their parish church. A church should be built for them in the village, away from the camp. Back in the early 1990s when a convent was established at Auschwitz I, Pope John Paul II himself asked that it be closed. And it was.
In the same spirit, we’ve asked Pope Francis to step forward and do the same with regard to the Birkenau church.
On January 27, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, we will be there as the survivors and the dignitaries gather for the commemoration ceremony. At its conclusion, we will walk the short distance to the Birkenau church, raise our placards, and, in dignity and peace, demand that the church be moved out of the camp.
Our hope is that people of moral conscience will join us on behalf of the six million who cannot speak for themselves, our brothers and sisters whose “blood cries out from the ground” demanding justice.
In prayers for peace.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, National President — the Coalition for Jewish Concerns.