'Both Jews and Poles Were Victims of Nazi Ideology'

March 10, 1991|By DIANE WINSTON

An article in the Perspective section of The Sun last Sunday incorrectly characterized the Auschwitz concentration camp. It should have been described as a camp operated by Germany in Poland.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

Fifty years after Hitler's campaign to kill the Jews, the legacy of the Holocaust lives on.

It haunts Middle East politics -- pitting present geopolitical realities against past injustices. It haunts religious dialogue -- leaving believers to search for meaning amidst the ashes. And it haunts Eastern Europe -- setting Jews and Christians against each other in the task of memorializing the dead.

This struggle commanded international attention at Auschwitz, the Polish death camp. In 1984, a group of Carmelite nuns established a convent there. Soon after, Jews began to protest the presence of a sectarian structure at the camp. Much bitter debate ensued --encompassing John Paul II, American Jewish leaders and the Polish church -- before the nuns agreed to leave. They are awaiting the construction of a new home outside the camp.


For Bishop Henryk Muszynski, the Roman Catholic prelate of Wloclawek, the controversy at Auschwitz underscored the basic problems in Polish-Jewish relations.

Bishop Muszynski, chairman of the Polish Episcopate's Commission for Dialogue with the Jews, visited Baltimore last week to deliver the inaugural John Carroll lecture on Religion and Society at St. Mary's Seminary and University. The lecture also ,, commemorated the 25th anniversary of "Nostra Aetate," the Second Vatican Council declaration which promoted positive relationships between Christians and Jews.

"The Carmelite convent crisis was not about anti-Semitism, it was about a lack of understanding," said Bishop Muszynski during an interview. "Both Jews and Poles were victims of Nazi ideology. Both suffered. But because both live without any contact with the other, they are fully aware of their own suffering but not of the other."

For most Poles, a Jewish-Polish problem did not exist after World War II because there were very few Jews left in Poland to suggest otherwise.

"In Poland it's very hard to see the difference between the martyrdom of the Polish people and the Shoah," said Bishop Muszynski, who was a child during the war. "We had to explain the difference: Jews had to die because they were Jewish. Poles could survive and live as slaves." Although the virulence of Polish anti-Semitism is widely attested by Jews, Bishop Muszynski steadfastly maintains his countrymen are not now and never were rabid anti-Semites.

He said past claims of anti-Semitism obscure the good relations Jews and gentiles enjoyed for centuries and present claims of anti-Semitism reveal ignorance of the new political order.

"You will find in Poland today anti-Jewish posters, but you will also find posters against the church, Solidarity and Lech Walesa," Bishop Muszynski said. "People are feeling free and they express their feelings.

"To what extent is [anti-Semitism] representative of the nation? That's hard to say. It is a small very noisy group, mostly conservative older people."

Bishop Muszynski says the Polish church faces the same challenge as co-religionists throughout Eastern Europe do in building Jewish-Christian relations.

"Nostra Aetate" and subsequent Vatican documents -- which can now be disseminated more openly in formerly anti-religious Communist countries -- mandate improved relations with the Jews, scholarship revising theological anti-Semitism and educational programs for churchgoers on Jews and Judaism.

Priests and scholars can begin the educational tasks but their work is hindered by an absence of real, live Jews to talk to.

Bishop Muszynski said that even though he is an Old Testament scholar, he did not encounter Jews until he was a graduate student in Jerusalem.

"We need contact with living Jews to understand them better," he said. "We [Poland] now have relations with Israel and we have a direct air link between Warsaw and Tel Aviv."

TTC He hopes the air link will bring Jews to the new educational center outside Auschwitz. At that center, where the Carmelite nuns will also live, Jews and Poles can deal with the past and discuss the future.

For now, the past and future may be intertwined as the two peoples learn about each other.

"I have in my diocese the first Jewish death camp where Nazis experimented with poison gas," Bishop Muszynski said. "They killed 360,000 Jews in that camp. There is a church nearby where the Nazis had the Jews leave their things before they were killed.

"I visited the church and the pastor said, 'Bishop, this is a terrible place. We pray here. We have prayed for 50 years for the Jewish victims.' But when he heard about the Carmelite controversy, he asked, 'Why does it hurt the Jews if we are praying for them? How can we exclude them? Tell them our purpose.'

"This is not a theoretical problem for us. It is a living reality."

Diane Winston is a reporter for The Sun.

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