In 1984 Cardinal Macharski, archbishop of Cracow, announced the establishment of a Carmelite convent in Auschwitz in a building on the camp periphery which had originally been a theater but was utilized during World War II to store the poison gas used in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria.
Outrage by a worldwide Jewish population ensued. Their claim, and rightfully so, was that Auschwitz was a sacred place to Jews. 90% of those killed there were Jewish. And the Catholic Church was wrong to even consider this. It took several years of wrangling and it appears that the Church stalled several times in those years.
As the new deadline of July 22, 1989, approached, tensions rose still higher. … The situation reached a flashpoint when an American rabbi, Avraham “Avi” Weiss, and six colleagues dressed in concentration camp garb scaled the walls of the convent blew a shofar, and screamed “Nazi antisemites.” Polish workmen at the site demanded that they leave and then poured paint and water on the protesters and physically removed them from the site. Reactions were divided in the Jewish world to the demonstration, but Polish sources portrayed it as an attempted attack on the nuns. The deadline passed with a march around the convent by 300 European Jewish students, to the sound of the shofar. In August Cardinal Macharski announced that in reaction to the Jewish campaign, the agreement was to be canceled and the nuns would remain where they were.
In August 1989 and in reaction to the Jewish demonstrations, the archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal Glemp, delivered a sermon in Czestochowa to a congregation of 100,000 including the Polish premier, which was seen as antisemitic when he called on the Jews “not to talk to us from the position of a superior nation and do not dictate terms that cannot be fulfilled…. Your strength is in the mass media, at your disposal in many countries. Do not use it to spread anti-Polonism.”
Cardinal Glemp’s remarks were condemned by many Catholics, including Lech Walesa and 4 other Cardinals who had signed the original agreement with a Jewish delegation in Geneva to move the convent. His sermon was inexcusable.
Shortly thereafter the Vatican [Pope John Paul II] spoke out for the first time, supporting the relocation of the convent in order to restore good relations with the Jews.
Although the original deadline for the new complex, set in 1990, proved overly optimistic, work progressed on the interfaith center and the convent, which was ready in 1993. Nevertheless the nuns continued to be reluctant to leave the old building, and this was only accomplished in the summer of 1993 following a letter from the pope and pressure from the Polish Bishops’ Conference. Seven of the 14 nuns agreed to move to the new convent, the others going elsewhere. Jewish-Catholic relations returned to normal and the dialogue was resumed. In particular Jews were encouraged by the understanding that had been evinced towards Jewish sensibilities by many Catholic quarters.
Two Catholic prisoners of Auschwitz have been sainted: Father Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein, a converted Jew and Carmelite nun.)
Maximilian was born in 1894 in Poland and became a Franciscan. He contracted tuberculosis and, though he recovered, he remained frail all his life. Before his ordination as a priest, Maximilian founded the Immaculata Movement devoted to Our Lady. After receiving a doctorate in theology, he spread the Movement through a magazine entitled “The Knight of the Immaculata” and helped form a community of 800 men, the largest in the world.
Maximilian went to Japan where he built a comparable monastery and then on to India where he furthered the Movement. In 1936 he returned home because of ill health. After the Nazi invasion in 1939, he was imprisoned and released for a time. But in 1941 he was arrested again and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
On July 31, 1941, in reprisal for one prisoner’s escape, ten men were chosen to die. Father Kolbe offered himself in place of a young husband and father. And he was the last to die, enduring two weeks of starvation, thirst, and neglect. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982. His feast day is August 14th.
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)Virgin and Martyr Edith Stein, born in 1891 in Breslau, Poland, was the youngest child of a large Jewish family. She was an outstanding student and was well versed in philosophy with a particular interest in phenomenology. Eventually she became interested in the Catholic Faith, and in 1922, she was baptized at the Cathedral Church in Cologne, Germany. Eleven years later Edith entered the Cologne Carmel. Because of the ramifications of politics in Germany, Edith, whose name in religion was Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was sent to the Carmel at Echt, Holland. When the Nazis conquered Holland, Teresa was arrested, and, with her sister Rose, was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Teresa died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of fifty-one. In 1987, she was beatified in the Cologne Cathedral by Pope John Paul II. Out of the unspeakable human suffering caused by the Nazis in western Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there blossomed the beautiful life of dedication, consecration, prayer, fasting, and penance of Saint Teresa. Even though her life was snuffed out by the satanic evil of genocide, her memory stands as a light undimmed in the midst of evil, darkness, and suffering. She was canonized on October 11, 1998.