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  • The Continuing Agony: From the Carmelite Convent to the Crosses at Auschwitz
  • Jonathan Huener
The Continuing Agony: From the Carmelite Convent to the Crosses at Auschwitz, Alan L. Berger, Harry James Cargas, and Susan E. Nowak, eds. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004), xx+269 pp., pbk. $44.00.

The Auschwitz memorial site, since 1947 a charge of the Polish postwar governments, has for more than sixty years served as a site of remembrance, pilgrimage, education, and public demonstration. The site's history, commemorative landscape, exhibitions, and presence since 1979 on UNESCO's World Heritage List have, as the editors of The Continuing Agony note in their introduction, imbued it with a mission "to preserve the memory of the dead as a warning to the living" (p. xvi). This charge suggests a certain unity of commemorative purpose and practice. Yet, Auschwitz has always been a site of contested memories. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the controversy over the establishment of a Carmelite convent on the grounds of the former Stammlager, Auschwitz I, in the 1980s, and in the debates over the placement of religious symbols at the memorial site.

An important contribution to the scholarship on the politics of memory and commemoration at Auschwitz, this anthology sets out to inform and enhance Jewish-Christian dialogue, and more specifically, dialogue between Jews and Polish [End Page 317] Roman Catholics. Among the authors of the book's essays and commentaries are some of the most respected authorities on Jewish-Christian relations, including Harry James Cargas, Konstanty Gebert, Stanislaw Krajewski, Stanislaw Musial, Jacob Neusner, and John T. Pawlikowski. Appropriately, the documents and press extracts included in the volume reflect the insights and contrasting views of some of the more influential participants in these two controversies, including Cardinal Józef Glemp and Pope John Paul II.

Both the Carmelite Convent controversy of the 1980s and the so-called "crosses" controversy were highly publicized illustrations of Polish-Jewish tensions resulting from, as the editors argue in their introduction, "a failure to recognize the humanity of the Other and inability to respond compassionately to the Other's experience" (p. xvii). As the editors and several of the contributors to the volume make clear, the controversies brought to light an intolerant extremism on both sides—evident in the nationalistic and antisemitic arguments of some Polish leaders on the one hand and, on the other, the reliance of some Jewish commentators on the stereotype of Poles as inveterate antisemites who enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis. The essays in The Continuing Agony, and indeed the volume as a whole, work toward healing the wounds caused by this type of extremism.

Setting the tone for Part I of the book, Alan L. Berger's essay "The Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz: Nationalizing Theology" provides a historical foundation for the theological problems arising from the controversies, relates them to Jewish-Christian dialogue, and cites the need for a "post-Auschwitz paradigm" ( p. 11) to guide religious behavior and understanding. As Berger suggests, much of the animosity and debate over Auschwitz in the last twenty years has resulted from an adherence to old paradigms in the Christian tradition that were evident in, for example, the Carmelites' act of praying for the souls of the dead, the ambiguity of Catholic theological statements regarding Jews and the Holocaust, and the contradictory views and deeds of Pope John Paul II. A new language of dialogue, a recognition that "words may wound, and even kill" (p. 15), an awareness of Jewish contributions to Poland's history, and a recognition of rescue efforts on the part of Poles are all necessary elements in the restoration and deepening of dialogue.

Representing voices of moderation in Poland, the contemporary commentaries of Stanislaw Krajewski and Stanislaw Musial familiarize the reader with Polish perspectives on the convent and crosses debates and harshly criticize Polish instrumentalization of the symbol of the cross for political ends. Additional Polish perspectives are offered in the statements of the Government of the Republic of Poland, Archbishop Henryk Muszyński, and Jan Karski.

Among the strongest contributions to the volume are those outlining the background and terms of the debates. Marvin Prosono...


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