Priest Working in Auschwitz Speaks on Interreligious Dialogue

by Margaret Antonio

On April 16, Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center sponsored the second lecture in its Interreligious Dialogue series, featuring Fr. Manfred Deselaers on his experiences working at the Auschwitz Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecem, Germany. Over 1 million people—mostly Jews—died at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz during World War II.  Rabbi Lehmann, President of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA delivered a formal response to the keynote address.

Fr. Manfred Deselaers, a native of Germany, began working with peace and reconciliation in Auschwitz during a period of service work before entering college. In the course of his studies at universities in Poland and Germany, he conducted his doctoral thesis on God and evil in the light of the biography of Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz. “My decision to become a priest was rooted in the desire to work for peace and reconciliation,” Fr. Deselaers said of his early involvement. “I would ask myself, where was God in Auschwitz? Where was God in the commander of Auschwitz?” For the past 20 years, Fr. Deselaers has been working at the Auschwitz Center for Prayer and Dialogue.


At the Center, Fr. Deselaers stressed that in striving toward peace and reconciliation, they in fact don’t do much talking. Rather, he says “the basis for all dialogue is being present with respect for the other.”


Fr. Deselaers shared a Jewish girl’s experience on one of his tours through Auschwitz. She sat down to reflect in silence, and when she got up, she realized the rest of group had already gone ahead. “At this moment she felt what it meant for the Jews in Auschwitz when the world had seemingly left them alone.” She looked around her and realized that a young German student had noticed and decided to wait for her. The German student hadn’t said anything, but just waited for her in silence until she was ready. This, Fr. Deselaers emphasized, illustrates the importance of gathering as an interreligious group at Auschwitz. The group members may not be feeling the exact same sentiment, but by being present, each grows aware of the other’s situation, laying the foundation for trust and further dialogue. Fr. Deselaers said that trust is essential to initiate dialogue.


“When communism ended, there was no traditional dialogue in Poland because it had not been possible… there was no tradition of meeting… but now there is [at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer]. The general atmosphere of Christians and Jews at Auschwitz has changed from confrontation to finding ways to gather. In talking to one another, relationships go slowly. We get to know one another. A variety of groups, including professors with their students and pilgrims from around the world, come to the Center at Auschwitz to better understand and confront what happened. Everyone comes and offers their own perspective: the German, the Polish, the Jewish, and the Christian. When we listen to one another we build an atmosphere of trust which is essential for any further dialogue.”


In response to Fr. Manfred’s address, Rabbi Lehmann put forth a personal take on the efforts for interreligious dialogue taking place in Auschwitz. “Personally, as a Jew I find it difficult to engage in dialogue in a place in which [Jews] are so vulnerable.” He said that time spent in Auschwitz should be limited to personal confrontation and experience of its horrors, while any theological discussions should take place on more neutral, less threatening grounds.


Rabbi Lehmann also addressed the dangers of Jews being over characterized by what happened at Auschwitz. He reiterated the words of Rabbi David Hartman that one must choose between Auschwitz and Mount Sinai. During the Holocaust, the Jewish people reached a point in which they felt abandoned by God and had to choose to continue in faith; in a way, to renew the covenant. In the words of Rabbi Hartman and Rabbi Irving Greenburg, Lehmann stressed that “the Jewish state needs to be less of a rebirth after Auschwitz and more about a renewed covenant… Auschwitz cannot be the basis of Judaism or else Judaism will always be limited and handicapped by Auschwitz.”


During the Q&A session, Fr. Manfred emphasized that contrary to forcing in-depth theological dialogues, which Rabbi Lehman suggested was inappropriate in Auschwitz, their work at the Center for Peace and Reconciliation emphasizes being present for others and creating a opportunities for education and dialogue.

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