When will we come to understand the Jews as they do themselves?

Since many of us in the Catholic Church have moved over the years to a more positive relationship with our Jewish sisters and brothers, it was particularly disturbing when the Carmelite Convent was erected in Auschwitz in the building that once housed the gas to exterminate Jews and others condemned to death during the Holocaust.

After the convent was established, a Belgian Catholic group entitled “Aid to the Church in Distress” began fundraising for these Carmelites. The advertising literature was alarming. It read in part: “The monastery is to be under the sign of love, peace and reconciliation, witnessing the victorious power of the cross of Jesus. It will be a spiritual fortress, and the proof of the conversion of apostates and those who went astray in various countries”

The suggestion of this literature was that the nuns were there to pray for the conversion of Jews! Compounding the issues was the fact that the building used by the Carmelites was within the camp grounds defined as “WORLD PATRIMONY” by UNESCO. Jews were not asking to appropriate the place for themselves; Jews have asked that no one appropriate it.

Catholic leaders reacted with distress. Representations to disband the place were respectfully made to the Carmelite order, the Bishop of Krakow and the Vatican. Nothing changed. The dispute, primarily in Western Europe, grew and strained Catholic-Jewish relations worldwide.

Sister Katherine MacDonald of the Canadian Center for Ecumenism has written, “For Catholics, the presence of the convent … can be seen as a sign of repentance and atonement. Jews, on the other hand, ask that we respect the passage quoted in the Torah which states that, in places of crime, we do nothing of what is normal or habitual. Neither ought one to eat a meal near a place of blood” Yes, the very presence of a cross shows how ignorant Christians still are of what the cross has meant in Jewish history.

To undo 2,000 years of anti-Semitism will take a long time. When will we come “to understand Jews as they understand themselves” as the 1975 Vatican Guidelines and Suggestions enjoined? When, as Roger Cardinal Etchegary once said, will we “be reconciled with our Jewish brothers and sisters whom we have plunged into the Holocaust by our contempt teaching?” In 1986 and 1987 at meetings held in Geneva between world Jewish representatives and Roman Catholic cardinals, the cardinals promised that the convent would be relocated a short distance away; the 23-foot-high cross would be removed. The signers of the accord agreed to establish an interfaith center by February, 1989, for study, research and prayer so that in the future, antisemitism, violence and hatred would hopefully be conquered.

Two year later the convent remained; so did the cross. Seemingly nothing was being done.

It was on July 14, 1989 that Rabbi Avraham Weiss, Glen Richter and five other members of the Jewish community went to protest peaceably at the Carmelite convent. Indeed, attempts were made to speak with the Sisters, but without success. It was then that some members climbed over the wall to enter the porch area, where each put on a prayer shawl, read Torah and/or prayed.

The workmen from within the monastery threw buckets of water mixed with urine and paint over the heads of the Jews who were praying. Several hours later, the workers attacked the group and dragged them away, shouting, “Heil Hitler”

Rabbi Weiss, in describing the incident, wrote: “Nuns peered through the convent windows as we were beaten. A Polish priest cried, ‘Rip off their skullcaps. Drag them out.’ Uniformed and plainclothes policemen watched without intervening. We were hauled away, dogs were let loose to patrol the area”

Although outrage at these anti-Semitic acts was expressed by many people, here and abroad, the cardinal of Krakow, Cardinal Macharsky, blamed the Jews and reneged on the Geneva accords. The primate of Poland, Joseph Cardinal Glemp, made remarks which to me and to my colleagues of the National Coalition of American Nuns were reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “… dear Jews, do not talk with us from the position of a people raised above all others;… esteemed Jews … your power lies in the mass media that are easily at your disposal in many countries. Let them not serve to spread anti-Polish feelings”

In reaction to Cardinal Glemp, the official newspaper of the Polish Labor Movement, SOLIDARITY, stated: “The expressions used by the Primate, even if contrary to their intent, threaten to deeply wound the feelings of many of those who are descendants and brothers of Holocaust victims” The National Coalition of American Nuns asked Cardinal Glemp for an apology. In the United States, cardinals, bishops, archbishops, priests, nuns and laymen and laywomen dissociated themselves from Cardinal Glemp’s remarks.

Thank God that the Vatican on September 19, 1989, finally expressed strong support for the relocation of the convent, endorsing the Geneva accords of 1987. Furthermore, the Vatican offered to contribute its own financial support to help build the new interfaith center and the Carmelite convent.

Much work still remains within the Catholic community. I plead that we continue the dialogue.

Sister Rose Thering, Ph.D., is the executive director of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel. She has received many distinguished awards for her humanitarian work.