OSWICIEM, Poland — As world leaders gathered at the former Nazi death camp of Birkenau on January 27 to honor the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, four rabbis from the United States stood in front of a church located in the nearby former SS headquarters to protest what they called a “desecration” of the site where 1.1 million Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1945.
Their leader, Rabbi Avi Weiss, 75, has been protesting the placement of the church near Auschwitz-Birkenau for decades. He was arrested for demonstrating there in 1995. Weiss is also known for protesting against the establishment of a Carmelite convent in a former Auschwitz building where the Zyklon-B gas used to murder Jews was once stored. The nuns eventually left the building in 1993 on orders from Pope John Paul II.
Weiss, a longtime activist for Israeli and Jewish issues, is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a men’s liberal Orthodox rabbinical school, and Yeshivat Maharat, where women receive ordination. At Auschwitz this week, the senior rabbi stepped aside to let his former student, 29-year-old Rabbi Ezra Seligsohn, who now teaches at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in The Bronx, give the first word to The Times of Israel.
“We’re here to protest the existence of this church in this location,” said Seligsohn. “This building had previously been an SS headquarters during the Holocaust. There were accounts of women being raped and abused here in this building. And in the 1980s it was turned into a church. We think this is a tremendous violation.”
Visitors exiting the former Birkenau extermination camp walk hundreds of yards (meters) past the camp’s ruins — isolated columns and piles of bricks jutting out of bare earth, cordoned off by lengths of jet black barbed wire. On the horizon, the church looms with its unmistakable Nazi architecture behind a towering crucifix.
The church stands just across the quiet, one-lane road that marks the former camp’s boundary. It is nearly spitting distance from the edge of the barbed wire. Behind the church is a tranquil residential neighborhood with small, tidy homes that smell of wood fireplaces.
“It’s pretty crazy that this used to be full of barracks, and now it’s just an open field,” said Seligsohn, gesturing to a grassy area surrounded by barbed wire. “The only thing that’s going to be left after 50 years is these huge crosses on top of this church. People are going to think this is a Catholic site of destruction. It’s the biggest Jewish cemetery in the world.”
Ups and downs
In the 1990s, Polish Catholic nationalists built hundreds of crosses after an agreement was signed barring the construction of new religious symbols or structures in the Auschwitz-Birkenau area. The agreement was intended as a gesture of sensitivity towards Jews, who represent the vast majority of people murdered in the camps. In the end, many of the crosses came down, while some remained.
The enormous crucifix in the church’s front yard was also considered offensive even by those unaware that it was the scene of the rabbis’ demonstration.
“Coming down that road, where the sign tells me that Jewish children were marched to their deaths in crematoria four and five, then making a right out of the camp and the first thing I see is a large cross was jarring, and quite honestly, offensive,” said Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of The Jewish Week, who paid a personal visit to the site the day after the rabbis’ protest.
“I don’t begrudge them their church or their religious fellowship,” Silow-Carroll said. “But I don’t think the large cross needs to be there, looming over the camp walls in a way that stakes a claim.”
Weiss said the erection of the cross and repurposing of the former SS headquarters as a church is in violation of the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention protecting cultural sites. Auschwitz, he said, was on the list of protected areas.
The church’s sole priest declined to comment to The Times of Israel on Tuesday, saying that it was a matter for his supervisors. But he did seek to correct reports that a priest slammed the church’s front door in the protestors’ faces.
“I am the only one here,” he said. “I didn’t do it, and there was no one else but me who could have.”
On Monday, the neighborhood streets had been cordoned off by roadblocks in expectation of the many dignitaries arriving for the commemoration. In addition, once police spotted the rabbinical protestors – who had been there since 8:00 a.m., they parked four large police vans directly in front of the church, effectively boxing the demonstrators in and keeping them out of sight.
No cars or pedestrians passed while The Times of Israel was at the protest, and the silence was broken only once — by the sirens of a passing motorcade en route to the main event.
In an open letter published last week, Weiss announced the protest and invited “survivors and other good people assembled at the commemoration” to join.
“We’re not here for the media,” said Weiss. “This morning was one of the holiest mornings of my life, because on this, the 75th anniversary [of the liberation of Auschwitz], there was a Jewish presence who spoke out in memory of 1.1 million Jews who are beneath the ground of Birkenau and who cannot speak for themselves, who lived as Jews, died as Jews, and should be allowed to rest in peace as Jews.”
Asked for comment, one police officer who asked not to be named said that they “don’t know the details, because we are just here to protect the area. Everything went quite peacefully, and that’s all, I think.”
When asked for further information, the officer said they were not allowed to comment, and directed The Times of Israel to the police press office.
Weiss stressed the importance of interfaith relations, saying that he had participated in an interfaith study session following the 2015 mass shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina, church by a white supremacist in which nine African-American worshipers were killed.
“We’re not looking for the church to close, we’re looking for it to move. Because if it remains, this is the only thing that’s going to be left in Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Weiss said. “Interfaith relations are very important to me, but a church doesn’t belong here. There comes a certain point where you have to stand up for Jewish dignity and speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
According to Weiss, it is the responsibility of Jewish leaders to protest the location of the church. Furthermore, the holding of a memorial ceremony without its mention by the main Jewish leaders attending it was tantamount to complicity. He said that he’d written a letter to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin requesting that he mention the matter to Polish President Andrzej Duda when the two meet at the event.
However, a Rivlin spokesman, when asked by The Times of Israel if the president had made mention of the church to Duda, responded, “I don’t have any information on this, I’m afraid.”
Rabbi Jonathan Leener, another former Weiss student in his 30s, was unhappy with the tight security limiting movement in and between Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau, as well as the fact that the Auschwitz museum area was closed to visitors on Monday.
“In general the lack of mobility in these grounds is to me very disconcerting, that Jews don’t have the ability to go into certain parts of the camp, especially today out of all days. Think of the irony — I’m a rabbi trying to go into Auschwitz, and not allowed,” Leener said.
“There was a time when we couldn’t get out of here. Now we can’t get in,” said Weiss. “They should call this ‘Auschwitz by invitation only.’ Something’s wrong with that.”
This article has been revised to include details on the Carmelite convent Rabbi Avi Weiss protested from 1989-1993. It also corrects the age of Rabbi Jonathan Leener from his 20s to his 30s.