On January 17, 2015, the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, addressed a solemn audience gathered at the gates of Birkenau— perhaps the most iconic material remnant of the Shoah. Inside a vast tent in which thousands of dignitaries from around the world were present, together with many of the camp’s last survivors, he declared:
I am not a survivor, although I am grateful for the survivors who are here today. I am not a liberator, although I salute the courage of the veterans who are among us today. I am here, simply, as a Jew. And, like all Jews everywhere, this place, this terrible place called Auschwitz, touches our souls What was the reason that over one million Jews were murdered right here? The reason was they were Jewish. Nazi Germany believed Jews had no right to live.
At that ceremony, beamed around the world in real time and circulated through innumerable newspapers and social media outlets, it was unequivocally clear to all, that 90 percent of the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau had been dispatched to the camp and murdered there for no other reason than the fact that they were Jews. The event, held under the auspices of the Polish government, the WJC, the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the USC Shoah Foundation, was the symbolic culmination of an intense struggle for memory and truth. It was a struggle in which the WJC had played an important role, sometimes publicly and sometimes behind the scenes, and one to which Lauder personally, many years before he was elected president of the organization in 2007, had dedicated himself wholeheartedly.
That victory overcame a relentless, often shameless attempt to denude the Jewish victims of their ethnic, national, and religious identity and to appropriate their suffering and death. That process of usurpation of history began almost immediately after the camp was liberated in January 1945, when the wider world learned of the horrific tragedy that played out in Auschwitz-Birkenau in the otherwise unspectacular Polish city of Oświęcim. The very fact that in 1947 Polish law recognized Auschwitz-Birkenau as a “Monument to the Martyrdom of the Polish Nation and Others” was telling, preliminary evidence that the Jews who made up most of the victims were to be excluded from the pantheon of suffering and martyrdom, or simply subsumed into the “Polish Nation” or “Others.” It was, as sociologist Iwona Zarecka called it, “Auschwitz without Jews.”
In 1967, Alex L. Easterman, the Scottish-born director of the WJC’s International Affairs Department in London, attended the Polish state ceremony at which the “International Monument to the Victims of Fascism” at Birkenau was unveiled between the ruins of crematoria II and III. Upon his return to London, he bitterly described the way in which the Jewish victims had been internationalized and “polonized,” consonant with the political agenda of “People’s Poland.”
The hour-long address of the Polish Premier, Mr. [Józef] Cyrankiewicz, inaugurated the ceremony of remembrance and homage. His speech was an amalgam of eloquence in poignant tribute to the four million martyrs of Auschwitz; of powerfully phrased, indignant denunciation of the infamies of Hitler and his Nazi Third Reich, of violently sharp criticism of the West German Federal Republic. Although the Prime Minister described in deeply emotional terms the sufferings, the degradation and the final ghastly massacre of the four million [sic] annihilated in Auschwitz, a thorough examination of the official text of his speech yielded, alas, not one single mention of the word “Jew” or “Jewish” throughout the whole great length of the dramatic speech.
The focal point of the monument unveiled on that occasion was a row of bronze plaques with an inscription in some twenty languages (including Hebrew and Yiddish) that read “Four million people suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazi murderers between the years 1940 and 1945.” The tablets were topped by a marble checkerboard, one of the national symbols of Poland, with a triangle (symbol of the non-Jewish prisoners) superimposed on it. There was no reference at all to the Jews who had perished there. The Magen David that most Jewish deportees wore when they arrived at Auschwitz, and which some wore as inmates, was altogether absent.
“Although no arrangements had been made beforehand,” wrote Easter-man, “the Jewish delegations assembled at the commemorative ceremony went to the monument and improvised a religious service there under the direction of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Professor Elio Toaff. Grouped in front of the monument, the Jewish participants in the proceedings, many of them in tears, solemnly recited the Kaddish and intoned El Ma·le Rahamim. This— unofficial, improvised— was the only Jewish aspect of the commemoration of the devastation and annihilation of more than two million Jews.”
For successive generations, Auschwitz has been a metonym for the Holocaust—the premediated, industrial destruction of European Jewry— and was widely seen in Jewish circles and beyond as the epicenter of that unprecedented tragedy. That was so, in part, because of its cosmopolitan nature— the victims of Auschwitz were brought to the killing grounds from across the length and breadth of Europe and the fact that many thousands of Jews, having been used as slave laborers, survived. It was also because the Germans had failed to destroy most of the material evidence of their crimes and when the camp was overrun, it was discovered almost completely intact.
The WJC was born in 1936—in the shadow of the burgeoning threat of Nazism, though at that time the murderous potential of the sinister Nazi ideology was unimaginable. In the authorized first history of the organization, upliftingly titled Unity in Dispersion, it was noted:
As World War II was progressing, the people of the world were confronted with the inescapable reality that the Jews had been singled out by Germany for complete annihilation, and that while the plight of most inhabitants of the occupied countries was deplorable, and, in the case of some, terrible, it could not be compared with the fate of the Jews, whose only destination in the scheme of the Third Reich was cruel death. Yet, for many years, the Allied and neutral governments clung obstinately to the concept that legally, the Jews as such did not exist as specific subjects of law, and consequently as subjects of their official policy, diplomacy or strategy. There existed only citizens of recognized nations: Poles, Czechs, Rumanians, etc.
This situation was especially evident in the countries of East Central Europe that had once been the heartland of world Jewry and were now shackled behind the Iron Curtain. The tragedy that engulfed the Jewish communities of those countries, now Communist “peoples’ democracies,” was to be downplayed or utterly erased from public consciousness. Certainly, the fact that Jews had often perished with the encouragement of elements of the autochthonous population and/or of collaborationist regimes was never to be a part of the national narrative. There were Jews who also sought relief in that internationalist view of suffering: in the sincere belief that a less parochial view of what had happened would engender greater sympathy and solidarity.
In Communist Poland, the fate of Jews during the wartime German occupation was generally seen within the context of the suffering of Polish society— and certainly not as a distinct tragedy of an entirely different magnitude. Posthumously, the victims of the German Final Solution were appropriated as Poles, prompting the journalist Paul Lendvai to observe in his book Antisemitism without Jews that “dead Jews make good Poles.” Seeking to explain what lay behind this phenomenon, Polish scholar Piotr Osęka explained that “[i]n the early years, the authorities focused, to a much greater extent, on patriotic rather than revolutionary self-creation and initially strove to achieve control over historical representation in accordance with the motto ‘That which we don’t commemorate, did not happen.’ ”
Nowhere was this tendency toward the manipulation and even falsification of history more pronounced and disturbing than at the museum at Auschwitz. And it was manifested in the way the story of the camp was presented to the Polish and foreign public that visited the site, in the guide and history books, and in the media. Over the course of the forty-five years that elapsed between the liberation of the camp and the eventual collapse of Communism in Poland, Jews were routinely presented— in the most generous case— as merely another one of the nationalities that had suffered and died there, but not the primary victims. That was done without ever explicitly denying that the vast majority of victims were Jews.
At the end of the 1950s the International Auschwitz Committee announced its initiative to establish national pavilions in some of the bar-racks of Auschwitz I, the former Stammlager. It was intended that these barracks display information on the Nazi occupation of these countries and the fate of their citizens deported to Auschwitz. The first to open were those of Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1960, followed in 1961 by the Soviet Union. That same year, in a particularly cynical move, the pavilion of the German Democratic Republic was dedicated to “Germany and the Anti-Fascist Resistance Movement 1933– 1945.” For the most part, to the extent that the sufferings of Jews were depicted at all, they were subsumed into the nationalities of the countries from which they arrived, and were thus treated as Hungarians, Greeks, Dutch, or French.
Initially, some senior Polish officials supported the idea of creating an Israeli pavilion, but this suggestion was overruled. The opponents of that idea argued that Jews were citizens of the countries in which they lived and should therefore be represented in the pavilions of Poland and other nations. Clearly, no Israeli citizens had perished there, as Israel had not yet come into existence. It was also argued that the State of Israel did not represent the Jewish people as a whole. Of course the WJC could and did claim to represent the Jewish people in the Diaspora and actively sought to prevail upon the Polish authorities to allow for a Jewish pavilion.
In April 1963, Easterman visited Auschwitz and in a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Józef Winiewicz, Easterman told him
[t]hat the Polish government should consider the sense of deepest indignation which will inevitably arise throughout world Jewry if the Government persisted in excluding a distinctive Jewish memorial building from its plans, because not only were Jews the overwhelming majority of the millions destroyed in Auschwitz, but the very name Auschwitz, had become the symbol of the whole tragic martyrdom of the six mil- lion European Jews annihilated by the Nazis The essential issue was that Jewish martyrdom was sui generis in the whole sordid story of Nazi savagery and must not be obscured.
In his extensive monograph on Polish-Israeli relations, Marcos Silber writes that Easterman later reported to Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir that Winiewicz “without replying picked up the telephone and spoke for several minutes to someone in Polish. When he had finished he said to me ‘You will have the Jewish Pavilion; the plans will be worked out in this ministry and under the direction of the man with whom I have just been speaking.’ ”
On August 3, 1964, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported on a meeting of the World Conference of Jewish Organizations (COJO) that had taken place in Geneva at which WJC President Nahum Goldmann announced that he had concluded negotiations with the Polish government for inclusion of a Jewish pavilion: “one of a complex of pavilions memorializing victims of various nationalities murdered in Auschwitz.” Goldmann said that he had conveyed “appreciation” to the Polish government for its efforts to keep alive the memory of the martyrs of the Nazi era. The participants at the COJO meeting had voted to endorse the memorial and urged Jewish groups to “participate actively” in plans to make the Jewish pavilion “a fitting monument to Jewish martyrdom.” According to Goldmann, the WJC would also assist Poland in underwriting the cost of the exhibition and said that the organization had given “a considerable amount of money—many governments gave less.”
By the time that the pavilion, dedicated to “The Struggle and Martyrdom of the Jews” was finally opened in Block 27 in April 1968 — and with almost no input on the part of those who had urged it be created— Poland had severed diplomatic relations with Israel and embarked on a bitter domestic purge that led to the expulsion of more than 20,000 Polish citizens of Jewish origin, many of whom had only tenuous ties, if any, to Jewish life and regarded themselves as Poles. Therefore, no representatives of international Jewish organizations agreed to take part in the opening ceremony that incidentally was held on the last day of Passover. In Jewish circles, the event was rightly seen as a flagrant attempt to divert attention from the terrible events taking place in Poland, and perceived as the tragic finale to the thousand-year history of Polish Jewry. Significantly, the exhibition highlighted Polish aid to Jews as well as the notion that Poles and Jews had shared a common fate. Attention was drawn to the western Allies’ failure to come to the rescue of European Jewry and the WJC was also singled out for its purported shortcomings.
By the mid-1970s, beset by economic crisis, and seeking western credits, Poland’s government adopted a more pragmatic, less ideological stance. At Goldmann’s urging, the Poles agreed to revamp the exhibition in the Jewish pavilion. This more palatable display was opened in April 1978, with Goldmann and a WJC delegation present for the ceremony. On that occasion, the former WJC president delivered an emotional speech in Yiddish. In 1979, the WJC, together with the Polish government, successfully petitioned to have Auschwitz-Birkenau added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
However, in the autumn of 1984, a challenge emerged from another quarter. With the financial support of a group of Belgian Catholics, a Carmelite convent was established at the edge of the Stammlager in Auschwitz I, in the derelict theater building that had been used for the storage of Zyklon-B gas cannisters. The idea of a convent at Auschwitz enjoyed the full support of Cardinal Franciszek Marcharski, the archbishop of Kraków, who claimed that the nuns would “live in seclusion offering prayers of expiation for the crimes committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” After establishing themselves in the building, the nuns proceeded to erect a twenty foot-high cross. This move largely escaped public notice, but a bombastic appeal in 1985 by the European “Aid to the Church in Distress,” with funds collected in Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, suddenly placed it in the limelight. Jews were especially upset by the triumphalist militant language of the appeal in which the convent was described as “a spiritual fortress and a guarantee of the conversion of strayed brothers from our countries as well as proof of our desire to erase outrages so often done to the Vicar of Christ.”
The WJC had been a pioneer in the development of relations with the Roman Catholic Church and was uniquely placed to spearhead the struggle to persuade the Church that the presence of the nuns at Auschwitz was unacceptable and an affront to Jewish sensitivities. In December 1985, WJC President Edgar Bronfman arrived in Warsaw to discuss the issue with Poland’s Minister of Religious Affairs Adam Łopatka who told the WJC president that he would take up the issue with the Polish Church in an attempt to convince the nuns to relocate. As Bronfman explained: “it is not only a matter of the Auschwitz convent, but the broader implications of historical revisionism in which the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the murder of the Jewish people is being suppressed.” Bronfman—and many other Jews—believed that the nuns were “praying to convert the souls of the dead Jews to Catholicism.” To be sure, at the root of this tension was also the theological clash between how Jews and Catholics viewed suffering and death.
Meanwhile, former WJC Secretary-General Gerhart M. Riegner, who had been actively involved in interfaith relations for many years, led the WJC’s efforts vis-à-vis the Catholic hierarchy. As it later transpired, there was a disconnect between the Church in Western Europe and in Poland, and the WJC was successful in appealing to the more liberal representatives of the episcopate. Looking back at that time, Riegner wrote:
No other problem in Jewish-Catholic relations entailed so much work for me nor so many urgent negotiations and discussions After several years of observation and reflection, I became convinced that this problem could not be resolved without the Pope [John Paul II] taking a clear stand. He had avoided personal intervention to keep himself free of the divergences and tensions that divided the Polish episcopate. We understood that in these circumstances it was a delicate matter for a Polish pope to intervene officially in such a quarrel.
After long negotiations, an agreement was reached in Geneva at the end of February 1987 to relocate the Carmelite convent from Auschwitz to a nearby site within two years. This second site was to serve as a Catholic center of information about both the Holocaust and the martyrdom of Poles and other peoples. Cardinal Macharski was charged with overseeing the implementation of this project, while the bishops of other countries agreed to raise the funds to underwrite the cost of the project realization within two years of the signing. This deadline came and passed without any sign of the relocation of the convent.
Although there was nothing remotely resembling a consensus among Jewish organizations, and although the State of Israel (then in the process of attempting to restore relations with Poland and gain a foothold in East Central Europe) did not want to get involved in a controversy over Auschwitz, the WJC saw this as an especially distressing phenomenon that could not go unanswered. Recalling the atmosphere at that time (and the WJC’s insistence that world Jewry not back down), Rabbi David Rosen, who was deeply engaged in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, observed:
The ADL didn’t want to make a thing of it. Their attitude was, it is not as if there are Jews there at the time who are involved in it and it’s not as if it’s actually on the property itself. By making a big thing, you’re basically trying to go to war with the Catholic Church. To some extent the WJC determined the tune. Their style created the atmosphere in which no public Jewish organization could not get involved. Had the WJC not got involved, those issues might not have developed in the way they did.
By the summer of 1989, the situation had reached an impasse and even a boiling point. It was then that Rabbi Avi Weiss from New York and a group of six young Jewish activists arrived in Poland in the hope that he could draw international attention to the situation. They climbed over the fence surrounding the convent and brought their protests to the nuns’ front doors. Rabbi Weiss and the protestors were roughed up by Polish workers renovating the building and ejected by force. Neither the nuns nor the local police intervened. The reaction in the press was immediate.
Although Rabbi Weiss was seemingly acting on his own as a “lone wolf,” it turned out that the WJC had quietly but discreetly encouraged his activities and even underwritten them. Recalling the genesis of his plans to protest at the convent in Auschwitz and how the WJC facilitated them, he told me in a telephone interview:
The idea came from the activists. We met in the courtyard of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York but then moved on to the WJC office. I’m not convinced that we could have done it without the WJC. I knew Israel Singer and Elan Steinberg and worked closely with them going after Waldheim. The WJC worked on the inside and we were the foot soldiers. The 1989 protest at the Convent was planned in Sruly’s [Israel Singer] office. This was a classic example of how activists can work with mainstream organizations and can do wonderful things together. Edgar [Bronfman] and the WJC funded the whole operation.
This, of course, was a far cry from Goldmann’s quiet diplomatic engagement that some derided as mere shtadlanut. In his memoirs, Goldmann made clear his own modus operandi: “With us, the watchword is confidentiality.” After the changing of the guard in the late 1970s, the WJC, under the leadership of Bronfman and Israel Singer adopted a very different, “in your face” approach to the way in which it advanced its agenda. Bronfman insisted “You don’t go as a supplicant. You say ‘Look fellow, this is good for me and you.’ If you don’t understand how it’s going to be good for them, you are not going to get through to them.” Not surprisingly, the reaction in both Polish and many Jewish circles was highly critical of Rabbi Weiss’s actions, which were seen as inflaming tensions and as a setback to the unfolding process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation. There was no denying, however, that it hurled the convent crisis onto the front page of newspapers worldwide and introduced a new sense of urgency.
Eventually, the WJC succeeded in mobilizing moderate elements in the Roman Catholic Church to prevail upon their Polish coreligionists to relocate the convent. But as it turned out, even their leverage was limited. In September 1989, the Holy See announced that it would help pay for the construction of a new interfaith prayer center farther from the camp and that the Carmelite nuns would be relocated to the center. This did not happen swiftly and it was only in April 1993, in a last-minute letter apparently intended to calm Jewish sensitivities on the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, that Pope John Paul II told the Catholic nuns to relocate. The Pope instructed the fourteen Carmelite nuns to move to another convent within the diocese or return to their old homes. So ended one of the most contentious chapters in the postwar history of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Over the years, the WJC has maintained its engagement at Auschwitz. In 1995, a Polish commercial firm sought to erect a shopping center within the camp’s protected zone— directly across from the visitor parking lot. The WJC and other Jewish groups protested, and eventually the Polish government intervened to put a halt to the plans. The WJC also protested when hundreds of crosses were planted in the ground around the gravel pit at Auschwitz I by a hard core nationalist group led by Kazmierz Świtoń; these were ultimately removed by the Polish authorities in 1999. Beginning in the 1990s, the French Section of the WJC, and later the European Jewish Congress, both under the professional direction of Serge Cwajgenbaum, were especially active in raising consciousness about the camp and its significance. They brought a steady stream of high school students and teachers, journalists, and other influential members of civil society to visit the site. In 1995, it dispatched a “memory train” from Birkenau with a travelling exhibition devoted to the history of the camp that stopped in Budapest, Prague, Berlin, and Strasbourg. During this period, the WJC issued a number of publications explaining the history of Auschwitz and the sensitivities of both Jews and Poles in relating to the site.
Although Auschwitz will continue to be remembered and understood in many different ways, its association with the suffering and death of European Jewry can never again be concealed or subsumed. The pathology of deliberate obfuscation, which long bedeviled the site, is finally gone.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is no longer the “Museum of the Martyrology of the Polish Nation and Other [italics mine] Nations.” Nothing better symbolizes this transformation than the speech of WJC President Ronald Lauder on the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp as well as the prominence of his role on that occasion. Speaking in the name of world Jewry, the successors to the victims, he poignantly affirmed the centrality of the horrifying Jewish experience at Auschwitz.