Manfred Deselaers

Pope John Paul II and Auschwitz [1] 

 DE - FR - PL


When Pope John Paul II was in Auschwitz in 1979, he said, "Can it still be a surprise to anyone that the Pope born and brought up in this land, the Pope who came to the See of Saint Peter from the diocese in whose territory is situated the camp of Auschwitz, should have begun his first Encyclical with the words "Redemptor Hominis" and should have dedicated it as a whole to the cause of man, to the dignity of man, to the threats to him, and finally to his inalienable rights … It is well known that I have been here many times. So many times! It was impossible for me not to come here as Pope.” [2]

The memory of Auschwitz, and all that is connected with this memory was very important for Pope John Paul II. In this article the central themes, the development and the versatility of his reflections will be presented. His speeches will be extensively quoted in order to faithfully give voice to the holy Shepherd.

Karol Wojtyla spent his childhood and youth (1920-1938) in the city of Wadowice about 35 kms from Auschwitz .  Jews also lived there, some of whom he was friendly with. His father was an army officer during World War I and fought for Polish independence.

The terrible experience of World War II changed his life. He decided during the war to become a priest and in 1942 entered the underground seminary in Krakow. In 1948 after the war, he defended his doctorate in Rome, "The Problem of Faith in St. John of the Cross”, a Faith that goes through the ‘Dark Night’.

From 1958, as bishop of the Archdiocese of Krakow he often visited the parishes of Oswiecim. His sermons strongly emphasized the need to pray for the dead, also to pray on behalf of those who cannot come to Oswiecim/Auschwitz.

Looking for signs of hope in the face of this tragedy of Auschwitz became occasions for deep reflection on man and his vocation, particularly, in the preparations for the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe in 1972. The cult of Maximilian Kolbe also became a bridge towards the German nation.

During his first visit to Poland as Pope in 1979 he visited Auschwitz: "I could not fail to come here as Pope!"

He stressed that on the path towards a world in which the dignity and rights of individuals and peoples are to be respected you have to fight, but fight like Kolbe, with the strength of faith to overcome evil with good. In the 1980's in Poland this was also understood within the context of communist oppression.

When atheistic Communism weakened, at the threshold of the Auschwitz camp a convent of Carmelite nuns was established in 1984. This sparked strong Jewish protest. From that time the Pope pointed increasingly to the suffering of Jews during World War II and the long common Christian- Jewish history on Polish soil. He also condemned anti-Semitism. In the spirit of Vatican Council II, he emphasized on numerous occasions the religious dignity of the Jewish people and their significance for Christians.

Edith Stein, also known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, became for him a symbol that combines solidarity with the tragedy of the Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau together with a deep confession of the Christian faith. In 1999 he proclaimed Edith Stein one of the Patrons of Europe.

The next step was an  examination of conscience about the relationship of the Church to the Jews, sorrow for sin, and the promise of lasting brotherhood with the people of the covenant. In such a way the Pope wanted in the year 2000 to "cross the threshold of hope".[3]

Towards the end of his life in 2002, he entrusted the world to Divine Mercy, convinced that only God's mercy can heal the wounds of the world.

We do not deviate from the truth if we say that the whole ministry of Karol Wojtyla was marked by the tragedy of World War II and he sought an answer to it. John Paul II from the depths of his being was 'the Pope after Auschwitz'.


In the book "Gift and Mystery" John Paul II writes about his vocation to the priesthood:

"As a result of the outbreak of war I became  detached from  study and the university environment. I lost at that time  my father, the last man of my immediate family. [...] At the same time, more and more appeared in my mind the light: God wants that I become a priest. [...] all this happened against the background of the terrible events that unfolded around me in Krakow, Poland, in Europe and in the world. [...] I am thinking here particularly of those close to my heart, colleagues, also  those of Jewish descent  from  high school in Wadowice. [...] Well, in this great and terrible theatre of World War II many were spared. But every day I could be taken from the street, from the quarry or from the factory and transported to the camp. Sometimes I even asked myself, many of my peers were killed, why not me? Now I know that was not the case. [...] and reveals  another particularly important dimension of the history of my vocation. The years of World War II and the German occupation of the West and occupation from the Soviet East, entailed a large number of arrests and the exile of Polish priests to concentration camps. [...] Everything  said about the concentration camps, of course, is only part of the dramatic apocalypse of our century. And I say that, in order to emphasize that my priesthood is at this first stage, in keeping with the great sacrifice of the people of my generation, men and women. For me, the most difficult experiences have been spared by Providence, but because I have a greater sense of the debt in relation to so many people that I know, and even more numerous, these nameless, without distinction of nationality and language,  victims on the great altar of history, have contributed in some way to my vocation to the priesthood. In a sense, they introduced me to this path, in the light of the victims, appeared to me the truth - the deepest and most essential truth of the priesthood of Christ.[4]



From 4th July 1958 when Karol Wojtyla was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow, until his election as Pope on 16th October 1978, the area where Auschwitz is located was part of his pastoral responsibility. How was he to see the challenge of this soil ?

Cardinal Wojtyla believed that the first thing you should do is to pray for the dead. In 1970, on All Souls' Day he said in Oswiecim:

"What a vast crowd could be here in this place, if everyone wanted to come to the graves of their loved ones and light candles and lay wreaths and make a chorus of prayer!  There would be a huge crowd! Many languages; like the languages that are written at the monument of the memorial site at the crematoria in Birkenau. [...] We are here, dear brothers and sisters, representatives of the multitudes who should come to this place – multitudes of many languages. "[5]

This ground obliges those whom it was given by destiny to live here, to intercede and pray for the dead. All the more so it obligates us as Christians:

  "All this we bring to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. [...] We, the living Church on earth - we, the descendants of those dead and martyred - in the sacrifice of Christ we put our intercession, our advocacy, our most humble prayer; so that for the victims of this modern Calvary, He who on Calvary gave his life for all humankind, becomes their Savior and reward. To accept them all: in the many thousands and millions, multitudes, to accept them all in these apocalyptic dimensions. [...] Here it is [...] the substance of our common prayer, the content of our faith, the content of what we wish to express here: for ourselves and for our entire nation and for the whole of  humanity. "[6]

It was in this spirit, also in 1979, that the Pope said, "so I come and I kneel on this Golgotha of the modern world, on these tombs, largely nameless, like a great tomb of the Unknown Soldier."[7]

Maximilian Kolbe

During this time, in the early 1970's, preparations began for the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe. A year before the event, Cardinal Wojtyla said:

"It would be a great sign of heaven, as though the heavenly Father himself pointed his finger at this contemporary Calvary of the human family ... And as if he had said, that from this cross is born salvation." [8]

Later, on the anniversary of the beatification in 1972, the then Cardinal of Krakow said the following words during the Mass of thanksgiving in Auschwitz:

"We want to thank Christ the Lord for having given us this [...] Saint, who bore the most terrible burdens of our time, the humiliation of modern humanity, the defeat of his people. In this experience he did not break because the power of the Spirit, the power of faith and the power of love enabled him to gain the victory not only for himself but for us. So that we do not feel defeated, we, the Poles, we the priests; not only for us - for all of humanity, so as not to feel defeated by this cruelty, by this terrible death camp!"[9]

On October 20, 1971, two days after the beatification, Cardinal Wojtyla said on Vatican Radio:

"The beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe turned again the eyes of the Church and the world to Auschwitz. In the consciousness of all the people of our time it firstly has become a symbol of torment begun by people of hatred, and in turn it becomes a symbol of love which is stronger than hate. And even the torment put on people becomes, thanks to love, somehow a creative strength that helps to more fully explore humanity. Such is the meaning bestowed on "Auschwitz" by Bl. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. "[10]

This remained  the fundamental perspective on Auschwitz for the later Pope. In Auschwitz during his first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 he said:

 “In this site of the terrible slaughter that brought death to four million[11] people of different nations, Father Maximilian voluntarily offered himself for death in the starvation bunker for a brother,and so won a spiritual victory like that of Christ himself. […] But was Father Maximilian Kolbe the only one? Certainly he won a victory that was immediately felt by his companions in captivity and is still felt today by the Church and the world. […]We want to embrace with a feeling of deepest admiration each of these victories, each revelation of humanity which negated a system that was a systematic negation of humanity. Where humanity, the dignity of man was so horribly trampled on, a victory of humanity was won.”[12] 

On the occasion of the canonization in 1982, Pope John Paul II said:

"Yes, at the base of this holiness lies the great, but deeply painful question of humanity. This difficult, tragic era, marked by the terrible trampling of human dignity, yet in Auschwitz has born its saving sign. Love proved stronger than death, stronger than the anti-human system. Human love achieved its victory where hatred and contempt for human beings seemed to triumph. "[13]

Speaking of St Maximilian is not only about the hope of eternal life that comes from faith, but also about the image of the human being. It seems that here one can find the source of the Pope’s anthropology. In the face of Auschwitz, St Maximilian has shown the world the meaning of key words from the encyclical Redemptor Hominis:

 “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible  to himself, his life is senseless, if Love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter Love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer "fully reveals man to himself." [14]

This light, which shines from Auschwitz to the whole world, deeply commits us. In 1972 Cardinal Wojtyla had said to university students:

"Conscience is what makes a person human. The full human development of man cannot be followed, or talked about, if his centre is not grasped, namely, conscience. Since it depends on it, [...] who in the end am I, I am one unique person. Take for example the picture: on the one hand, Father Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz, on the other hand, his executioners. Here is a man and here is a man. Here is conscience and here is conscience. And now, what  personality is ultimately shaped? On the one hand one which   conscience in the opinion of all mankind needs to affirm, glorify and accept, and take as its treasure forever. On the other hand, such a figure of man, of humanity, which in the opinion of all mankind - no matter whether they are believers or non-believers, Christians or atheists - must somehow reject: renounce. Although it may be renounced only to the borders of humanity, because: here is a man and here is a man. The greatness of man [...] is deeply connected to his conscience. "[15]

To live with a conscience means to conduct a constant struggle within oneself and continually choose between good and evil. During his second trip to Poland in 1983, shortly after the end of martial law, the Pope said to his fellow citizens: "What does it mean that love is stronger than death? It also means: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12, 21). These words explain the truth about the deed of Father Maximilian in Auschwitz  on different dimensions: the dimension of everyday life and also the dimension of the era, on the dimension of a difficult historical moment and on the dimension of the twentieth century, and perhaps on the times that are coming. [...] We want to enrich the Christian heritage of Poland by  acquiring the  meaning of his act in Auschwitz: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." This is the Gospel program. It is a difficult program - but possible. This program is indispensable. "[16]

The Human Rights of Peoples and Nations  

The lesson of Auschwitz, however, is not just about an individual sense of life and death. It applies no less to the shaping of our societies, nations, and international relations. In Auschwitz in 1979, Pope John Paul II said:

“If however Auschwitz’s great call and the cry of man tortured here is to bear fruit for Europe and for the world also, the Declaration of Human Rights must have all its just consequences drawn from it, [...] I would like to return to the wisdom of the old teacher Pawel Włodkowic, Rector of the Jagiellonian University at Krakow, who proclaimed, that the rights of nations must be ensured [...] Never one nation’s development at the other's expense, at the cost of the enslavement of the other, at the cost of conquest, outrage, exploitation and death. These are thoughts of John XXIII and Paul VI. But at the same time they are spoken by the son of a nation that in its  past and recent  history has suffered many afflictions from others. Permit me not to call the others by their name – permit me not to name them… When we stand here, we cannot escape the longing to recognize each other as brothers."[17]

John Paul II had long supported the efforts of Polish-German reconciliation. [18]

Cardinal Wojtyla met with German bishops during Vatican II in Rome (1962-1965). In 1964, members of the German section of Pax Christi as part of a penitential pilgrimage to Auschwitz met with Cardinal Wojtyla in Krakow. The Cardinal actively participated in the drafting of a letter from the Polish bishops to the bishops of the German Episcopate, sent in November 1965 with the famous words "We forgive and ask for forgiveness." The letter today is often regarded as a major breakthrough in post-war Polish-German relations.

In 1973 in Germany members of the Catholic lay organisation Pax Christi founded an association called Maximilian Kolbe-Werk to assist former prisoners of concentration camps. From the very beginning the Cardinal of Krakow was one of its supporters. In 1974 Cardinal Wojtyla visited the Federal Republic of Germany. Together with Cardinal Julius Döpfner from Cologne they celebrated Mass for the intentions of repentance and reconciliation in the Heilig-Kreuz-Carmelite Convent Dachau, on the threshold of the former concentration camp. In 1978 he did the same with a delegation of Polish bishops, among them Polish Primate Stefan Wyszynski and German bishops among whom was Cardinal Jozef Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.

In1979 Cardinal Ratzinger was present during the Mass celebrated by the new Pope John Paul II in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In1980 a delegation of German bishops together with Polish bishops, signed in front of the Death Wall in Auschwitz , a request to the Pope for the canonization of Bl. Maximilian Kolbe.

The canonization of Maximilian Kolbe in Rome in 1983, concelebrated with the German Cardinal Joseph Höffner in the presence of German pilgrims, became a prominent symbol of reconciliation.

On June 23, 1996, Pope John Paul II crossed through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in a united Germany. "Now after crossing through the Brandenburg Gate, for me also, World War II is over" he said, deeply moved. [19]

It became clear that the Church through its contacts was able to build bridges and pave the road of reconciliation between nations.

One needs to understand all of this against the background of communist dictatorship. The Pope recalled that World War II began on September 1, 1939 with Nazi German aggression and on September 17 of the same year with the Soviet Red Army. In 1942, Germany began the war against the Soviet Union which killed millions of Russians and citizens of other nations. The War and occupation of Poland by Germany ended in 1945 thanks to the Red Army. However, the Soviet occupation of Poland lasted until 1989. In order to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Polish alliance with the Soviet Union, the Communist governments systematically portrayed the Federal Republic of Germany as the enemy, often using images from the time of the War. Following the publication of the Polish Episcopate letter to the bishops in Germany and the German response, an anti-Church campaign began at all levels across Poland under the slogan "Never forget, never forgive!", reproaching the Church as betraying the nation. This was just before the 600th anniversary of Polish Statehood May 1, 1966. May 3, 1966 in Czestochowa the 600th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland was celebrated. The Polish Primate Stefan Wyszynski solemnly repeated the words of forgiveness to Germany and many thousands of faithful said "We forgive." The Church's position became clear.[20]

In 1979, stopping in front of the plaques placed at the monument in Auschwitz-Birkenau, John Paul II said: "I still have another chosen plaque: in the Russian language. I do not add any comment. We know the people of whom it speaks; we know what share this people had in the horrible war for the liberty of the peoples; this plaque, too, must not be passed by indifferently."[21]

The memory of Auschwitz, which was liberated by the Red Army, plays a significant role in the memory of Russians about the contribution of the Soviet Union in the struggle for the liberation of Europe from Fascism. During communist times in Poland there was only one official interpretation of Auschwitz which emphasized the role of the liberation army and the communist and socialist activists among the victims. Since the prevailing ideology was atheistic materialism, Christian worship and religious symbols were forbidden in the former camp.

The largest Catholic youth movement in Poland under communism was "Oasis". It was founded after the war by Fr. Blachnicki Francis. He was a former Auschwitz prisoner who while waiting for a judgment of execution experienced a conversion. Surprisingly, no judgment was made. From then on, he was convinced that true freedom is inner freedom and those who are rooted in prayer and trust in Christ need fear neither authorities nor death. This may be called Polish liberation theology. In later times, people in the Oasis Movement played a large role in the bloodless revolution of Solidarity.

In his apostolic letter on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, John Paul II wrote: "To you, the politicians and statesmen, I would like once again to express my deep conviction that the worship of God always goes hand in hand with respect for man. Both of these attitudes make up the highest principle, which allows states and political blocs to overcome mutual contradictions. "[22]

With the weakening of Communism in the 1980's, ideas that had been repressed began to assert themselves. Against the background of human contempt implemented by neo-pagan Nazi totalitarianism and the atheistic materialism of Communism, it seemed to be important that on the threshold of the huge cemetery of the former Auschwitz camp a place of prayer would be created. Before the second pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Poland in 1983 the authorities allowed for the construction of churches. Cardinal Franciszek Macharski of the Archdiocese of Krakow wished to establish a monastery of Carmelite nuns to pray for the victims and for peace.[23] The monastery was established in an old building adjacent to the wall of the former Auschwitz 1 camp, near the death cell of St. Maximilian.


Quite unexpectedly for many Poles, suddenly from abroad, strong protests against the convent at Auschwitz were voiced from the Jewish side.[24] This came as a surprise and appeared at first to many as a continuation of the Nazi and communist struggle against Christianity and the aspirations of Polish independence.

The wound inflicted by Auschwitz proved to be deep and still open, affecting the identity of both parties, and the essence of Christian-Jewish relations.

The conflict demonstrated that whatever happens in Oswiecim in the context of the memory of Auschwitz spreads out to the whole world and especially to Christian-Jewish relations. Similarly, what is going on in the world has an impact on how people who visit the memorial site of Auschwitz look at it. That is why the Pope could not be indifferent to what happens in Auschwitz, even though it is far from Rome. We know that from his childhood the fate of the Jews was close to the Pope, and the memory of the Holocaust remained an important theme of his pontificate.[25]

During the Second Vatican Council in which Cardinal Wojtyla took part, the Catholic Church - under the influence of the tragedy of the Jewish people during World War II - fundamentally changed its attitude towards the Jews, which is expressed in the conciliar document Nostra Aetate, 1965.

John Paul II as Pope did a lot to continue and deepen the process of Christian-Jewish reconciliation. I give only one example here: In 1986, he visited the Synagogue of Rome, where he spoke his famous words "You are our dearly beloved brothers, and - you can say - our elder brothers.” This implied a religious relationship to the Jewish people. "Probing into its own mystery, the Church of Christ discovers the bond which links it with Judaism. The Jewish religion is not for our religion an external reality, but something internal." [26]

On many levels Christian-Jewish dialogue began in the West after the Second Vatican Council. In the Communist era the Church in Poland did not participate in this dialogue.

Under Communism the special Jewish dimension of the place Auschwitz-Birkenau was not spoken about, neither from the Communist nor from the Catholic side. In Poland, almost no one knew that more than 90% of those murdered were Jews.[27]

In 1986 a very difficult dialogue began in Geneva, Switzerland with talks between Jewish and Catholic representatives from different countries, among them Cardinals. At its conclusion, they jointly emphasized in the Declaration Zakhor - Remember, that "the lonely sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau are recognized today as symbols of the Final Solution, under which title the Nazis carried out the extermination (known as the Shoah) of six million Jews, one and a half million of whom were children, simply because they were Jews.” Everyone was invited to “bow our heads and, in the silence of our hearts, remember the Shoah. May our silent prayer help us today and tomorrow to better respect the rights of others, of all others, to life, liberty and dignity. Let us remember all of those murdered at Auschwitz and Birkenau — Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Russian prisoners of war". [28]

One year later a very difficult decision was made to move the Carmelite nuns to a newly built monastery a short distance away and not so close to the wall of the former camp. Pope John Paul II wrote to the nuns: "You came to Auschwitz in order to be love in the heart of the Church. Need one explain how much the Church's heart ought to be present in this very place, how much Christ's love is needed, that love with which He loved each person to the end. How much that love is needed here, where hate and contempt raged throughout entire years, gathering a harvest of destruction and death among people of so many nations?

Presently, in accord with the will of the Church, your community is to relocate to another place in Auschwitz. [...]

Auschwitz and all that is associated therewith as a tragic heritage of Europe and humanity remains the task of Carmel. The task which remains embraces all that the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp connotes in the memories of the nations: in the memory of the sons and daughters of Israel as well as all the vibrations of the camp in the experiences of Poles and in the history of our Fatherland.”[29] Moving "to another place in the same Auschwitz" is not resignation, but an expression of that mission, for which the nuns came here: to be witnesses "to that love with which Christ loved humankind to the end." The Pope stressed that this applies in particular to all that connects to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the memory of the sons and daughters of Israel, and in the memory of Poles.

At the same time the Catholic Centre for Education, Information, Encounter, Dialogue and Prayer was to be created.[30] John Paul II described its task in 1988 in Mauthausen in Austria, as follows:

“Among numerous initiatives that are being undertaken today in the spirit of the Council, are initiatives in Jewish-Christian dialogue, I would like to mention the Centre for Information, Education, Meeting and Prayer that is being prepared in Poland. It is to facilitate research on the Shoah and on the martyrdom of the Polish people and other European peoples at the time of National Socialism, as well as to help with the spiritual confrontation with these problems. One hopes that it will bear abundant fruit and also serve as an example for other nations.”[31]

The dispute over the Carmelite Convent in Auschwitz revealed the importance of the Jewish dimension of the place. The Pope during his first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979, when visiting Auschwitz had stopped at the inscription in Hebrew at the monument at Birkenau and said:

In particular I pause with you, dear participants in this encounter, before the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription awakens the memory of the People whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination. This People draws its origin from Abraham, our father in faith, as was expressed by Paul of Tarsus (Rom 4, 12). The very people that received from God the commandment "Thou shalt not kill", itself experienced in a special measure what is meant by killing. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference.”[32]

The Pope did everything within his power to make sure that the conflict did not become a reason for a deepening antagonism between Jews and Christians, but rather it would be a road to reconciliation.

In Poland referring to the tragedy of WWII which took place here, during a meeting with representatives of the Jewish community in Warsaw on June 14, 1987  he said: "Your threat was our threat. Our threat was not realized to the same extent and did not manage to accomplish so much. This terrible sacrifice you bore, you can say bore for others who also had to be exterminated. [...] you are now a great voice of warning for all humanity [...] I think that in this way you fulfil your special calling [...] in your name the Pope also raises  a voice of warning [...] "[33]

At the Wednesday audience in Rome September 26, 1990, during a lecture in the context of meditations on the Mother of God, John Paul II recalled the words of Nostra Aetate and said:

"There is still one nation, one special people: the people of the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, who are the heritage of the faith of Abraham. The Church in the Apostle Paul has the words about his descendants," To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenant, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ "(Romans 9: 4-5). Christ and the apostles. And you yourself, O virgin Mother, daughter of Zion. This nation lived with us for generations, arm in arm, on the same land, which became like a new homeland of its scattering. This nation experienced the cruel murder of millions of its sons and daughters. They were first branded with their particular sign.  Then they were forced into separate districts in ghettos, then transported to the gas chambers for death - only because they were children of this nation. Murderers did this on our land in order to dishonour it. You cannot defile the earth with the death of innocent victims. Through such death, the earth becomes a holy relic. The people who lived with us for many generations remained with us after this terrible death of millions of its sons and daughters. Together we await the Day of Judgment and the Resurrection."[34]

In all of these texts the brotherhood between the two nations and religions is emphasized, it is a summons to full mutual respect and sensitivity to the suffering of others. This is expressed also in the prayer of John Paul II for the Jewish people from the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw 11.06.1999:

“Hear our prayers for the Jewish People, whom you still consider dear because of their forefathers. [...] Support them, so that they may know love and respect from those who still do not understand the extent of their sufferings, and from those who out of concern and solidarity  share their pain of the wounds that have been inflicted on them. Remember  the new generations,  young people and children, so that they are constantly faithful to what is the special mystery of their vocation. ... "[35]

Edith Stein

In this process, which was also a search of Catholic identity in the face of Auschwitz, Edith Stein, Sister Benedicta of the Cross, played an important role. John Paul II beatified her in 1987, canonized in 1998, and in 1999 he declared her one of the Patrons of Europe. Coming from a German Jewish family, she became a prominent philosopher, was socially engaged, entered the Church and later became a Carmelite nun. She was killed in Auschwitz during the Holocaust because of her Jewish origins.

What does it mean that Edith Stein is a Patron saint of Europe? It means, when Catholics today are looking for their role in Europe, they should ask their Patrons for orientation. They therefore also have to ask Edith Stein, she who reminds them of Auschwitz. The memory of the Shoah became a part of modern European Catholic identity.

 In his homily during her canonization Pope JP II said: "From now on, as we celebrate the memory of this new saint, from year to year we must also remember the Shoah, that cruel plan to exterminate a people, a plan to which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters fell victim. May the Lord let his face shine upon them and grant them peace (cf. Nm 6:25f.).” [36]

 It is not therefore about the "Christianization of the memory of Auschwitz" in which there is no respect for non baptized Jews, as is often suspected, rather, it is in terms of respect for the Jewish victims from the perspective of Christian faith, hope and love.

In 1933, Edith Stein entered the Carmel of Cologne, where she takes the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1938, she wrote in a letter: "I must tell Mother (the Mother Superior of the monastery) that I took my religious name already as a postulant, I received it exactly as I had asked for. Under the cross I understood the suffering of the people of God which then was beginning. I thought that those who understand that this is the cross of Jesus, of Christ, must take it onto themselves in the name of the others. Today I know much better what it means to be married to God in the sign of the cross. However, the whole fullness you can never understand because it is mystery."[37]

When the Pope in 1999, declared Edith Stein a Patron of Europe, he wrote: "Her cry connects to the cry of all the victims of this terrible tragedy, but at the same time is united with the cry of Christ, who gave human suffering a mysterious and enduring fruitfulness. The image of her holiness will always be associated with the drama of her martyr's death, she suffered along with many others. It continues as a proclamation of the gospel of the cross. [...] To declare St. Edith Stein a Patron of Europe means to raise above the old continent a banner of respect, tolerance and openness, calling all people to mutual understanding and acceptance, regardless of ethnic, cultural and religious differences, and to try to build a truly fraternal society."[38]


Examination of Conscience

But in the difficult dialogue between Christians and Jews it was not only about a brotherhood of common destiny and mutual respect. The theme of Christian guilt with roots in a Christian anti-Jewish tradition constantly returned. It indirectly shared the responsibility for the tragedy that led to the Holocaust.

 In 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a plan was drawn up to publish a joint pastoral letter from the Bishops' Conferences of Germany and Poland.  However, this did not happen. Instead there were two letters written.[39] The Bishops did not want to give the impression that in Auschwitz Germans and Poles were in a similar role in their asking of forgiveness from the Jews. And rightly so because in Auschwitz the Poles were victims and not the perpetrators.

However, without a consideration of conscience there cannot be an adequate response to the challenge of Auschwitz. Already in 1979, the Pope said in Birkenau: "Yet another painful reckoning with the conscience of mankind."[40] In 1989, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, he wrote, "that the memory of the murderous war, which took place on the continent with a Christian tradition, calls us Catholics to an examination of conscience about the state of the evangelization of Europe".[41]

In 1994, in his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the Pope calls the Church to an examination of conscience, repentance and conversion: "When, therefore, approaching the end of the second millennium of Christianity, it is right that the Church be more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children , recalling all those times in the past, when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of giving witness to a life inspired by the values of faith, demonstrated to the world examples of thinking and acting, which were truly a source of counter-witness and scandal. "[42]

In 1998, the Vatican published the document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah", to which John Paul II in his Foreword wrote:

“On numerous occasions during my Pontificate I have recalled with a sense of deep sorrow the sufferings of the Jewish people during the Second World War. The crime which has become known as the Shoah remains an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close. As we prepare for the beginning of the Third Millennium of Christianity, the Church is aware that the joy of a Jubilee is above all the joy that is based on the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and neighbour. Therefore she encourages her sons and daughters to purify their hearts, through repentance of past errors and infidelities. She calls them to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our time."[43]

In the Jubilee Year 2000, in the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome during Lent, an important penitential liturgy was celebrated. Pope John Paul II prayed in words which later were written on a piece of paper and put by him into the former Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land:

God of our fathers,
you chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring your Name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened
by the behaviour of those
who in the course of history
have caused these children of yours to suffer,
and asking your forgiveness
we wish to commit ourselves
to genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant.

At the Yad Vashem Shoah Memorial in Jerusalem he said:

" As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.

The Church rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the Creator inherent in every human being.

In this place of solemn remembrance, I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people suffered in the 20th century will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews. Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather the mutual respect required of those who adore the one Creator and Lord, and look to Abraham as our common father in faith."[45]

The Mercy of God

Providence wished that near to Auschwitz, in Krakow's Lagiewniki, through the initiative of St. Faustina the message of Divine Mercy began to spread throughout the whole world. Divine Mercy is also a response to Auschwitz.

In 2002, during his last pilgrimage to Poland, Pope John Paul II consecrated the new Basilica in Lagiewniki to Divine Mercy and entrusted the world to Divine Mercy. In his homily he said:

"We wish to proclaim that there is no other source of hope for mankind apart from the mercy of God. […] On the one hand, the Holy Spirit enables us, through Christ’s Cross, to acknowledge sin, every sin, in the full dimension of evil which it contains and inwardly conceals. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit permits us, again through Christ’s Cross, to see sin in the light of the mysterium pietatis, that is, of the merciful and forgiving love of God. […] How greatly today’s world needs God’s mercy! In every continent, from the depth of human suffering, a cry for mercy seems to rise up. Where hatred and the thirst for revenge dominate, where war brings suffering and death to the innocent, there the grace of mercy is needed in order to settle human minds and hearts and to bring about peace. […] The fire of mercy needs to be passed on to the world. In the mercy of God the world will find peace and humanity will find happiness! […] May you be witnesses to mercy!"[46]

After Mass, he added stirring words: "At the end of this solemn liturgy, I desire to say that many of my personal memories are tied to this place. During the Nazi occupation, I was working in the nearby Solvay factory […] with the wooden shoes on my feet. They are the shoes that we used to wear then. How could one imagine, that one day that man with the wooden shoes would consecrate a Basilica of the Divine Mercy at Lagiewniki in Kraków."[47]


The memory of Auschwitz is a painful wound and it will remain so for many years. This wound should not destroy our faith in people and in God; therefore it was necessary to find a way to trust, reconciliation and a common responsibility for the future.  It has been a difficult road. It was the power of faith in the dignity of every human being, the trust in God's faithfulness to the covenant and in His mercy, the courage to overcome evil with good, that helped to pave the difficult roads. Of key importance here was the unique contribution of holy Pope John Paul II.

[1] First published in Polish: Manfred Deselaers, Jan Paweł II i Auschwitz. In: "Oblicza dialogu", praca zbiorowa, podsumowaniem I edycji projektu na rzecz dialogu międzyreligijnego i międzykulturowego. Wyd. Instytutu Dialogu Międzykulturowego im. Jana Pawła II w Krakowie, 2014. Translated into English by Sr. Mary O'Sullivan.

[2] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. [accessed 2014-08-22].

[3] John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Random House, New York, 1994.

[4] John Paul II, Dar i Tajemnica. Kraków 1996, pp. 34-39. Own translation.

[5] Karol Wojtyła / Jan Paweł II, Patron naszych trudnych czasów. Wypowiedzi o św. Maksymilianie. Wyd. Ojców Franciszkanów, Niepokalanów 1991, s. 20. [Patron of our difficult times. Statements about St. Maximilian] Ed. Franciscan Fathers, Niepokalanów 1991, p. 20.] Own translation.

[6] Ibid, p. 21. Own translation.

[7] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. [accessed 2014-08-27].

[8] Patron naszych trudnych czasów, p 21. Own translation.

[9] Ibid, p. 91. Own translation.

[10] Ibid, p. 48. Own translation.

[11] In 1979 the number of 4 Million victims was written on the memorial in Birkenau. After the end of Communism the number was corrected according to international research to “about one and a half million”.

[12]  John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. [accessed 2014-08-28].

[13] John Paul II, Address during a special audience with all compatriots who came to canonization. Rome, 11 October 1982. In:  Patron naszych trudnych czasów, pp. 206-207. Own translation.

[14] John Paul II, Encyclical REDEMPTOR hominis Nr. 10, quoting the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Const. Pastoral. on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, No. 22. [accessed 2014-08-28].

[15] Patron naszych trudnych czasów, p. 66. Own translation.

[16] Homily of the Holy Father John Paul II in Niepokalanów 18-06-1983. [Accessed 2014-07-10]   Own translation.

[17] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979.  [accessed 2014-09-10].

[18] See, for example Bernhard Vogel, Polen und Deutsche. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Polen: Warsaw 2007. Especially: Vom Papst aus Polen aus Deutschland zum Papst. Die Versöhnung zwischen Deutschland und Polen und die Vision Europas in der Perspektive von Johannes Paul II. und Benedikt XVI., pp. 31-42, and Der Heilige Maximilian Kolbe - Schutzpatron der Versöhnung, pp. 43-50.

[19] „Jetzt, nachdem ich durch das Brandenburger Tor gegangen bin, ist auch für mich der 2. Weltkrieg zu Ende!” Ibid, p. 31. Own translation.

[20] Ibid, p. 35. Own translation.

[21] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. 1979 [accessed 2014-09-10].

[22] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Rome, 27 August 1989. Own translation.

[23] Słowo Metropolity Krakowskiego do Duchowienstwa i Wiernych Archidiecezji Krakowskiej [Words from the Metropolitan See of Krakow to the clergy and faithful of the Archdiocese of Krakow] 22.10.1984. In: Auschwitz. Konflikty i Dialog. Pod red. Ks. M. Głowni i St. Wilkanowicza. Krakow 1998, s. 175. Own translation.

[24] See Peter Forecki, Od Shoah do strachu. Spory o polsko-żydowską przeszłość i pamięć w debatach publicznych [From the Shoah to fear. Disputes about Polish-Jewish history and memory in public debates], Publisher Poznan, Poznan 2010, p. 186.

[25] See Fr. Wojciech Szukalski, universal message resulting from the teaching of John Paul II on the Shoah. In: Dialogue at the threshold of Auschwitz. Volume 2, Perspectives theology after Auschwitz. Krakow-Auschwitz-Lublin 2010, pp. 147-205.

[27] In Auschwitz - Birkenau  about a million Jews were killed, 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti i Roma, 15,000 Soviet POWs and others. More about the number of victims can be found at

[28] Auschwitz. Konflikty i Dialog, p. 177.  Own translation.

[29] John Paul II, Letter to the Carmelite Sisters. [Italian; accessed 2015-02-10]. Own translation.

[30] Today, "Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim", see .

[31] From the speech of John Paul II in Mauthausen, Austria, 24.06.1988. In: "Auschwitz. Conflicts and dialogue", p. 182. Own translation.

[32] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. [accessed 2014-09-09].

[33] Żydzi i judaizm w dokumentach Kościoła i nauczaniu Jana Paweł II (1965-1989), [Jews and Judaism in the documents of the Church and the teaching of John Paul II (1965-1989)], developed by Fr. Waldemar Chrostowski and Fr. Richard Rubinkiewicz SDB, the Academy of Catholic Theology, Warsaw, 1990, p. 198. Own translation.

[34] ZNAK 490, Kraków 1996, p. 61.

[35] In: Weksler - Waszkinel, Romuald Jakub, Zgłębiając tajemnicę Kościoła [Exploring the mystery of the Church], published by WAM, Cracow, 2003, p 35. Own translation.

[36] Homily of Pope John Paul II delivered during Mass. Canonization of Edith Stein, 11.10.1998. [accessed 2015-02-10].

[37] Letter from 12.09.1938. In: Edith Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, p. 295. Trans. Josephine Koeppel OCD. ICS Publications, Washinton 1993.

[38] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter “Motu Propio” issued for the proclamation of St Brigid of Sweden, St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as patronesses of Europe, Rome 1.10.1999, Nr.9.

[39] Oświadczenie Komisji Episkopatu Polski do Dialogu z Judaizmem na 50 rocznicę wyzwolenia obozu zagłady Auschwitz- Birkenau w Oświęcimiu 27.01.1995.
Wort der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz aus Anlass des 50. Jahrestages der Befreiung des Vernichtungslagers Auschwitz, 27.01.1995.

[40] John Paul II, Homily at the former concentration camp Auschwitz - Birkenau, 07.06.1979. [accessed 2014-09-12].

[41] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Rome, 27 August 1989, No. 12. Own translation.

[43] John Paul II Apostolic Letter, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah [accessed 2014-08-19].

[45] Speech by John Paul II during his visit to Yad Vashem 23.03.2000. [accessed 2014-08-20].