Charles Nailen/The Hoya Chair for the Holocaust Studies at Florida Atlantic University Alan Burger discusses Jewish-Catholic understanding.

Georgetown University hosted a symposium to raise new perspectives on the Jewish-Catholic dialogue on Tuesday. Discussion revolved around the large Catholic cross that was erected on the convent grounds adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, one of the most controversial issues on the forefront of Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The issue of religious conflict was examined through the context of history, as the discussion in Copley Formal Lounge gradually shifted its focus to the history and depth of Jewish-Christian tension than with the subject at hand.

Dr. Alan Burger, chair for Holocaust Studies at Florida Atlantic University, served as the featured speaker for the symposium that honored former president of Georgetown University, the late Royden B. Davis, S.J. “Before both sides can have a dialogue over the issue [of the cross outside Auschwitz], we have to re-examine the meaning of memory,” Burger said. “But even here we meet our first obstacle. The Jewish and Catholic traditions hold memory in differing regards.”

Burger opened the symposium by drawing immediate attention to the tensions surrounding Jewish-Catholic understanding; other panelists took his lead.

“Now, there’s a conflict between people wanting to do good and what memory means in this context. Some memories are burdens, some memories are hurts, others are treacherous, still others are murderous,” he said. “As humans we must work through memories with these complexities in mind.”

Much of the unfolding debate from the Jewish panel pointed to the lack of reverence of simply attaching a religious symbol to a still very sensitive subject, like the Holocaust, and calling it a tribute.

The cross in question was erected by the Polish Carmelite convent next to the camp to honor the 48 Polish-Catholics who were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1941. Burger explained that many within the Jewish community saw this action as belittling the sacred history that the “shoah,” or Holocaust, has with in religion. Others saw it as the Church’s blatant attempt to Christianize the Holocaust.

In the early 1990s, local boy scouts saw themselves as alleviating the situation by paying tribute to both Jews and Christians; they placed hundreds of “baby crosses” and Jewish stars within the fenced property of Auschwitz. As a symbolic gesture, the proportions of crosses to stars was astronomically different from the actually proportions of Christians and Jews killed at Auschwitz. Burger mentioned, “What we find here in Auschwitz has become a kind of martyrdom contest.”

Each panelist, in turn, highlighted the various failures of Jews and Catholics to come to a peaceful understanding of the Auschwitz issue.

David Patterson, Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Memphis, pointed out that, perhaps, in our pluralistic society, different religions are too eager to find common themes and attributes with other groups. Perhaps the attitude is so concerned with similarities that groups forget that what prompted interfaith problem is difference. “Jewish-Catholic dialogue requires difference. We need to respect difference, and don’t have to pretend we are the same. Jews and Christians just don’t think in same manner about God. We have different notions of redemption, different notions of prayer. I don’t think we should pray together,” he said. “It’s no offense to Christians. We just need to know to other tradition before dialogue is even possible.”

In the first gesture of concordance, the three Jewish and two Catholic panelists nodded in agreement. They then joked about the “10 books of Christianity every Jew should read,” and vice versa.

In juxtaposition to the almost accusative debate over the Auschwitz issue, the final few minutes of discussion were toned with optimism. Rev. John Pawlikowski, a professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union, thoughtfully criticized the “bad mistakes” that the Church has made in response to, and in some cases lack of response to, post-Holocaust inter-faith relations.

“What we can celebrate is, despite great tension and controversy, both sides have not let dialogue collapse altogether. With so much frustration it is so easy to just throw in the towel on Jewish-Catholic debate. People on both sides refuse to leave the room. That common will power is what will encourage Catholics and Jews through this.”

Keynote speaker Burger has written numerous books and over 80 articles concerning contemporary Jewish dialogue. He is co-editor of the recent book The Continuing Agony: From the Carmelite Convent to the Crosses at Auschwitz.

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