Jewish World Review / July 22, 1998 / 28 Tamuz, 5758 Holocaust scene

A lesson about peace ...
in Auschwitz

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

Auschwitz, Poland --- It's not easy sleeping in Auschwitz. Even less so, when its only hotel sits alongside railroad tracks and the night weeps with the sound of trains coming and going.

Yet how fitting that the world's most evil place be chosen the site for a recent conference on religion, peace and violence.

Sponsored by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, the unique three day colloquium brought together religious leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Among them: Baltimore's William H. Cardinal Keeler; New York's Rabbi Arthur Schneier, and Chicago's Imam W. Deen Mohammed, son of American Muslim trail blazer Elijah Mohammed.

Cynics, myself included, were at first incredulous. Religion, peace, violence? What's there to say? How many millions have been murdered in religion's name! --- particularly in this crime-stained century? How many "religious leaders" have selectively quoted holy texts to justify shedding blood? And how many times has organized religion remained silent during violence, as it did when Auschwitz was hell on earth.

Yet precisely because of religion's key role, its message is so vital to peace. And while this was often an exercise in preaching to the converted, the dialogue was in itself a vital force for positive change. I found the presence of a large contingent of Islamic leaders particularly heartening. Not only because we too often associate radical Islam with violence, but because peace is a subject for all humanity, not just the usual Judeo-Christian suspects. How much more so when the evil still present in today's world demonstrates, as speaker Sam Pisar put it, that "the womb that carried the dreadful beast is still fertile.

How to render it sterile, and pay homage to those it consumed? Part of the answer lies less than an hour away from Auschwitz in medieval Krakow. In pre-war years one out of four Krakowers were Jews; today only 200, mostly elderly survive as an organized community. Yet a curious revival is taking place.

In the old Kazimierz district, ancient synagogues are being restored, restaurants offer "Jewish cuisine," albeit most aren't kosher, and cafes feature Klezmer musicians.There's even an annual city wide Jewish culture festival and the impressive Center for Jewish Culture, run by Jagiellonian University's Dr Joachim Russek, Polish non-Jews are introduced to the wealth of creativity that was destroyed when 90 percent of Poland's three million Jews became Holocaust victims. Lectures, concerts, and exhibits take place in what was a 19th century Jewish prayer house. "The Lesson of Auschwitz," says Russek, "can be understood only if we know about the richness of Jewish life before the Holocaust."

Even for Jews there is a special sense of rebirth on this and other bloodstained soils across Eastern Europe. Thanks to the pan-European Ronald Lauder Foundation funded by the New York cosmetics heir, Rabbi Sacha Pecaric, a Yugoslav born, US trained powerhouse and his artist wife host an open house in Krakow every Friday night. It's an old fashioned Shabbes dinner replete with chicken soup, prayer and song. Among those attending the night I was there: a score of Poles who are just now discovering Jewish roots long hidden for fear of anti-Semitism. And as all joined in a song for peace, I was reminded of the words spoken at the Auschwitz conference by France's Rene Samuel Sirat, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of Europe: "There is no such thing as holy war... Only peace is holy, for peace is the name of G-d.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.


7/15/98:What Hitler tried todestroy, the 'Net helped put back together
7/8/98: Love -- and leave -- thy neighbor
4/9/98: The US Navy's two faced Pollard policy
4/2/98: A breakthrough in Lebanon?
3/30/98: Full rights for all Israelis?
2/27/98: America's Schindler
1/30/98: A last chance for the Mideast?
1/11/98: The Moment for Restitution Has Arrived

©1998, NY Daily News