Sample text for Constantine's sword : the church and the Jews : a history / James Carroll.

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Counter Sign of Folly

The cross is made of stout beams, an intersection of railroad ties.
It stands in a field of weeds that slopes down from the road. The
field is abutted on one side by the old theater, where gas canisters
were stored, also looted gold; where, much later, Carmelite nuns
accomplished cloistered works of expiation, sparking fury; and where,
now, a municipal archive is housed. On another side, the field runs
up against the brick wall, the eastern limit of the main camp.
At more than twenty feet, the cross nearly matches the height
of the wall, although not the wall"s rusted thistle of barbed wire.
Immediately beyond are the camp barracks, the peaked roofs visible
against the gray morning sky. The nearest building, close enough to
hit with a stone thrown from the foot of the cross, is Barracks 13,
also known as the death bunker or the starvation bunker. In one of
its cells the Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe was martyred. He is
now a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Kolbe is the reason for
this cross.
In 1979, Karol Wojtyla came home to nearby Kraków as Pope
John Paul II. He celebrated Mass in an open field for a million of
his countrymen, and on the makeshift altar this same cross had been
mounted - hence its size, large enough to prompt obeisance from the
farthest member of the throng. Visiting the death camp, the pope
prayed for and to Father Kolbe, who had voluntarily taken the place
of a fellow inmate in the death bunker. The pope prayed for and to
Edith Stein, the convert who had also died in the camp, and whom he
would declare a Catholic saint in 1998. She was a Carmelite nun known
as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, but the Nazis murdered her
for being a Jew. In his sermon that day, the pope called Auschwitz
the "Golgotha of the modern world."1 As he had at other times, John
Paul II expressed the wish that a place of prayer and penance could
be built at the site of the death camp to honor the Catholic martyrs
and to atone for the murders: at Auschwitz and its subcamp, Birkenau,
the Nazis killed perhaps as many as a quarter of a million non-Jewish
Poles and something like a million and a half Jews. Fulfilling the
pontiff"s hope, a group of Carmelite nuns moved into the old theater
in the autumn of 1984. They intended especially to offer prayers in
memory of their sister Teresa Benedicta. The mother superior of this
group was herself named Teresa.2
The Carmelite presence at the gate of Auschwitz was
immediately protested by leaders of Jewish groups throughout Europe
and in the United States and Israel. "Stop praying for the Jews who
were killed in the Shoah," one group pleaded. "Let them rest in peace
as Jews."3 Jewish protesters invaded the grounds of the convent,
carrying banners that said, "Leave Our Dead Alone!" and "Do Not
Christianize Auschwitz and Shoah!"4 The protesters registered
complaints about Father Kolbe, who before his arrest had been the
publisher of a journal that had printed antisemitic articles, and
about Edith Stein, whose conversion could only look to Jews like
Polish Catholics from the nearby towns of Oswiecim and
Birkenau rallied to the nuns"defense. Fights broke out. "One More
Horror at Auschwitz," read a headline in a British paper. "They
crucified our God," a boy screamed during one demonstration. "They
killed Jesus."5 At one point the nuns" supporters arrived carrying
the stout wooden cross from the papal altar in Kraków. They planted
the cross in the field next to the old theater. However piously
intended, it could seem a stark act of Christian sovereignty, a
sacrilege. Eventually John Paul II intervened in the dispute,
offering to fund a new convent building for the Carmelites a few
hundred yards away. He prevailed on the nuns to move. The sisters did
so in 1994. In the compromise that was worked out, Jewish leaders in
turn accepted that the cross would remain in the field near the wall,
but only temporarily.
In early 1998, the Polish government, perhaps responding to
pressure from American senators friendly to Jews - pressure exerted
just prior to the U.S. Senate"s vote on Poland"s admission to NATO -
announced that the cross, like the convent before it, would be
removed. "The cross overlooks the camp, which is unacceptable for
Orthodox Jews," a Polish official said, "because it imposes Christian
symbols." But a month later, before the removal had occurred,
Poland"s Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, insisted that
the cross should remain where it was. Jewish leaders again protested,
prompting an expression of concern from the Vatican. At Auschwitz
itself, Polish Catholics began to plant new crosses, appropriate to a
cemetery, making the point that Catholics, too, died at the camp. The
dispute raged throughout 1998, with escalations even to the point of
homemade explosive devices being planted in the field by radical
Catholics. More than one hundred small crosses were put in the
ground. Finally, in 1999, in an odd "compromise," the Polish
parliament passed a law requiring the removal of the smaller crosses
but making the papal cross permanent. The small crosses were taken
away by Polish officials, but the large cross remains at Auschwitz to
this day.
What does the cross of Jesus Christ mean at such a place?
What does it mean to Jews? What does it mean to Christians? Or to
Polish Catholics? Or to those for whom religious symbols are empty?
What does the cross there signal about our understanding of the past?
And what of the future? If Auschwitz has become a sacred center of
Jewish identity, what does the cross there imply about the relations
between Jews and Christians, and between Judaism and Christianity?
These questions were in my mind one November morning as I stood alone
before that cross.
I thought of the pope"s designation of this place as
Golgotha, and I recognized the ancient Christian impulse to associate
extreme evil with the fate of Jesus, precisely as a way of refusing
to be defeated by that evil. At the Golgotha of the crucifixion,
death became the necessary mode of transcendence, first for Jesus and
then, as Christians believe, for all. But I also thought of that
banner, "Do Not Christianize Auschwitz and Shoah!" Can mechanized
mass murder be a mode of transcendence? I could imagine the narrowed
eyes of a Jewish protester as he detected in prayers offered before
the cross at Auschwitz echoes of the old refrain "Jews out!" - only
now was it Jewish anguish that was expected to yield before Christian
hope? If Auschwitz must stand for Jews as the abyss in which meaning
itself died, what happens when Auschwitz becomes the sanctuary of
someone else"s recovered piety?
Christians are not the only ones who have shown themselves
ready to use the memory of the six million to advance an ideology:
Orthodox Jews can see a punishment for secularism; Zionists can see
an organizing rationale for the state of Israel; opponents of "land
for peace" can see a justification for a permanent garrison
mentality.6 The "memorialists," who have raised the new temples of
Holocaust museums and memorials in the cities of the West, have
anointed memory itself as the deepest source of meaning. The legend
engraved at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the first Holocaust memorial,
reads, "Forgetfulness is the way to exile. Remembrance is the way to
The God who led a people out of Egypt is, of course, a
redeeming God, but at Auschwitz the question must have become, Are
God"s saving acts only in the past? Some formerly religious Jews saw
in the Holocaust only the absence of God, and moved on without faith.
Other Jews went from atheism to the faith of Job, an affirmation
devoid of piety. There are the Jewish voices, from Elie Wiesel to
Richard Rubenstein to Emil Fackenheim, who reject the idea that
suffering such as Jews underwent in the death camps - a million
children murdered - can be meaningful. To value those deaths in such
a way is to diminish their horror. And there are the voices of
Emmanuel Levinas,7 who speaks of the Holocaust as a "tumor in the
memory,"8 and Theodor Adorno, who, in a famous essay, argued that the
entire enterprise of education must change after the
Holocaust.9 "Auschwitz negates all systems, opposes all doctrines,"
Wiesel argues. "They cannot but diminish the experience which lies
beyond our reach."10 These and other figures insist that the
Holocaust shatters all previous categories of meaning, certainly
including Christian categories. But isn"t the state of being
shattered, once reflected upon and articulated, itself a category?
Does the very act of thinking about the Holocaust, in other words,
diminish its horror by refusing to treat it as unthinkable? The more
directly one faces the mystery of the Holocaust, the more elusive it
Perhaps the voice a troubled Christian most needs to hear is
that of the Jew who says the Holocaust must be made to teach
nothing. "What consequences, then, are to be drawn from the
Holocaust?" asks the theologian Jacob Neusner. "I argue that none are
to be drawn, none for Jewish theology and none for the life of Jews
with one another, which were not there before 1933. Jewish
theologians do no good service to believers when they claim
that "Auschwitz" denotes a turning point."11 That voice is useful
because if Jewish responses to the Holocaust, which range from piety
to nihilism, are complex and multifaceted, Christian interpretations
of the near elimination of Jews from Europe, however respectfully put
forth, must inevitably be even more problematic. The cross signifies
the problem: When suffering is seen to serve a universal plan of
salvation, its particular character as tragic and evil is always
diminished.12 The meaningless can be made to shimmer with an
eschatological hope, and at Auschwitz this can seem like blasphemy.
But what about an effort less ambitious than the search for
meaning or the imposition of theology? What if the cross at Auschwitz
is an object before which Christians only want to kneel and pray?
And, fully aware of what happened there, what if we Christians want
to pray for Jews? Why does that offend? How can prayers for the dead
be a bad thing? But what if such prayers, offered with good
intentions, effectively evangelize the dead? What if they imply that
the Jews who died at Auschwitz are to be ushered into the presence of
God by the Jesus whom they rejected? Are Jews then expected to see at
last the truth to which, all their lives, they had been blind? Seeing
that truth in the beatific vision, are they then to bow down before
Jesus as Messiah in an act of postmortem conversion? Shall the
afterlife thus be judenrein too? Elie Wiesel tells "a joke which is
not funny." It concerns an SS officer whose torment of a Jew
consisted in his pretending to shoot the Jew dead, firing a blank,
while simultaneously knocking him unconscious. When the Jew regained
consciousness, the Nazi told him, "You are dead, but you don"t know
it. You think that you escaped us? We are your masters, even in the
other world." Wiesel comments, "What the Germans wanted to do to the
Jewish people was to substitute themselves for the Jewish God."13
Here is the question a Christian must ask: Does our assumption about
the redemptive meaning of suffering, tied to the triumph of Jesus
Christ and applied to the Shoah, inevitably turn every effort to
atone for the crimes of the Holocaust into a claim to be the masters
of Jews in the other world?
Once, for Christians to speak among ourselves about the
murder of the six million as a kind of crucifixion would have seemed
an epiphany of compassion, paying the Jews the highest tribute, as if
the remnant of Israel had at last become, in this way, the Body of
Christ. Yet such spiritualizing can appear to do what should have
been impossible, which is to make the evil worse: the elimination of
Jewishness from the place where Jews were eliminated. The Body of
Christ? If Jesus had been bodily at Auschwitz, as protesting Jews
insisted, he would have died an anonymous victim with a number on his
arm, that"s all. And he"d have done so not as the Son of God, not as
the redeemer of humankind, not as the Jewish Messiah, but simply as a
Jew. And in a twist of history folding back on itself, his crime
would have been tied to the cross - "He killed our God!" That
indictment, first brought as an explicit charge of deicide as early
as the second century by a bishop, Melito of Sardis,14 was officially
quashed by the bishops of the Second Vatican Council in 1965,15 yet
it remains the ground of all Jew hatred. That, at bottom, is why it
is inconceivable that any Jew should look with equanimity on a cross
at Auschwitz, and why no Christian should be able to behold it there
as anything but a blow to conscience. "Though there were other social
and economic conditions which were necessary before the theological
antecedents of antisemitism could be turned into the death camps of
our times," the Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein has
written, "only the terrible accusation, known and taught to every
Christian in earliest childhood, that the Jews are the killers of the
Christ can account for the depth and persistence of this supreme

I am certain that the first time I would have heard the word "Jew"
was from the pulpit of St. Mary"s Church in Alexandria, Virginia,
where I lived as a child. My father was an Air Force general working
at the Pentagon, but we made our family life in the Old South river
port down the Potomac, where the Catholic parish was the oldest in
Virginia. It would have surely been one Holy Week when I was six or
seven that I heard the mythic words proclaimed: "The Jews cried out
with one voice, "Crucify him!"" But the first remembered time I heard
the word "Jew" was from a boy who lived next door. Let"s call him
Peter Seligman. The hint of something in his last name had registered
with me not at all.
Peter and I were probably about ten years old. Though he went
to the local public school - the Protestant school, to me - Peter was
then my best friend. I loved running with him through the woods just
south of Alexandria, slapping our thighs as if we rode in the
cavalry - a word I was already confusing with Calvary - dodging
branches, leaping the narrow creek that was our constant point of
reference. I remember one summer day coming upon an overgrown stone
wall surrounded by tall trees and choked by briars, the vestige of a
former pasture or farmer"s field. The aura of a lost past drew us,
and when Peter announced solemnly, "I bet this was built by slaves,"
I stepped back. A door in my brain snapped open, and whenever I think
of slavery, I think of that wall.
Perhaps it was the same wall that inspired a game we used to
play, the two of us betraying our northern origins - I was born in
Chicago; the Seligmans seemed, perhaps in stereotype, to be New
Yorkers - by pretending to be Mosby"s Rangers. We called ourselves
Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson. I see now the shared loneliness in
our romping fantasy, because the other boys with whom we might have
played were native Virginians, defensive heirs of a rural culture
that was being turned into suburb before their eyes, not only by
outsiders, but by the ancient enemy - us. The other boys had shunned
me and Peter as Yankees, which perhaps accounts for our rather
desperate play at being not just Johnny Rebs but true Confederate
Sometimes our hard rides through the woods took us to Gum
Springs, a shantytown with dusty, unpaved streets where Negroes
lived, the hired laborers and croppers whom we often saw doing menial
chores for the white contractors of the new subdivisions. In Gum
Springs we saw black people with each other. Once - it must have been
a Sunday - Peter and I crept up a deserted street to a small white-
steepled church. We listened to the congregation singing hymns,
glimpsing the men"s dark suits and ties, the ladies" hats, the
uplifted brown faces. When a deacon looked our way, we turned and ran.
After that, reciting the Lord"s Prayer with its confession of
the sin of "trespass," I thought of Gum Springs. Even now, the image
of its shacks and dirt streets stabs me with guilt. Gum Springs,
teaching me that I am white, laid bare another meaning of Mosby"s
raids. I associate this first felt recognition of anti-black racism
with Peter, my fellow would-be Reb, my fellow crypto-Yankee, my
fellow white, my friend. Rarely would I share a sense of so many
levels of complexity with another. But then Peter forced a next
recognition, and it changed everything.
Within a year or two of our move to Alexandria, my father, an
avid golfer, was elected to membership in the Belle Haven Country
Club, an old Virginia enclave a mile or two up Fort Hunt Road from
where we lived. As an Irish Catholic carpetbagger, Dad would have
been decidedly unclubbable, but this was Red Scare time, and as head
of Air Force counterintelligence, he was a spymaster with profile. I
took the "privilege" entirely for granted, but at Belle Haven, too, I
sensed the difference between me and the sons and daughters of the
first families of Virginia. So one day I asked Peter why he and his
parents never came to the swimming pool at Belle Haven.
"We don"t go there," he said simply.
"Why not?"
"Because it"s a club, and we"re Jews."
I do not recall what, if anything, the word "Jews" meant to
me, but "club" - Peter and I were a club of two - seemed only
friendly. I pushed, saying that Belle Haven was fun, that we could go
there on our bikes.
Peter explained calmly what he knew, and what I had yet to
admit: "Jewish" was a synonym for unwelcome. "Unwelcome," he could
have said, "in this case by you." I was a notorious blusher, and I
blushed then, I am sure.
"No big deal," he said, but I saw for the first time that
Peter and I were on opposite sides of a kind of color line. I took
for granted that Negroes were unwelcome at Belle Haven, except as
caddies. But Jews?
"No big deal" meant, We"re not discussing this further. Which
was fine with me.
Later, I asked my mother, and she explained that the
Seligmans" being Jewish meant they did not believe what we believed.
About Jesus, I knew at once. And those Holy Week readings from the
pulpit at St. Mary"s must have come back to me: This has to do with
Jesus and what they did to him. That easily, I was brought into the
sanctuary of the Church"s core idea, even without removing my hat.
My mother added a phrase that served her as standard
punctuation. "Live and let live," she said with a shrug. "The
Seligmans are good people." Much later, I would understand the slogan
and my mother"s coda as her own private rejection of the then
reigning Catholic ethos of "Outside the Church there is no
salvation," but to me that day her reaction seemed dismissive. She
had efficiently sidestepped the fear I had that my one friendship in
that alien territory had somehow been put at risk. Indeed, my belated
recognition of the Seligmans" Jewishness in the context of their
exclusion - Jewish means unwelcome - accounted for why my and Peter"s
parents had extended to each other nothing beyond a minimal
neighborliness. If the Seligmans were unwelcome at Belle Haven, they
were just as unwelcome in our house. It would take many years before
I began to understand the deadly effect that this introduction to
Jewishness had on me. Even as I set myself against antisemitism,17
this essentially negative framing would condemn me to think of Jews
as candidates for rejection. Although I self-consciously refused to
reject Jews, I was still defining them by my refusal. Whether I am
capable of allowing Jews to define themselves in purely positive
terms, with no reference to a dominant Christian culture, whether
anti- or philosemitic, remains an open question. That, in turn,
underscores "the depth and persistence," in Rubenstein"s phrase, "of
this supreme hatred." How could hatred have stood in any way between
Peter and me? Yet now I see that it did.

Even when the cross of Jesus Christ is planted at Auschwitz as a sign
of Christian atonement for that hatred, and not of anti-Jewish
accusation, the problem remains. By associating the Jewish dead with
a Christian notion of redemption, are the desperate and despised
victims of the Nazis thus transformed into martyrs whose fate could
seem not only meaningful but privileged? What Jew would not be
suspicious of a Christian impulse to introduce that category,
martyrdom, into the story of the genocide? Jews as figures of
suffering - negation, denial, hatred, guilt - are at the center of
this long history, although always, until now, their suffering was
proof of God"s rejection of them. Is Jewish suffering now to be taken
as a sign of God"s approval? Golgotha of the modern world18 - does
that mean real Jews have replaced Jesus as the sacrificial offering,
their deaths as the source of universal salvation? Does this Jew-
friendly soteriology turn full circle into a new rationale for a
Final Solution?
Uneasiness with such associations has prompted some Jews to
reject the very word "holocaust" as applied to the genocide, since in
Greek it means "burnt offering." The notion that God would accept
such an offering is deeply troubling.19 When the genocide is instead
referred to as the Shoah, a Hebrew word meaning "catastrophe," a wall
is being erected against the consolations and insults of a
redemptive, sacrificial theology of salvation. Shoah, in its biblical
usage, points to the absence of God"s creative hovering, the opposite
of which is rendered as "ruach." Ruach is the breath of God, which in
Genesis drew order out of chaos. Shoah is its undoing.20
Such subtleties of terminology were not on my mind when I
went to Auschwitz as a writer working on a magazine article. I am a
novelist and an essayist, and in presuming to relate a history that
culminates at the cross at Auschwitz, I do so with an eye to details
and connections that a historian might omit or that a scholar might
dismiss. I am looking for turns in the story in which one impulse
overrode another, one character reversed the action of another, all
with unanticipated, ever-graver consequences. And if I am a
professional writer, it is not irrelevant to my purpose that I am an
amateur Catholic - a Catholic, that is, holding to faith out of love.
Yet love for the Church can look like grief, even anger.
Nevertheless, my intensity of feeling is itself what has brought me
here. So my life as a storyteller and my faith as a Catholic qualify
me to detect essential matters in this history that a more detached,
academic examination, whatever its virtues, might miss.
Yet in coming to Auschwitz, I knew enough to be suspicious of
emotional intensity, as if what mattered here were the reactions of a
visitor. So I had summoned detachment of another kind. In coming to
the death camp, I had resolved to guard against conditioned
responses, even as I felt them: the numbness, the choked-back grief,
the supreme sentimentality of a self-justifying Catholic guilt. I had
visited the barracks, the ovens, the naked railway platform, the
stark field of chimneys, more or less in control of my reactions. But
before the cross something else took over. Even as I knew to guard
against the impulse to "Christianize the Holocaust," I was doing it -
by looking into this abyss through the lens of a faith that has the
cross embedded in it like a sighting device. Perhaps I was
Christianizing the Holocaust by instinctively turning it into an
occasion of Christian repentance. The Shoah throws many things into
relief - the human capacity for depravity, the cost of ethnic
absolutism, the final inadequacy both of religious language and of
silence. But it also highlights the imprisonment of even well-meaning
Christians inside the categories with which we approach death and
sin. Christian faith can seem to triumph over every evil except
Christian triumphalism. When I found myself standing at the foot of
that cross, on the transforming edge of a contemporary Golgotha, I
knew just what the pope meant when he evoked that image. Yet I
reacted as I imagine a Jew might have. The cross here was simply
Even so, perhaps I was just another Christian presuming to
supply a Jewish reaction. But perhaps not. Because of the insistence
of Jewish voices - protesters at the cross at Auschwitz and Jewish
thinkers who have claimed a preemptive right to interpret the
Holocaust in terms consistent with Jewish tradition - the old
Christian habit of seeing "the jews"21 as a scrim on which to project
Christian meanings no longer goes unchallenged. I love the cross, the
sign of my faith, yet finally the sight of it here made me, in the
words of the spiritual, tremble, tremble, tremble. Because of a
resounding Jewish response, I saw the holy object as if it were a
chimney. But also, Christian that I am, I saw it through the eyes of
the man I have always been. The primordial evil of Auschwitz has now
been compounded by the camp"s new character as a flashpoint between
Catholics and Jews. So the ancient Christian symbol here, despite my
knowledge that it was wrong, was a revelation. I was seeing the cross
in its full and awful truth for the first time.

Copyright © 2001 by James Carroll

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Christianity and antisemitism History, Catholic Church Relations Judaism, Judaism Relations Catholic Church