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Jewish Journal

Dennis Prager’s false debate

by Michael Berenbaum

September 22, 2010 | 1:27 pm

A convent stands 1,500 feet from Auschwitz, the same distance that the cultural center would be from Ground Zero.

A convent stands 1,500 feet from Auschwitz, the same distance that the cultural center would be from Ground Zero.

Two weeks ago, The Jewish Journal published a column by Dennis Prager titled “A Question for ‘Progressive’ Jews Who Support the Ground Zero Mosque.” In it, he argued that there are similarities between plans to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in Manhattan and a 1984 plan to build a convent at Auschwitz to which Jews strongly objected. The Journal received many letters and comments in response to Berenbaum’s column (see below). We present here leading Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum’s response to Prager.  Click here to read Prager’s response to Berenbaum.


I am not sure whether I qualify as a progressive, but I may know something about Auschwitz and its controversies and also about museums and their task of memorialization. So permit me to respond to Dennis Prager.

Why is the Auschwitz Convent controversy different than the debate surrounding the Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero, which is in reality two blocks away from Ground Zero?

Let us be specific, because the question is falsely polemical.

Prager assuredly knows — but his readers may not know — that Auschwitz was actually three camps in one:

Auschwitz I was a concentration camp; Auschwitz II was the death camp known as Birkenau; and Auschwitz III, also known as Buna Monowitz, was a work camp.

For precision’s sake, let us recall that Auschwitz III was actually 50 subcamps that housed two types of prisoner workers: forced laborers, primarily non-Jews from many different European countries, and slave laborers, overwhelmingly Jews who were selected to work when they arrived at Birkenau and consequently worked until they were no longer capable of working. After these Jews could no longer work, they were sent over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the death camp, where they were gassed along with arriving Jews who were not deemed capable of working or whose work was not required. Their living conditions were different and their fate was death — immediate or deferred.

Auschwitz I was the site of Polish — Polish Christian — victimization. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is the death camp, the site at which some 1.1 million Jews — men, women and children — were systematically slaughtered alongside some 20,000 Roma and Sinti, pejoratively known as Gypsies.

For 50 years under communism, there was a deliberate and systematic attempt to obscure, if not to erase, the memory of the victims of Birkenau as Jews. The remnant of that effort remains in place even 20 years after the dramatic change of regimes and the significant efforts of the Polish government and directors of the Auschwitz Memorial to change the character of the place and be far more historically accurate.

A visitor to Auschwitz I today will encounter national exhibitions of several countries — Belgium and France, Italy and Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia among them — yet even after the very helpful changes of the post-communist era, these barracks convey the false impression that the nationals of these countries were murdered because they were French or Czech, Dutch or Norwegian, and not because they were Jews. The Jewish experience at Auschwitz I was segregated — ghettoized — to the Jewish Pavilion, Block 27, which during the communist era was more often closed than open to the public and will soon be replaced by another exhibition, because the current exhibition is deemed even by its admirers to be poor and hopelessly outdated.


For a generation, there was barely a mention of Jews at the memorial in Birkenau, even though Auschwitz II remains the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. This situation was rectified over the past two decades. But still today, the most powerful artifacts housed at Auschwitz I, including hair, the soup bowls, the tallisim, false teeth, eyeglasses, prostheses, suitcases and even the extraordinary model of Crematoria B II of Birkenau, were all taken from Birkenau and displayed in Auschwitz I as if they were found there, as if the killing occurred there, and as if they applied to all prisoners rather than overwhelmingly to Jews. The Stobierski model of Crematoria B II is shown in the upper floor of a barracks rather than adjacent to the actual destroyed crematoria where the visitor must rely upon a sign to understand what happened at that site.

Even the pavilion recently dedicated to the Roma and Sinti was constructed in Auschwitz I, though the Gypsy camp was located in Birkenau just adjacent to the Ramp.

Because what visitors see is so powerful and what they see conveys a false impression, ordinary visitors do not grasp the differences between Auschwitz I and Birkenau, despite the efforts of well-trained guides to tell them otherwise. While 1.3 million people visited Auschwitz I last year, the number of visitors to Birkenau is at best 20 percent of that number.

So let me answer Prager:

There is a German peace center near the Auschwitz camp at roughly the same distance that the cultural center will be built from Ground Zero. It has been in place for decades without a murmur from the Jewish community. In fact, Jewish groups use the center, sleep there, study there, convene there and eat there. Kosher food will be served on request.

There is a Catholic cultural center, built under the leadership of the late, much-revered Pope John Paul II, situated roughly the same distance that the Islamic cultural center will be built from Ground Zero. Jewish groups sleep there, study there, meet there and eat there. Kosher food is also served there on request.

There is a Roman Catholic convent relocated from just 10 yards away from Birkenau’s fence, not two city blocks, to roughly the same distance as the cultural center will be built from Ground Zero.

Why did Jews oppose the convent?

Because they feared with good reason that some Poles, together with some support from elements within the Roman Catholic Church, especially within the powerful Polish church, were determined to de-Judaize the murders at Birkenau. Communist historians and Polish nationalists falsely claimed that 4 million people were killed at Auschwitz — 2 million Jews and 2 million Poles.

Because they did not differentiate between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. They did not know that the Poles are fully justified in regarding Auschwitz I as a site of Polish — Polish Christian — martyrdom. So when the convent was described as a convent at Auschwitz, they reacted with outrage. As a talk-show host, Prager knows that calling something the mosque at Ground Zero is absolutely different than speaking accurately of an Islamic cultural center a couple of blocks away.

The memorial at Ground Zero is being built by a wonderful team of museum builders led by my distinguished former colleague Alice Greenwald and with the participation of a design team that includes colleagues and former students such as Clifford Chanin and David Layman. They will determine the content of the memorial and help shape the experience of the visitor at Ground Zero. I trust them completely. They are skilled, sensitive and wise.

Visitors to Ground Zero will learn who was lost, who perpetrated the crime and why, who came to the rescue of the survivors, and who came together in its aftermath. Unfortunately, they will not know the legacy of 9/11 because we continue to shape that legacy and all too often to misshape it.

The cultural center is being built not at Ground Zero but two blocks away, and in New York, the psychological space that separates even two blocks is big. It will not be located at the sacred site of Ground Zero, which will soon house office buildings, shops and restaurants and not just a memorial. Instead, it will be in what is currently a rather seedy neighborhood replete with bars and “gentlemen’s clubs.” It will neither determine nor impact the quality of the Ground Zero memorial or the nature of the visitors’ experience when coming to pay homage at Ground Zero.

In fact, the cultural center, like the German peace center and the Catholic center and the convent, should be regarded as a welcome act of counter-testimony — or, dare one say, penance? — because the killers killed in the name of Islam and therefore, the most important counter-testimony must come from within Islam, just as the most important counter-testimony to the Holocaust, the most important acts of penance, came from within Christianity and from the subsequent actions of German and other European leaders.

If Prager really wanted to put the founders of the Islamic cultural center in a bind, he would celebrate its construction as a welcome act of atonement for the murder and violence that were committed in the name of Islam.

As a Conservative — I take him at his word on this matter — Prager should understand that basic freedoms are precious, but also precarious. Hatred aroused to frenzy can lead to the trampling of constitutional rights: In the United States, freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and religious institutions have the right to build wherever zoning requirements permit them to build.

Lest we hear a reiteration by Jews of the false claim that Islam is not a religion, permit me to remind Jews that no less a religious authority than Maimonides regarded Islam as a religion. He lived in a Muslim world, read Muslim philosophers and knew the Quran well — and had significantly fewer theological problems with Islam than he did with Christianity; witness his 13 principles.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.


Readers’ Responses to Michael Berenbaum’s Column

It is the ultimate pro-Americanism that is expressed by the opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque. It is very American to feel the pain inflicted by the events of 9/11. While we realize that not all Muslims are terrorists, we cannot forget that all the terrorists were Muslim and all attacks were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

Building the mosque is not a matter of freedom of religion, it is a matter of sensitivity and morality. Imam Rauf and his followers feel offended by our actions, but they don’t seem to care about our feelings. Playing the Islamophobia card inflames the conflict.

Silence is golden Mr Berenbaum, and keeping your irrelevant explanation private would have been much appreciated.

Susanne M Reyto
Los Angeles, Calif.


If Michael Berenbaum teaches American History, he needs to update his curriculum to the 21st century.

He accuses us of violating an ‘essential American value’, the right to religious freedom, but he denies our
right to free speech.

The Mosque is not about our religious freedom! It is about being insensitive and offensive. He is ignoring Islamic history.

Why is Islam not a rival to Judaism? Who attacks Israel all the time? What about the Mumbai massacre?

How can he compare the Jewish God to Allah in the same breath? He needs to read the Qur’an and lift his head up from the sand!

Freedom as he knows it, does not exist under Sharia! They claim that their laws came from Allah, whereas ours are ‘man made’, thus they reject them all.

Robert Reyto, DDS
Los Angeles

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