by Jacob Saliba

In 1947, shortly before his scheduled execution, Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss met with Polish Jesuit Władysław Lohn for his final confession. Auschwitz and Absolution: The Case of the Commandant and the Confessor (Orbis Books, 2023) examines this little-known yet profoundly important moment in Holocaust history.  Edited by James W. Bernauer, S.J., the volume includes seventeen contributing scholars of different faith backgrounds from across the world. Together, they critically reflect on the confession of Höss through concerns of forgiveness, interreligious dialogue, and confessional practices to concepts of obedience, authority, and political reconciliation. The present discussion is taken from a recent forum on the book held at the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. Bernauer gave the principal remarks followed by rich responses from four of the volume’s contributors in areas of philosophy, Jewish theology, feminist theory, and Buddhist theology. (The discussion is republished with the Center’s permission; a video recording can be found here.)

James Bernauer, S.J.: I would like to deal briefly with two questions: First, how did the book come to be?  Secondly, what insights might people derive from reading it?  Does it promote understanding between Jews and Christians?

First, in recent years the Holocaust and Jesuit experience during that period have become my academic focus.  A few years ago, I had lunch with Fr. Manfred Deselaers who has been assigned by his German bishop to live at Auschwitz since 1990.  He works there at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer.  He is a remarkable person and he casually mentioned over the meal something that I had never heard, namely, that the Commandant of Auschwitz had met with a Polish Jesuit priest for confession before his 1947 execution.  This was Father Wladyslaw Lohn who was fluent in the German language and, as a result, he was asked by the Cardinal of Krakow to meet with Rudolf Höss, the Commandant who had requested the visit.

I was already somewhat familiar with Höss because his memoir had been published and there was a dramatic film about him based itself on that memoir (“The Interrogation”). He never interested me because, even by Nazi standards, he seemed very shallow and, as several of our contributors point out, he was constantly making excuses for what he had done. He wrote of himself as an unknowing “cog” in the machine of Nazi destruction.  His memoir itself voices multiple anti-Semitic fantasies and reaches the conclusion that the murder of the Jews has not served the goals of Nazi anti-Semitism. A change is perhaps able to be detected in Höss’s last statements, in the days after his conversations with Lohn.  For example, in a final letter, he advises his wife to stay faithful to the Christian faith and his very last statement confesses his personal guilt for crimes against humanity. Even in that unique admission, however, there is no explicit mention of the Jews as his victims.

The Commandant of Auschwitz continues to captivate others, as a casual glance at You Tube would show.  There is even a lengthy 2022 music video of the encounter between the Commandant and the Confessor which has this repetitious refrain: “Nothing separates you from love if you just own up. Nothing if you just own up.” A new movie was released last year and it has received almost universal praise as well as numerous awards: “The Zone of Interest.” It is up for two academy awards this year for best film and best foreign film, and its focus on how normal Höss’s family life was at Auschwitz makes me nervous. The problem is normalization: Of course, we surrender too easily to situations as “normal”? Does the film’s popularity somehow recognize the family’s obtuseness as understandable? Or was that dullness merely a pretense that was uncovered in such scenes as his pride in having the deportation and murder of Hungarian Jews named “Operation Höss”?

Unlike Höss, Father Lohn did fascinate me and that is why I composed a diary of his reactions. It had to be imagined because he only spoke twice of the fact of his meeting with Höss. His only public mention was in a sermon on the unexpected demands that might come with priestly ordination. A large part of Lohn’s fascination for me was the dilemma he faced. Here was a Polish priest dealing with the manager of the murder of a million human beings, most of whom were Jewish Poles, several of whom were Jesuits whom he personally knew. How would he be regarded by the Polish nation? He would be asked for absolution at the very time that the Communist government was conducting 32, 000 trials for war crimes and collaboration. Wouldn’t there be popular support for punishing the criminals? Lohn died in 1991. And I thought this meeting and its meanings would interest others and so I approached our contributors with the invitation to weigh in on it. They have, and I believe superbly so.

My second question: what insights might be derived by the reader of this book? I learned a great deal from the contributors about the dimensions of forgiveness that need to be considered. Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning about “cheap grace” the key insight? It was for me. “Grace as a cut-rate sacrament, without cost.” But how could it be key if it did not take into account not just the theological but the political dimensions of forgiving Höss? Or the very impact on our civilization of such easy forgiveness? Would it suggest that God does not care about our deeds as long as “we own up to them” in the end? Isn’t Jewish emphasis on the personal interaction rather than the officially sacramental a more adequate perspective on the action of forgiveness? This incident raises troubling questions.  Among them: Are religious rites articulated from the perspective of the victimizers rather than that of the victims? Are confessors, the clergy in general, mandated to approach criminals with the purpose of helping them achieve peace of mind rather than understanding of and remorse for their conduct? In an age of regular interreligious encounter such as ours, isn’t there need to evaluate the impact of one’s own religious rituals on the spiritual lives of other faith communities? These and many more are the questions that the commentators give us and their contributions provide a rich meditation on the dilemmas we face with the limited spiritual resources we have inherited. 

Marina McCoy: In the Catholic rite of reconciliation, the penitent person is supposed to receive confession with an examination of conscience, with genuine contrition and repentance. The aim is to be converted in some way to seek conversion. It should be a genuine interior conversion and not simply some kind of external act. Before reading Höss’s Memoirs I thought that the problem would be the confession of what he had done: trying to reconcile the horrors of the Shoah, particularly Auschwitz, with the deep-held conviction that God is merciful and forgives. But, at first, I struggled in noticing that there was a real lack of Höss be sorrowful about the things we ought to see him be sorrowful about. He says that his actions at the camp are “wrong, absolutely wrong” but he also says “I was never cruel nor did I let myself get carried away to the point of mistreating any of the prisoners.” His biggest regret is that ‘the camps had a negative effect in the long run relative to the hope of the National Socialist Party’. He says further that “the Jews are closer to realizing their final goal.” Like many others, I felt a sense of revulsion and heartbreak over how it could be possible for someone who is trying to come to terms with this would be so far from what we would hope to be the case. As a philosopher, I see it as a problem of “self-knowledge.” Höss is not only interpreting events incorrectly; he is interpreting himself incorrectly–what his role is and who he is in this broader social fabric. I am not precisely in a position to locate Höss in the web of forgiveness that God maybe can. But, for me, the question is: how do we apply this problem to ourselves? How do we think about ourselves on the issue of self-knowledge—not only as individuals but as a community? For example, where do we see ourselves in the narrative and see ourselves complicit in social sins or social events? On another level, we should not think about God’s mercy as something conditioned on penitence or the contrition of the person. Even though that may be what you are supposed to do in the confessional, God’s mercy is bigger than the question of forgiveness. God’s mercy also includes healing victims and repairing communities. God’s mercy, as Cardinal Walter Kasper says, is ‘not at odds with God’s justice’. For us, it may appear that way–the pull of mercy and justice against one another. Ultimately, it is God’s mercy that potentially transforms people. Mercy comes first and is the very thing that allows for transformation–for victims and potentially the victimizers.

Ruth Langer: It was one thing to sit down with the two diaries of the reports and think about it for myself; and it was yet another experience to sit and read through all the responses to them from the different perspectives in the book. I have to say that the three Jewish contributors and I were nearly saying the same thing. That is to say: this whole scenario would be unthinkable in a Jewish context. It’s not that there isn’t forgiveness for sin in Judaism. That’s not at all the case, but rather it is a question of the criteria for forgiveness of sin in Judaism. Firstly, when it’s a sin against one’s fellow human beings one first makes amends with those people. God’s forgiveness is available but God does not forgive until we’ve done the interhuman work. That is absolutely critical, and is brought to the fore annually in the period leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. If I’ve sinned against other people I must go and seek that person’s forgiveness before turning to God on Yom Kippur. If that person is not willing to forgive me but I’m sincerely penitent and have really made a change in myself (meaning that if confronted with the same situation I would not sin the same way again or even a similar way), then if I really tried to appease–that’s the language the rabbis use, “to appease”—that person, I have done all I can and God will forgive me. That’s one dimension. But, the second dimension that is very relevant is: Will God really forgive someone who, without moral quandary, murdered a million people? Is that forgivable? Especially when that person is also a leader who has caused other people to be murderers–including Jews murdering other Jews. In this case, do we really know that answer? No one has had a face-to-face conversation with God. Yet, the rabbis have a sense that someone who is such a depraved sinner, who leads other people into sin, that person maybe is not forgivable. The Talmud’s teaching about this resembles a Yiddish curse. When a person dies, it teaches, they descend into Gehenna (the Jewish term for the “underworld” or “purgatory” in Christian speech). No one normally stays in Gehenna for more than a year in Jewish understanding. However, really egregious sinners stay in Gehenna forever. Then follows the Yiddish-style curse: ‘and even if Gehenna were to cease to exist, they would still be there’. (The purpose of this is preventive, to say “don’t go there.”)

So, this is radically different from Catholic processes of forgiveness and absolution where the priestly absolution comes before the human work of repair. As I understand it, this happens all at once because historically there were not always priests available. If priestly intervention is necessary then one couldn’t postpone the absolution. But then there’s the question of whether God’s mercy overwhelms God’s justice. In Jewish tradition, that claim is not made. God’s mercy may be embedded in God’s justice but God’s justice may not include forgiving someone who is a murderer of a million people.

Serena Parekh: I am a philosopher and don’t work in this particular area. Nevertheless, I saw a connection between a feminist notion of reconciliation and forgiveness that is helpful to think about in relationship to this problem. One important point of feminist thinkers in regard to forgiveness is to think of things relationally. It is in the sense that, we are not individuals as if ‘mushrooms sprung from the ground’ (as Hobbes might say), but who we are is dependent on who we are with. When it comes to forgiveness we have to think of the impact of forgiveness in these relational terms. It is not a private act between an individual and confessor but on what Hannah Arendt called the “common world.” When seen in those terms, absolution was really lacking–perhaps not wrong or ill-conceived per se but lacking. It was lacking because it missed a world-repairing part of political reconciliation. Allow me to give a different example of reconciliation that illustrates this. In the early 1990s, an American woman named Amy Biehl got a Fulbright to study in South Africa during Apartheid and was working in the black townships.  One day a riot broke out and she was killed by four men.  They were put in jail but released within a few years as part of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Afterwards, these men very sincerely went to Amy Biehl’s parents and apologized. Amy’s parents publicly forgave the murderers. All together, they formed the Amy Biehl Foundation, a charity that today does work in the black townships in South Africa. In that example of forgiveness, it was not necessarily for the sake of Amy’s parents or for the sake of murderers; it formed a model for a country trying to live in the aftermath of extreme violence and hatred in which victims live shoulder to shoulder with the people who committed heinous crimes against them. How do you forgive and move on? It is not easy and takes time, but it must take place in terms of a relationality in order to repair the “common world.” With absolution, it struck me that Höss (and fellow Nazis) missed this. We need to imagine a way in which the absolution could have a mechanism that might allow the absolution to do something for the victims, for the community, and Jews around the world. This episode with Höss could have produced a profound model for reconciliation. That moment was missed.

Francis Clooney, S.J.: I am a comparativist theologian, so in pondering this story of Höss I am reminded of a story in the Buddhist canon of Angulimala.  Angulimala is a terrible robber whose fascination in life is to track down vulnerable travelers on the road, kill them, steal everything, and cut off one of their fingers and add it to a garland around his neck. He owns 999 fingers on his necklace and wants one more. One day, he is on the road and sees Gautama (the Buddha) and follows him and plans to kill him. The Buddha, despite his meditativeness, manages to walk too fast for Angulimala. Out of frustration, Angulimala shouts “Stop! I want to kill you!” The Buddha turns around and says, “no, Angulimala, you stop!” These words were apparently a karmic breakthrough for him, for it brought a sudden stop in his insane depraved killings. It was a moment of enlightenment. And, it didn’t end there. This is precisely the point I want to make. When Angulimala stops he repents and changes his life. He shaves his head and becomes a begging monk. Moreover, everywhere he goes, the victims and their families beat him. Angulimala is miserable and starving. In this state, the Buddha visits him again and tells him that this is what happens after enlightenment. Because you had so much evil and bad karma, you must work through it. Indeed, you may feel blessed because you had the chance in this lifetime to suffer so greatly leading to fewer future lifetimes of even more suffering. All of this gives a sense in which radical transformation is the beginning of a new process of purification rather than something at the end.

This Buddhist story led me to think about purgatory and the problem of Höss and Fr. Lohn. What would it have meant for Höss and Lohn to hearing a confession and giving absolution? In fact, this is the pre-Vatican II Church, drawing on the Council of Trent and Robert Bellarmine which would have been so well-known in Germany and Poland at that time. In these older Church texts, it is clear that sin and absolution is the beginning of a process: making reparations on earth and making amends to victims–and what is not done in your lifetime must be done after death. This absolution may not be so much a flat ‘God-forgives’ and ‘God-shows mercy’, but rather–as with Angulimala the mass murderer (however small by comparison)–opens up a process where suffering can begin and even take place after death. In the case of Höss, if he had any kind of Catholic imagination left, he would not have imagined that he would be executed and immediately fly up to heaven. With those stories of being in purgatory for long periods of time, we might think there would be some sense of purification. Although the Buddhist story was not a totally flat comparison, it provides a perspective on what Höss may have thought, Lohn’s own thoughts, and the Catholic teaching on absolution and reparation in this life and the life to follow. It is helpful to refer to the writings of Pope Benedict on the meaning of purgatory. It’s not just a place where one spends a really long time but rather a kind of infinitely intense moment of purification outside of time and space where sins are burned away (perhaps painfully). Benedict observes that in the cases of absolution, the person is finally confronted by God face-to-face and that intense encounter utterly burns away the sins of the person. Indeed, coming full circle back to Angulimala when the Buddha stopped and looked at him, it was at that precise moment that transformation began. In a similar manner, if Höss after death, was confronted by Christ there could have been–in our human terms–an unimaginable moment of purification that was opened but not necessarily accomplished by the act of absolution by Fr. Lohn. 

James W. Bernauer, S.J. is Kraft Family Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Boston College.

Marina McCoy is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College.

Ruth Langer is Professor of Theology at Boston College.

Serena Parekh is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Northeastern University.

Francis Clooney, S.J. is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School.

Jacob Saliba is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Boston College. His dissertation examines the mutual intellectual projects and rich community bonds that formed between Catholic, Jewish, and secular intellectuals in France between the two world wars.

Featured Image: Cover of Auschwitz and Absolution: The Case of the Commandant and the Confessor, Orbis Books.