The Lord of Auschwitz Asks to See a Priest: On James Bernauer’s “Auschwitz & Absolution”

By Jack MilesMarch 4, 2024

The Lord of Auschwitz Asks to See a Priest: On James Bernauer’s “Auschwitz & Absolution”

Auschwitz & Absolution: The Case of the Commandant and the Confessor by James Bernauer

IS THERE SUCH a thing as an unforgivable sin? Or is no sinner beyond the reach of repentance and absolution? If you were the priest in a Catholic confessional, would you forgive the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp? In Auschwitz & Absolution: The Case of the Commandant and the Confessor (2023), James Bernauer, SJ, engages that question through the remarkable, perhaps scandalous case of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, who, while awaiting execution, did indeed ask to see a priest.

The life of country domesticity that Höss lived with his wife and children right outside Auschwitz is now the subject of a much-noticed film, Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest (2023). The narrative line of the film stops just short, however, of the last chapter in Höss’s career, the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary. As late as 1944, Hungary operated as a Nazi puppet state under Regent Miklós Horthy. Though the Horthy regency had hunted down and killed some thousands of Jews within Hungary, most were still alive as the war neared its end. It was only during the final seven months before Nazi Germany’s defeat that the great mass of Hungary’s Jews was transported by rail to Auschwitz. Höss, who after two years in command at Auschwitz had been promoted to death-camp administration in Berlin, was brought back at Heinrich Himmler’s command to direct the last mass slaughter to take place at Auschwitz. Operation Höss, Himmler called it, in his henchman’s honor.

And then it was over. Americans are familiar with the Nuremberg trials of Nazi criminals, but in Poland, under communist rule, some 32,000 trials of Nazi criminals and Polish collaborators took place in the postwar years. One of the first of these tribunals sentenced Rudolf Höss to death in 1947. He was hanged, fittingly, in Auschwitz itself.

But shortly before that hanging, something else took place. Höss, a long-lapsed (or, better, apostatized) Roman Catholic who as a boy had once planned to become a priest, let it be known that he wanted to meet with a priest for Catholic confession, and he mentioned a particular priest by name, a local Jesuit, Władysław Lohn, SJ.

Members of the local Jesuit community to which Lohn belonged had been abducted into Auschwitz early in Höss’s initial, two-year tenure as commandant. During that period, Lohn, who was still at liberty, somehow had himself smuggled into Auschwitz where in short order he was taken to the office of the commandant himself and boldly requested the release of his fellow Jesuits. The request was summarily denied. The Jesuits at Auschwitz all died with the Jews. But, impressed with Lohn’s daring, Höss allowed him to leave Auschwitz unharmed and then, as his life neared its end, asked to see him again, this time not as petitioner but as priest and confessor. Lohn, fluent in German, agreed to meet with him.

The two met for four hours, and at some point during that period, as Lohn revealed to his Jesuit brethren later the same day, he spoke in Latin the words of absolution that were then part of the Catholic Sacrament of Confession, including “I absolve thee of thy sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” But what did these words mean? What did this encounter itself signify?

That this meeting between the commandant and the confessor took place is not revealed for the first time in this book, and yet it will come as a revelation for most—it came as such for Bernauer himself—because for long decades, few in the know had wanted it publicized. Lohn himself, after mentioning it at home that night, spoke of it only once again before his death in 1961. In the abyss of Poland’s postwar wreckage, the Polish Jesuit community knew too well what the popular reaction would be to the news that a Polish priest had bestowed forgiveness on the very commandant of Auschwitz. For the fiercely anti-Catholic communist regime, such news would have been an undreamed-of propaganda coup. Later, well beyond Poland, other Nazis facing criminal prosecution would repent and turn to Christianity. Sincere repentance? Or just the hope of a more lenient sentence? And when clergy cooperated with them, what did they risk? What did their cooperation imply?

In Auschwitz & Absolution, James Bernauer reaches beyond the welter of immediate postwar politics to ask after the deeper theological and moral conundrum of repentance and forgiveness, mercy and justice, exoneration and condemnation, all of these antinomies exemplified with such unique intensity in this particular instance. But how to structure the interrogation?

As a professor of philosophy at Boston College and until recently director of Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, Bernauer has immersed himself for years in the study of Christian-Jewish, especially Catholic-Jewish, relations during the 20th century. His Jesuit Kaddish: Jesuits, Jews, and Holocaust Remembrance (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020) is an unflinching study of, first, Jesuit hostility toward Judaism before the Holocaust, then of the ordeal of Jesuit repentance after the Holocaust, and finally of the role played by Jesuits in beginning an epochal reform within the Catholic Church itself. In sum, once he learned of “the case of the commandant and the confessor,” Bernauer was well prepared to reflect upon it in the fullest context. Instead, in a move of inspired modesty, he has recruited no fewer than 17 thinkers of varied backgrounds to offer their reflections, allowing each just enough space to bring to the fore immediately whatever distinct point they have to make. These reflections fill two-thirds of this short book.

The first third of the book, Bernauer’s principal contribution to it beyond its overall structure, begins with a preface in which he names Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (1969) as an original inspiration and continues with a 15-page scene-setting introduction. Then comes a small surprise. The Polish authorities required Höss to write a memoir while imprisoned, and they evidently delayed his execution long enough for him to finish quite a substantial effort. Bernauer includes 20 pages of excerpts from this memoir, arranging them as answers to questions that he imagines Lohn might have asked; for example, “You say you became a different person at Auschwitz. How do you understand your responsibility for this transformation?” And later, “It was ‘beyond your frame of mind’? But hadn’t your earlier Christian training taught you that Jews were children of God, fellow members of the human family?”

This section of the book then ends with, in English translation, the full, rhetorically resounding words of absolution that Lohn, in 1947, would have recited in Latin:

May Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve thee, and I by His authority do absolve thee from every bond of excommunication, or interdict (or suspension) as far as I am able and thou art needful. I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the Saints, whatever good thou shalt have done or evil endured, be for thee unto the remission of thy sins, the increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life. Amen.

Bernauer concludes his mise-en-scène for the 17 reflections that follow with a remarkable exercise in anchored imagination: “The Diary of Władysław Lohn, SJ: An Imaginative Composition.” Though Lohn, as noted, said nothing about his encounter with Höss other than that it had occurred and had included confession, Bernauer knows much about Lohn’s later life (the man lived to the age of 72), and by implication Lohn’s character, through Jesuit records about the roles Lohn later played in the order, both in Poland and in Rome. He knows, for example, that Lohn took the lead in revoking a Jesuit rule that no one of Jewish ancestry could join the order. But in the last analysis, this diary is a grounded exercise in psychological identification. If he, Bernauer, had been Lohn, what would he have said to Höss? What would he have thought then or later about his words and actions on that day? One example must suffice:

I reminded Höss of Christ’s forgiveness of the two criminals who were being crucified with him. The Savior’s compassion for others continued as he was drawing his last breath. From the cross Jesus forgave the worst of sinners, his own murderers, and so I have merely joined my voice to that of his in forgiving Höss. That was my priestly duty. My priestly duty! Am I just imitating what the Nazis themselves proclaimed, that they were just following orders? Am I claiming to be just following the orders of my Lord? Much as the crusaders claimed as they pillaged and murdered Muslims? Or as inquisitors asserted in sending heretics to the stake? I am deeply troubled at what this confession and absolution is revealing about me.

The contributors to the final two-thirds of the book include three Jews, three of Bernauer’s fellow Jesuits, and 11 other thinkers, including one Pole, each with a different line of approach to the historic encounter. Among these, the single most surprising begins with the Buddhist tale of a fiendish serial murderer. Angulimāla had slain 999 people, severing the index finger of each for the ghoulish garland he wore around his neck. In “The Karmic Debts of Rudolf Höss, Mass Murderer,” Francis X. Clooney, SJ, former director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, relates how Angulimāla targeted the Buddha himself on a lonely road as his would-be thousandth victim, but when the Buddha turned and gazed upon him, Angulimāla was stricken with remorse and truly repented.

But then what happened? The Buddha explained to Angulimāla that because of the bad karma accumulated by his prior savagery, the rest of his earthly life would be one of unbroken misery. Wherever he went, crowds would set upon him and beat him brutally. And so it was indeed for the repentant murderer until his death. Having begun with this tale, Clooney then turns to the standard 1940s Catholic theology of crime, punishment, and the afterlife as the understood context for Lohn’s “forgiveness” of Höss. Lohn would have understood that his absolution had, yes, spared Höss eternal torment in hell, but it had not spared him agonizing and very, very lengthy torment in purgatory. Purgatory, a way station between hell and heaven, may be thought of as the venue for the exercise of Catholic karma. The contemporary Catholic “Sacrament of Reconciliation” (formerly Confession) is understood to entail amendment, repair, reparation, and lateral, human relations rather than only a single vertical, divine relation. But even back in 1947, Lohn would not have thought that he was simply washing away all the guilt and accountability of one of the most depraved mass murderers in human history.

I had just concluded my reading of Auschwitz & Absolution when, on NPR’s January 13, 2024, episode of Weekend Edition, I happened to catch host Scott Simon interviewing director Jonathan Glazer and actor Sandra Hüller about their work on The Zone of Interest. The questions and answers were predictable until the very last. Simon asked Hüller, who plays Höss’s wife in the film and who was born in East Germany, to comment on the fact that East Germans under communist rule were kept from hearing much at all about Auschwitz or the Holocaust. “No,” she corrected him quickly, “we knew.” But then she went on. What concerned her was what today’s Germans were ignoring or complacently accepting—namely, the imminence of a monstrous mass deportation of immigrants from German soil.

Behind this prospect was not just the surging, far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party but also the ruling Social Democratic Party headed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. During his Iowa primary town hall meeting, Donald Trump promised the greatest deportation of immigrants that the United States has ever seen. In Israel, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich continues to insist that the population of Gaza must be “transferred” elsewhere. Any one of these deportations must be preceded by a mass roundup and confinement of those to be deported, and what does such a roundup bring more grimly to our minds than that of European Jews in country after country that preceded their transport to Germany’s archipelago of European extermination camps?

And thus my review of James Bernauer’s brilliantly conceived and orchestrated reflection upon a historic encounter ends on a tangent, but sometimes it is a tangent that takes us where we most need to go.

LARB Contributor

Jack Miles, an ex-Jesuit, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography (1995), editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine.


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