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Pilgrim to Unholy Places

Christians and Jews re-visit the Holocaust


Raymond Pelly

Based in New Zealand, the author, an Anglican priest, made a number of pilgrimages 1995–2008 to the extermination (and other camp) sites of the Third Reich, 1933–45. These find expression in Diary entries that describe the sites as they now are and scope the problems they raise for both Jews and Christians. 

The book thus places the Holocaust at the centre of Jewish-Christian dialogue. In face of the silence of God and the choiceless choices of the victims, the central question is how we – Jews and Christians – can talk agency either of God or the inmates. With a view to opening a conversation between Auschwitz and Golgotha, the author invites the Jewish interlocutor into a consideration of the Jewish victim Christ in the ‘no-way-out’ of the cross.

Can there then be mutual recognition between the many Jews of heroic faith and self-sacrificing love in the death camps and the victim caring Christ? Three examples are cited: a Mrs Levy at Auschwitz; the Paris Rabbi, Berek Kofman; and Janusz Korczak at Treblinka. These and others like them embody an ethic of caring that allow us to be hopeful about the modern world.

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Introduction: ‘Raids on the Unspeakable’



‘Raids on the Unspeakable’

The writing of this book effectively began in August 1995 when I visited Auschwitz, then Dachau. As a person born in England in 1938, I wanted to find out what had happened in continental Europe in my own lifetime. I was determined, as priest and theologian, to explore the meaning – or lack of it – of the events evoked by the one word ‘Auschwitz’, in particular its association with Adolf Hitler’s attempted genocide of European Jewry. I was also driven by the conviction that if the venerable notion of pilgrimage to holy places was to maintain its credibility, stay real, it had to include unholy as well as holy places. To be faithful to the God of history, I had to visit those places where the history of our times has in fact been wrought. Does the redemptive presence of God, I asked myself, have any meaning faced with the horrors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the Holocaust in particular?

In those first visits I discovered – or stumbled on – two things that were to mark the whole project from the start. First, just to survive on this bleak and inhospitable territory, I needed somewhere to stand. Not just a ‘standpoint’ but actual places where, along the pilgrim way, I could find spiritual nourishment and hospitality. By happy accident I found myself staying in the new Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz – not the old one which had caused so much...

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