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Poland: The Auschwitz Controversy Between Jews and Catholics Rages Amid Political Disorder

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 26 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Poland's Catholic bishops yesterday (Aug. 25) called for the removal of some 220 crosses from a field beside the former Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp, but insisted that a single large cross be left standing.

The bishops' statement, issued at the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa, is the latest move in a long controversy involving the Jewish community. The statement said that the cross "deserves respect as much as religious symbols of those who died in the camp," and expressed trust that the hundreds of newly-planted smaller crosses will find "a respectful place" instead in parishes and churches.

The large cross was used during 1979 mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a branch of the Auschwitz network of camps where more than one million Jews were killed. Ten years later a local priest moved the same cross to the immediate vicinity of the main concentration camp. He acted without any official acceptance of his action.

Jews have long objected to the presence of the cross, saying that such religious symbols undermine the solemn memorial to the Jewish victims. Jews regard Auschwitz as their faith's largest burial ground.

During recent weeks groups of Polish Catholics have erected some 220 smaller crosses at the field adjoining the Auschwitz camp. They have said that this was done to commemorate 152 Poles executed at the site by the Nazis in 1941.

But they have been prompted to erect crosses by a conservative Catholic radio station, and by a radical Catholic activist in protest against demands by Jewish groups that the large, so-called "papal" cross be removed from the area.

The bishops' statement yesterday followed a series of declarations by the government in support of moving the smaller crosses but leaving the "papal" cross in place. These included informal statements by Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek in talks with journalists and a formal letter from his chief of staff to several U.S. congressmen.

Wieslaw Walendziak, head of the prime minister's chancery, said in that letter that "one cannot take away the right of the Poles to commemorate their martyrs in a manner consistent with their religious and traditional beliefs." Walendziak's letter was a response to an appeal by the congressmen that the papal cross be removed and a church situated in the proximity of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp be torn down.

Whether the appeals of both the bishops and the government for the removal of the smaller crosses will be heeded by the conservative Catholics is far from certain. During recent days, several groups of radical Catholic activists declared their determination to disregard any appeals by the Church leaders and keep the crosses in place.

This position led, in turn, to publicly expressed fears among more tolerant Catholics that a potential "schism," that is a movement deviating from the Church teachings and organization, is in the offing under the prompting of extremist religious and/or anti-Semitic activists.

The Auschwitz controversy comes at a time of growing civil unruliness in Poland. In recent weeks the country has seen repeated protests by farmers, who have forcibly blocked railroad lines and public roads in protest against government policies and in disregard with formal agreements, as well as demonstrations by trade unions to demand extra benefits. There have also been protests by ordinary citizens dissatisfied with recent administrative reforms.

These actions appear to be succeeding. The government has been forced to reduce import of grain as a result of the farmers' protests. Ministers have promised to look again at different administrative changes

The government has been slow to react to situation in which laws were broken, and when it does, its actions have often been ineffective. Yesterday, (Aug. 25) Interior Minister Janusz Tomaszewski said that future protests will be dealt with firmly. The statement came after long weeks of disturbances, and is not clear how it is going to be implemented.

Also yesterday, Justice Minister Hanna Suchocka warned in a television statement that the government would consider "firm actions" to prevent "anarchy." Suchocka said that about 500 cases arising from the interferences with transport have been sent to courts. Their resolution is certain to be a long process however.

And it may be a long time before the crosses of Auschwitz are moved, and before all legal problems resulting from any action in that direction are resolved.

In the meantime, there is little likelihood that the Jewish opposition to the presence of any cross in the immediate vicinity of the Auschwitz camp will abate. Indeed, it is almost certain that disputes on the issue -- between the Jewish groups and Poland, and between the radical Catholics and the church as well as the government -- will continue for months if not years to come.