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Poland: The Conflict Over Auschwitz Crosses Continues

Prague, 19 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Israel's two chief rabbis yesterday appealed to Pope John Paul to help remove more than 100 crosses recently erected on a field adjoining the former Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

Ashkenazy Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron asked the pope in a joint letter that he "intervene to make Poland remove the crosses." The rabbis letter to the pope signals that the issue of the Auschwitz crosses has moved beyond the basically Polish-Jewish problem and has acquired a broad significance in Catholic-Jewish relations.

During recent weeks groups of Polish Catholics have erected more than 130 crosses in the immediate vicinity of the camp. They have done that to commemorate the execution on this spot of 152 Poles by the Nazis in 1941.

These Catholics have also been prompted to do so by a conservative Catholic radio station and a radical Catholic activist as a form of protest against demands by Jewish groups that a large cross which had been used in a 1979 mass celebrated at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Pope John Paul and was subsequently moved to the field besides the camp be removed from the area.

Jews regard Auschwitz as their faith's largest burial ground. More than 1.4 million people, about 90 percent of them Jews, were murdered by the Nazis during World War Two.

Jews object to any religious symbols in the vicinity of the Auschwitz camp, saying that the presence of such symbols undermines the solemn character of the memorial to the Jewish victims. They also say that a semi-formal agreement with the Catholic Church envisaged the removal of the "papal" cross.

The Polish-Jewish controversies on the issue of the Auschwitz camp have a long history, periodically involving disputes between the governments of Poland and Israel as well as the respective religious leaders.

Particularly acrimonious was a dispute concerning a Carmelite convent which was set up beside the Auschwitz camp in the 1980s. Following protracted negotiations between the Catholic Church and several Jewish organization, an agreement was reached in Geneva in 1987 that the convent would be moved from the site to another place.

The Polish side was slow to implement the agreement, and it did so only in 1993 following a decisive intervention by the pope, who asked the nuns to move their convent. The nuns obeyed, but leased the area surrounding the former convent to a private group. It is this area that crosses are now being erected.

Writing recently in the Warsaw weekly, Polityka, Catholic commentator Adam Szostkiewicz said that the current controversy over the crosses "is rooted in the attitude (of inaction) taken by the Polish government, the Polish Catholic bishops and Polish society, particularly national-Catholic politicians."

Szostkiewicz further said that "if the government and Episcopate (council of bishops) clearly condemned the movement to erect the crosses and came to an agreement on way to remove the 'papal' cross from the area, there would be no conflict."

Szostkiewicz said that both the government and the Church preferred to do nothing. He implied that the government's inaction largely reflected political considerations, with different officials hesitant to offend the sensibilities of carious Catholic groups.

He said that many members of the clergy, including high-ranking clerics, have been opposed to the agreement with the Jews about the convent and the cross. They were determined to ignore formal accords and do anything to scuttle the official promises.

In the situation, the scene was taken over by radical Catholic elements. And these groups are currently shaping the issue.

Yesterday, the Polish government said that it would take legal steps to impose its control over the field, presumably through invalidating the original lease agreement made by the Carmelite nuns.

But it stopped short of saying what is going to happen to the crosses. "We have to move very carefully," Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek told reporters, "the issue is concerned with spiritual matters and profound experiences."

Moreover, government spokesman Jaroslaw Sellin said subsequently that the "papal" cross should remain where it is now, in the immediate vicinity of the camp.

This is unlikely to satisfy the Jewish groups, however. And so, it appears that this time again a new papal intervention could become necessary.