Jews, Poles are still embroiled in altercations over Auschwitz

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OSWIECIM, Poland — Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, in an emotional speech delivered this month, called Auschwitz-Birkenau "the largest invisible Jewish cemetery in history."

In the 50 years since the Holocaust, however, the former Nazi death camp near the southern Polish town of Oswiecim has become the prime symbol of humankind's evil side.

The Nazis killed at least 1.5 million people at Auschwitz. An overwhelming majority were Jews.

Most of the dead were gassed at Auschwitz I and then incinerated at Birkenau, the Auschwitz II camp two miles away.

Poland's government designated the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex a museum-memorial in 1947. To the Communists, this site sharply represented Nazi subjugation of Poland.

Physically, it is a grim tourist attraction that draws over a half million visitors every year from all over the world. And Oswiecim's 50,000 citizens try to conduct normal lives alongside this ever-present reminder of incomparable horror.

Thus Auschwitz-Birkenau sparks recurring controversies.

"There are difficult practical problems," said Krzysztof Sliwinski, Poland's roving ambassador to the Jewish diaspora. He cited "the practical problems of preserving the testimony of what has happened here; the practical problems of dealing with visitors; the practical problems of the people living in the town.

"No doubt there is a sort of `conflict of memory' among Jews and Poles, which makes another emotional contribution."

Currently a controversy is simmering around plans for construction of a commercial center across from the camp's main gate.

In the 1970s, the United Nations mandated a 547-yard protective zone around the camp to preserve the proper character and mood. But what now stands outside the complex is a grim collection of ramshackle buildings, ugly overgrown lots and unsightly corrugated-iron warehouses with signs advertising sausages, paints and tobacco products.

Protests from Jews, Auschwitz survivors and the Polish government forced developer Janusz Marszalek to cancel his original plans to build a mini-mall in this location. The mall would have served Oswiecim residents.

Marszalek agreed instead to build a visitors' center for the hundreds of thousands who arrive at Auschwitz every year. Under this agreement, fast-food kiosks, bookstores, souvenir stands and parking facilities would be removed from the museum grounds and relocated across the street.

But local authorities did not approve the project and threatened to use force to stop unauthorized construction.

Marszalek threatened to sue for millions of dollars in damages if he could not build.

The controversy clarified a need for coordinated management of the Auschwitz zone, and for dealing in a dignified way with the practical needs of all parties involved. Last month, Poland's Cabinet approved a costly three-part plan including the removal of unsuitable buildings and enforcement of the camp's protected zone.

A detailed prospectus was due by Sept. 15. Until then, the government called a halt to all construction in and around Auschwitz.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski offered a glimpse of the plan's broad outlines at a meeting last week with Jewish leaders in New York.

Poland will try to resolve the matter, he said, by dividing the area around Auschwitz into two zones: The "City of the Living" would serve the needs of Oswiecim residents, while in the "City of the Dead" the camps' grim history would be the top concern.

On the heels of the construction controversy a second Auschwitz conflict has arisen, this one rooted in the conflict of traditions.

Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, made an impassioned appeal this month for the removal of seven 10-foot wooden crosses erected 12 years ago by a Krakow group of non-Jewish and Jewish youths in a remote corner of Birkenau where the ashes of victims were scattered.

Six-foot Stars of David are also scattered among the field's chest-high weeds. At least one of the stars is crumbling.

At a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of a 1946 Polish pogrom that killed 42 Jews in the southern city of Kielce, Wiesel said, "Birkenau is its own eloquent symbol. The chimneys, the ruins of the crematoria. Nothing else should be there.

"With all due respect to all religions and all believers, the presence of crosses on sacred soil covering multitudes of Jewish victims in Birkenau was and remains an insult."

"There can be no justification for placing crosses over their remains," he said. "Whoever did this may have been inspired by good intentions, but the result is a disaster, a blasphemy."

Polish Catholics reacted immediately.

A statement by the Polish Episcopate's Commission for Dialogue with the Jews read that the crosses served as a symbol of faith and national resistance to the atheistic domination of both Nazi Germany and the Communists.

"Therefore, an act against the cross, albeit unwitting and in good faith, places the promoter of such an act on the side of those who were both against the Jews and also against Christians," the statement said.

The issue was the topic of heated discussion at a two-day session last week of the International Council of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, the body charged with protecting the integrity of the Auschwitz grounds.

In a statement, the council said it decided to authorize the council's president, former Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski — himself an Auschwitz survivor — "to pursue initiatives aimed at finding solutions that would not hurt anybody's feelings." The council remains divided on the monument issue, according to Kalman Sultanik, one of its members and the vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

Sultanik, also a Holocaust survivor, said he believed the crosses and Stars of David should be removed. However, another council member said there was concern that removing the crosses now could "cause unrest and potentially dangerous conflict here."