Crosses at Auschwitz aggravate tension between Poles and Jews

ROME — A growing forest of more than 130 crosses placed near the gates of Auschwitz has sparked a new crisis in the perpetually strained relations between Poles and Jews.

The crisis, however, reflects more than just the continuing friction between Jews and Polish Catholics over how the site of the former death camp should be viewed and how the memory of the more than 1.5 million people who were murdered there should be honored.

It also underscores tensions within Poland's Roman Catholic Church itself, within the country's center-right coalition government and between the church and state.

The crosses — erected at a site where 90 percent of the victims were Jews — were set up during the past few weeks by fundamentalist Catholics who are at odds with Polish church authorities.

"This is not a Catholic-Jewish war — yet," Konstanty Gebert, editor of the Polish Jewish magazine Midrasz, told JTA. "So far, it is a conflict within the Catholic community itself, where a group of fundamentalist fanatics has hijacked the entire issue."

In an attempt to defuse that conflict, the Polish government this week took legal control of the field where the crosses have been erected.

"This will make further actions possible," Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek was quoted as saying, without elaborating.

In addition, a government source in Warsaw told JTA that Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek was meeting with Polish-born Pope John Paul II this week at the pope's summer residence near Rome. Geremek's visit was private, but he was sure to discuss the issue and a possible papal response to it.

Leading Polish Cardinal Josef Glemp, who has antagonized Jewish leaders in the past with his comments about the legacy of Auschwitz, has already called on Catholics not to erect new crosses, but to no avail.

A special meeting of Polish bishops scheduled for Wednesday may help resolve the issue.

Backed by some hard-line priests, radical Catholics began setting up the crosses just outside the walls of the former Nazi death camp at the end of July to protest the possible removal of a 21-foot cross that stands there. That cross was used by the pope in a mass at Auschwitz in 1979.

Kazimierz Switon, the radical Catholic activist who organized the actions, called this week for supporters to place even more crosses at the site — defying Glemp and other Polish bishops, local and international Jewish organizations, Polish media and other groups.

He said he wanted 152 crosses to stand there to commemorate Poles who were killed at the death camp.

Throughout the world, Auschwitz is regarded as the symbol of the Holocaust and the biggest Jewish graveyard. Jews say no religious symbols should be placed there.

But tens of thousands of Polish Catholics also were killed at Auschwitz, and Poles regard the camp as the symbol of Polish suffering under the Nazis.

During the past decade, Auschwitz has been the scene of several conflicts between Jews and Polish Catholics, most notably over the establishment of a Carmelite convent in a building just outside the camp.

The nuns eventually were moved to a new convent after the conflict was resolved in 1993. The so-called papal cross stands in a fenced-in area near the building that had been used as the convent.

"The fact is that most of the people involved now in setting up the new crosses do not have any noble reason for what they're doing," a Catholic source who has followed the affair told JTA.

"It's not about the Holocaust," he said. "It's a provocation by reactionaries opposed to Polish integration into Europe and transformation into a modern democratic state. They are using anti-Semitism [in the guise of national pride]."

Gebert said it was "terribly disappointing" that Jews had to explain again why crosses were not acceptable at Auschwitz and to restate Jewish determination to combat religious symbols there.

But, he said, the atmosphere surrounding the current crisis so far is different from that during the Carmelite crisis.

"It is important to note that there is none of the knee-jerk, rally-around-the-cross reaction characteristic of the previous conflict. The opinions of the church leadership are diversified, and public opinion takes a much more relaxed stance."

Indeed, while a survey on Monday showed that more than 70 percent of Poles wanted to prevent removal of the large cross associated with the pope, only 32 percent of those surveyed supported the erection of new crosses.

Many Jewish groups in Poland and abroad have called for the crosses to be removed, but Jews so far have refrained from public demonstrations at the site.

During the convent crisis, Poles reacted with an outrage tainted with anti-Semitism when New York Rabbi Avi Weiss and his followers climbed over the walls and into the cloistered convent as part of a protest.

"Jewish reaction so far has been dignified and determined," Gebert said. "We need to keep it that way. Any demonstrations in front of the crosses would only inflame matters further. As long as there is hope for a negotiated solution, such measures should be avoided."

But, he added, "If that hope does dim, then we may have to reconsider."