Despite new law, Auschwitz crosses debate unresolved

OSWIECIM, Poland — A proposed zone of "peace and silence" that would encircle the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp was anything but peaceful and silent this week.

On Sunday, a windy, overcast afternoon, 24 Polish Catholics gathered defiantly to pray and sing before nearly 300 wooden crosses planted adjacent to the camp. Many Jews refer to the crosses as the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.

The crosses are just beyond — but clearly visible from — the camp's notorious Block 11, known as the "Death Block" for the years of torture and executions carried out there.

A day earlier, President Aleksander Kwasniewski signed a bill into law that would set up protective zones around Auschwitz and other former Nazi death camps in Poland.

The law, which would enable the government to remove the crosses, came into force as Polish leaders hope to end a bitter dispute that has further strained relations between Poles and Jews — and caused strife within the Catholic Church itself.

The timing of the bill's signing is not surprising, coming ahead of a visit next month by Pope John Paul II. It may be the ailing pontiff's last trip to his homeland.

For three years, a number of Jewish groups have fought against the use of any religious symbols at the camp. Some hailed the law as forcing the removal of all the crosses.

"This is a bill we were looking for," said Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's council.

Yet the law is worded ambiguously, raising questions as to what it truly means. Indeed, the law may allow for one cross to stay — the so-called "papal cross" that sparked the controversy in the first place.

Such a move reportedly has the support of Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, a Protestant said to be leery of being branded anti-Catholic.

As a result, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leader of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns — Amcha, described the law as "a terrible defeat for the Jewish community."

He has long decried the "Christianization" of Auschwitz, and said it would be "an absolute outrage" for the towering, 24-foot cross to remain.

So it is unclear how Polish officials will carry out the new law.

Complicating matters is Kazimierz Switon, the militant who initiated the cross-planting campaign last August.

Switon camps out at the site in his beige caravan, chatting with his cohorts under a large blue-and-white tent.

He refuses to budge, and has even threatened self-immolation if the crosses are removed.

But his rhetoric is less patriotic and religious than it is anti-Semitic.

In an interview with CNN last August, Switon said, "Jews cannot tell Poles what to do."

On Sunday, he declined an interview with JTA.

Auschwitz — Oswiecim in Polish — though the scene of unparalleled Jewish suffering, also resonates with Poles, said Joachim Russek, director of the Judaica Foundation in Krakow.

It is well known that for Jews, Auschwitz is a searing symbol of the Nazi genocide. Of the 1.5 million people who perished at Auschwitz — and nearby, at the Birkenau death camp — at least 90 percent were Jews.

Often forgotten, however, is that in 1940 the Germans converted the compound, a former military barracks, into a concentration camp specifically for Polish prisoners. Tens of thousands of Poles — perhaps as many as 70,000 — died there, as well as Russians, Gypsies and others.

Today, these crosses are said to commemorate the site where the Nazis executed Poles.

"What we have at Auschwitz is a dramatic clash between two collective memories, and not enough knowledge of the experience on either side," said Russek, who is not Jewish.

"What is so painful is that in a place of so much tragedy, you have competition between two categories of victims. And Jews clearly were the more numerous victims."

Collective memories aside, the case of the "papal cross" is widely viewed as an anti-Jewish provocation.

It began in 1979, when Pope John Paul II made his first trip home. The large cross was erected for a mass he held at Birkenau, which was attended by 300,000 Poles.

It was then dismantled and stored in a local parish.

Meanwhile, in 1984, a Carmelite convent was installed flush against the Auschwitz camp's northeastern wall, across from Block 11. By 1988, Jewish groups were pressing for the convent to be relocated. That's when the large cross was erected next to the convent as a sign of resistance.

Though the pope never presented it as a cross given to his followers, it quickly became known as the "papal cross."

That doesn't sit well with one of his Polish adherents, Father Stanislaw Musial. He is among the most outspoken activists against the crosses.

Musial, who has refused orders by his church superiors to keep quiet, receives batches of hate mail from the public for his pronouncements.

"The cross is the greatest of religious symbols. Maybe I would even die for the cross, but not for this one," said the 61-year-old Jesuit. "This was put up out of hatred for the Jews. If this cross is allowed to stay, then we're back to the point at which we started."

Musial instead proposed a new monument to the Polish victims of the Nazis.

Meanwhile, a prominent member of Krakow's tiny Jewish community suggested designating certain areas at Auschwitz for Jewish worship, Christian worship and joint worship.

"For me, the issue is not the crosses, but the atmosphere the situation created," said Henryk Halkowski, a Jewish activist and writer. "Opinions were manipulated by extremists on both sides — Jewish and Polish. Here, it gave some people an opportunity to vent their anti-Semitism and to be on the front pages."

"But the territory of Auschwitz is so big, it should be divided so that there are places where the Poles and other nations can commemorate their victims."