Auschwitz Controversies Persist


Unedited transcript of a news item Published in The Oregonian, Portland, Oregona, USA on April 12, 1998



 [Photo] Councilman Jan Bartula, 49, founded the Social Committee foe the Protection of the Cross at the Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland.

Polish Catholics guard cross at Auschwitz death camp

• Local residents say the Christian symbol is in peril, possibly from Israeli secret agents, so they mount patrols around the clock

© Knight Ridder News Service

OSWIECIM, Poland &emdash; For nearly a decade, a giant cross has towered over the fence at Auschwitz, a monument to thousands of Polish Catholics who died in the Nazi death camps during World War II.

But now, local Catholics say the cross is in peril. It could, they say, disappear at any time. Their daily prayer vigils are filled with sidelong glances. Last month, they began to patrol the area after dark.

'Our ancestors died here. This place is soaked in Polish blood," declared Emilia Wanat, 68, kneeling last week on the cold sidewalk to say the rosary and sing hymns. "I'm going to guard this cross even if I have to shed my own blood to do it."

At the height of the spring tourist season, with thousands of schoolchildren and Holocaust survivors expected to converge on Auschwitz this month for the annual period of remembrance. the Nazi concentration camp in southern Poland is once again the focus of a furious debate.

This time, the issue is a 26-foot wooden cross blessed by the pope himself.

Long ago, the Polish government volunteered to move the cross in deference to an international agreement to clear the Auschwitz complex of religious symbols and let the horror of the crematoria speak for itself.

News slips out

During a lengthy interview in

February with the French Catholic weekly, "La Croix," Krzysztof Sliwinski, the Polish ambassador to the Jewish diaspora, let the news slip. Sliwinski said some small wooden crosses and about a dozen Stars of David already had been removed from Birkenau. Soon, he said, the giant papal cross outside the walls of Auschwitz would be moved as well.

The comment, given a few lines in the French story, hit Poland like a Nazi artillery shell.

The news was all the more shocking given that this particular cross had been blessed by John Paul II, the first Polish Pope and a national hero. when he said mass at Birkenau in 1979. The cross was moved down the road to Auschwitz 10 years later.


Now, Polish Catholics are mobilizing to keep the cross at Auschwitz, and some are blaming the Jewish community for their plight.

'We've seen many more Jewish people around the museum lately. That's why we decided to monitor the cross night and day," confided Jan Bartula, 49, a burly local city councilman who founded the newly formed Social Committee for the Protection of the Cross.

Patrols protect cross

Every night for the past six weeks, three to five recruits have prowled the streets in cars, making sure the cross stays put. During the day, a 71-year-old woman named Bozena watches from her apartment across the street.

"We are very much afraid of the Mossad people," Bartula added, referring to the vaunted Israelis agency. "We expect them to to remove the cross at any time."

The controversy perplexes Jewish leaders around the world. Virtually no one in the international community, including Israeli officials, I demanded that the cross be moved.

-'I don't thi nk Jews really c. about it," said Ralph Grunewald, rector of external affairs at the ~ Holocaust Memorial Museum Washington, D.C. "The removal of that cross has been an issue initiat-ed by the Poles themselves. We never pushed it."

Since the issue arose, a handful of prominent Polish Jews have spoken in favor of moving the cross notably Rabbi Manachem Joskowicz, Poland's supreme rabbi and an Auschwitz survivor. Joskowicz and others say the enormous cross visible from an important corner of the camp near the "Wall of Death" where thousands of prisoners were executed &emdash; is an insult to Jewish

mourners. But others have publicly stated the cross should stay.


"The cross bothers me, but the religious war over the cross bothers me more, ' said Stanislaw Itrajewski, cochair of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews and local representative for the American Jewish Committee.

"I don't think there's any Jew in Poland for whom the matter of the cross is so important that they'll remove it at any cost."

Perhaps the ultimate outrage for those defending the cross is the sense the world has forgotten Jews were not alone in their suffering at Auschwitz.

More than 1.1 million people died in the complex of camps constructed by the Germans outside the Polish town of Oswiecim &emdash; Auschwitz in German. The cross stands just outside the fence at Auschwitz I, a neat redbrick complex originally built as a Polish military barracks.

The site has come to symbolize the Holocaust: The main entrance to the Auschwitz museum is here, as is the famous gate with the Nazi inscription, "Arbeit Macht Frei" - Work Brings Freedom.

But although more than 960,000 Jews died in the Auschwitz camps, very few ever set foot in Auschwitz I. Most historians agree the Jewish victims were murdered two miles away at Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau. About 100,000 people died at Auschwitz I, historians say, and three-quarters of them were Polish Catholic.

Symbol of Christian faith

"The cross stands on Polish soil. The cross casts its shadow over a grave which buries Poles &emdash; not Jews," cross protection organizer Bartula said.

"This is a symbol of our Christian faith which we will defend wherever it is."

Soon, more than 400 war veterans and Polish concentration camp survivors were rallying outside the Polish parliament building in angry protest. Former Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa entered the fray. And Poland's top Catholic official, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, likened the Auschwitz cross to the Eiffel Tower, declaring its location "non-negotiable" in a Sunday sermon titled, "To our Jewish Friends."

Now the fate of the cross is uncertain. Two weeks ago, the International CatholicJewish Liaison Committee, meeting at the Vatican, called for the cross to be moved "to an appropriate alternative site."

But Polish officials in the Catholic church say they're "reconsidering" their previous decision to move it. Bartula and his followers aren't taking any chances.

On April 23, the Auschwitz Museum will welcome more than 6,000 Jews many of them Auschwitz survivors for the 10th anniversary of the March of the Living. The cross protection committee will be there, staging an all-day vigil and keeping a sharp lookout for the Mossad.

"Despite statements the cross will remain," Bartula said, "we're still suspicious something might happen."

But Krajewski said no one in the Jewish community is planning an assault on the cross.

"It would be a disaster," he said. "if this dispute became more important than the tragedy of the Holocaust and the commemoration of the dead."

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