23th June, 1998
New Revelations About the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sell-Out
by Avi Weiss
WE now have in our hands the document that confirms our charge that Auschwitz-Birkenau is about to be sold out by Miles Lerman, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in collaboration with the coalition of Jewish organizations he has drawn into his scheme.
The document is entitled, "Declaration Concerning Principles for Implementation of Program Oscwiecimski." Section 6 deals with the "Presence of Post-Period Elements," as follows: "Recognize as a paramount concern the delicate and sensitive problem created by the introduction of religious symbols in Auschwitz-Birkenau since its liberation in January, 1945. These symbols have created needless tensions in the past. Henceforth [italics added], there should be no introduction of post World War II elements on the site within the internationally-recognized UNESCO Protection Zones- including the introduction of religious symbols without the unanimous approval of the signatories. This prohibition does not include museological and educational elements."
The evidence is overwhelming. The word "henceforth" is the key. It legitimizes and lets stand forever the existing violations on the site, including the Birkenau church with a large cross on top and in front, as well as the eight meter cross alongside the old "convent." It undermines the UNESCO agreement, which declares that Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as a 1000 meter protected zone around its perimeter, are to remain inviolate. The tactic of Section 6 is transparent: It is nothing less than to declare that with respect to the existing religious symbols and structures, the UNESCO agreement will be circumvented, and that the violations that are already in place on the site will be grandfathered into the impending agreement. Moreover, Section 6 undercuts the "Solemn Agreement" signed by four Catholic Cardinals and European Jewish leaders, declaring that "There shall be no permanent place of Catholic worship at Auschwitz-Birkenau."
This is an intolerable desecration of the largest Jewish graveyard on the planet. How dare Lerman and his associates allow crosses and churches to stand in this place of extreme Jewish martyrdom, forever distorting the truth about what took place there? While churches and crosses are places and emblems of holiness, they do not belong in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Birkenau, the death factory of Auschwitz, approximately 95 percent of the victims -- over 1.1 million human being -- were Jews. There, the German commandant's headquarters has been turned into a church, and a huge cross casts its shadow over a camp marked by incalculable Jewish suffering. The impression left -- and the impression that will be left for generations to come as a result of this deal -- is that this place of overwhelmingly Jewish death, with its barracks and gas chambers, is a place of Christian or perhaps universal martyrdom.
On top of this, Section 6 authorizes the introduction of "museological and educational elements," terms so vague and ambiguous as to essentially permit the introduction of anything, including the projected visitors center with a fast food restaurant to be built directly across from the gates of Auschwitz, corroding the dignity of the dead.
What adds to the horror of this looming sell-out is yet another recent revelation: That Lerman, the driving force behind this plan, has been operating in secret not only from the public at large, but also from those very Jewish organizations that he has pulled into the negotiations to cover himself when the Polish government invited him, as chairman of a federal agency, to participate in drafting a final agreement on Auschwitz-Birkenau. We have learned that in recent days some leaders of those organizations have grown increasingly alarmed that Lerman has not fully shared with them the specifics of the deal. They are beginning to question seriously whether they will be able to sign this document.
Their alarm has been further exacerbated by the recent withdrawal of Professors Robert Jan Van Pelt and Deborah Dwork from their Holocaust Museum sponsored commission to draw up a master plan for the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Professors Van Pelt and Dwork are the foremost experts on the development, architecture, physical and functional history of the Auschwitz- Birkenau death camp. Scholars of impeccable integrity, Professors Van Pelt and Dwork know where every building was and is on the site, and what each one was used for during the camp's killing operations. As they watched Lerman abandon the plan they had drawn up, as they watched Lerman lock out Jewish experts from the decision-making process leaving it solely to the Polish team, as they watched Lerman allow political expedience to take precedence over the preservation of the site, and as they watched Lerman's greater interest in signing the document regardless of its substance, Professors Von Pelt and Dwork dissociated themselves from the effort.
What Mr. Lerman must understand is that he heads a federal, not a Jewish, institution, and, as such, has no mandate or right to be negotiating the final status of the largest Jewish graveyard in the world. The federal government itself, and, in particular, members of congress, should be asking themselves--perhaps through a congressional investigation--what business Lerman has in these negotiations, and whether he is inappropriately using the museum's federal status to sign documents in the international arena when he has no legal authority to do so. The Polish government would likely never have been in these talks without the federal imprimatur that Lerman brings. Lerman, for his part, abuses his federal mandate, spends taxpayer dollars, sullies the good name of the United States, and plays fast and loose with the memory of the dead by dragging the museum into such deals.
And what Jewish leaders, including Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Ernest Michel of the Lauder Foundation, and others must understand is that if they sign this document, they will forever be held accountable for having been complicit in violating the memory of the dead. Though they have ceded the lion's share of the effort to Lerman, if the outcome renders permanent churches, crosses, and the mockery of a fast food restaurant, it will be they--these Jewish leaders--who will be responsible. They will have been accomplices to this sell-out. Its consequences will be on their heads. Now they know the details of the deal. Now they know how Lerman has been co-opting them. Now they know the position that Professors Van Pelt and Dwork have taken. If they are so dazzled by high-level negotiations and the prospect of rubbing shoulders with celebrities at a gala signing (one prominent senator has informed us that he has already been invited to the signing ceremony in July), they should keep in mind, as a cautionary tale, the example of Jewish leaders who, more than fifty years ago, were so swept up by the glamor of the White House and an audience with the president, that they were pressured into remaining silent.
We, for our part, shall never remain silent. We shall not rest. In 1989, when we demonstrated at the "convent," there were those who may have disagreed with our tactics, but there was consensus that the nuns must move. Today, nearly a decade later, these same voices have been stilled. They have been compromised by Lerman's lust for a deal. They are in danger of becoming knowing accomplices in the betrayal of the six million. While we are loathe to speak out against other Jewish leaders, someone must speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. Even if the signing moves ahead this summer as expected, we shall never recognize the legitimacy of this agreement. We shall continue to fight it. We do not recognize the authority of Lerman and company to sign this deal. They do not speak for us, the living, and they do not speak for the dead.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns/Amcha and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute, Riverdale, New York. He is a long-time activist in Auschwitz-Birkenau preservation efforts. Tel: (718) 796-1135