Washington — In a unexpected development, the bitter confrontation between Jewish groups and the Polish government over Christian symbols at the Auschwitz death camp moved a few steps closer to resolution this week with a letter from Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek outlining the steps his government is prepared to take to end the conflict.
In the letter, Buzek pledged that his government will “remove all new crosses” as soon as possible.
The letter to members of the coalition of Jewish and Holocaust groups that have been negotiating with the Polish government over the future of the site was read by an emissary from Buzek at a private meeting of the coalition here on Monday.
The coalition is led by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council chair Miles Lerman, and includes
representatives of Yad Vashem, the World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and survivors groups.
The new crosses were erected this summer by Polish extremists as negotiators neared a preliminary on how to negotiate a permanent plan for the historic site. Coalition officials say a side agreement would have resulted in the replacement of the large “Papal cross” in Auschwitz l, the initial flashpoint of the controversy, with a smaller monument to the Poles who died there. But those talks broke down after 300 new crosses were erected in protest of the negotiations, and after vocal complaints from some Jewish activists, who object to any Christian symbolism at the site.
Buzek said that if efforts now under way in the courts to remove the new crosses fail, his government will promote a law that would effectively turn jurisdiction for all death camp sites over to the Polish federal government. The “Remembrance and Jewish Martyrology Sites Protection Act,” he wrote, “will constitute a new tool that will allow us to solve the current problem — and all similar problems which may arise in the future.”
Buzek said that his government considers Polish-Jewish dialogue “a top priority,” and promised to accelerate the process of returning Jewish communal property.
Buzek’s representative, Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, urged members of the coalition not to give up in the “almost hopeless cause” of finding a compromise on the Auschwitz issue. She said that the government hopes to pass the new law by February — and that it would be just the first in a series of statutes designed to protect Jewish sites.
On Tuesday Lerman expressed cautious optimism. “It sounds very good — if it happens,” he said.
The coalition “will stick to our commitment not to come back and negotiate until the 300 crosses are removed. When the situation is returned to the status quo, we are prepared to return to Warsaw and sign the declaration that will enter us into meaningful negotiations to deal with the full range of issues on the site’s future.”
Those negotiations will also take up the issue of the Papal cross.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, whose opposition was pivotal in scrapping the agreement this summer, attended the meeting and was encouraged by the prime minister’s letter, Lerman said.
“He understands that the Papal cross will be part of the negotiations when we come back to Poland,” he said.
However, Jewish opponents of the negotiations, who reject any Christian symbolism at the site, are unlikely to be appeased by Buzek’s letter.