For 50 years the image of Auschwitz burned into the world’s consciousness was the wrought-iron “Arbeit Macht Free” sign that mocked a million and a half Jews as they entered the Nazi slaughterhouse.
But in recent months, another image has been forced on the Jewish world: a profusion of crosses planted by Polish Catholic extremists eager to exploit latent anti-Semitism to boost their nationalist cause.
The struggle over Auschwitz, a simmering diplomatic tug of war between Jewish groups and Polish authorities, is on the verge of boiling over into a religious war of attrition. Polish Jews say they already see signs of a backlash, and negotiators who thought they had been close to an agreement with the Polish government to protect the uniquely Jewish character of the
site now worry that they will lose everything.
But the debate goes much deeper than anger over a single cross and parish church, the initial flashpoints of this summer’s controversies, or the 229 new crosses erected by Polish extremists led by Kazimierz Switon, who described his efforts with language that echoes darkly across the centuries — as “defending the cross.”
Jewish groups are profoundly divided over the most difficult underlying questions: Should Auschwitz, the site that epitomizes the Nazis’ systematic effort to exterminate the Jews but also a place where 75,000 Christians were murdered, be entirely free of Christian symbols? Who should control the sprawling site and its surroundings — remote Jewish organizations or the Polish citizens who live around it? And how can the two groups cooperate in managing Auschwitz when their interests are so different?
More difficult still are differences in cultural memory. For Jews, the significance of Auschwitz is universal and overwhelming. But the site has also taken on powerful meaning among Poles — some of it based on fact, some on communist mythology, all of it a potent undercurrent in the battle over Auschwitz’s future.
Emotions are running high, and compromise seems more elusive than ever in the wake of the new crosses.
“It is hard to express how high the tension is in Poland,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a leader of the Polish Jewish community and a consultant to the American Jewish Committee. “The affair has been on front pages for weeks; we are sick of it. But there is no end in sight.”
Jewish hard-liners abroad who demand the site be cross-free, he said, can only bolster a nationalist movement that seeks to build on a traditional kind of Polish anti-Semitism. “When some Jews say that one cross, any cross, is as bad as a thousand, this means to me that they want a religious war,” he said. “This is wrong to me, and I guess, to most Polish Jews.”
But the bottom line may be that there are no good solutions to the Auschwitz conundrum because what happened there was too horrific to ever fully commemorate — and because this is a Jewish killing ground on non-Jewish soil.
“There’s what we would like best of all, and then there’s the real world,” said Michael Steinlauf, a professor at Gratz College in Philadelphia and author of a book on Poland and the memory of the Holocaust. “Ideally, as a Jew I would like to be able to visit Auschwitz and see no crosses. But Auschwitz doesn’t exist on the moon. It doesn’t exist outside history and time. It exists in the real world — and it exists in Poland.”
Brewing For Months
This summer’s controversies were a long time in the making.
In March 1997, a consortium of Jewish groups headed by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council Chairman Miles Lerman initialed a preliminary agreement laying out guidelines for negotiations on the camp’s future.
Lerman, who was asked to lead the negotiations by the president of Poland, declined to speak about the current controversy. But in the past, he said his goals included the enhancement of the largely neglected Birkenau site — where most Jews were killed — and the creation of mechanisms for bringing more visitors there. Now most visitors enter at Auschwitz l, which was primarily a camp where the Nazis imprisoned Poles.
For many visitors, that’s the only Auschwitz they see. That fact, Lerman said, diminishes the Jewish character of the historic site.
The agreement did not address several controversial issues, including a large cross at the Auschwitz l camp erected in 1988 to commemorate the 1979 visit by Pope John Paul, and a parish church serving the local community just outside Birkenau.
Negotiators said they were not happy with the visibility of the cross, but felt that the realities of Polish politics made it inadvisable to make its removal a condition of an agreement they felt was vital for the preservation of the site.
They began working behind the scenes with Polish authorities, seeking a compromise — most likely a smaller memorial to Polish victims that would include a cross but not be dominated by one.
The issue, however, turned ugly this summer. A Polish official publicly revealed that secret talks to remove the big cross were under way, inflaming opinion among conservative Poles. An official working with the World Jewish Congress suggested in an interview some kind of “extra-territorial” arrangement for Auschwitz, a comment that played into Polish fears of outside interference.
This summer, Catholic extremists led by Switon began planting a forest of new crosses to demonstrate, as the nationalist leader told CNN, that “ Jews cannot tell Poles what to do” on their own soil.
Polish bishops and the government in Warsaw called for removal of the crosses, but the Polish backlash generated anxiety and suspicion even among many Jews who support Lerman’s negotiations.
The harshest critics, led by Riverdale Rabbi Avi Weiss, charged that the negotiators representing the Jewish community were “selling out” victims of the Holocaust by signing an agreement that would allow the cross and the Birkenau church to remain forever. The eruption of new crosses only confirmed their suspicions about Polish intentions.
Others said Lerman and his team were negotiating in good faith, but that conditions had changed since the original document was initialed. They also objected to the fact that some issues — like the papal cross — were being negotiated privately, outside the framework of the formal agreement. Informal agreements, they said, can easily be broken when governments change hands or public opinion shifts.
Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor of cultural history at the University of Waterloo in Canada and author of “Auschwitz, 1270 to the Present,” and Deborah Dwork, a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University in Amherst, Mass., were hired by the coalition of Jewish groups to draw up a draft master plan for the site. Their document eventually became the core of the agreement initialed in March 1997; a final signing was scheduled for this July.
But Dwork and van Pelt broke with the coalition this summer, accusing the Polish government of bad faith and the Jewish negotiators of rushing into an agreement they said would undercut some of its own core principles.
In an interview, van Pelt cited the businessman whose plans for a shopping mall outside Auschwitz 1 were scrapped after protests from Jewish groups. Now, Janusz Marszalek wants to build a visitors’ reception center in the same location just outside Auschwitz l, complete with a large parking lot, fast-food restaurants and gift shops. Local authorities have given preliminary approval.
“Our feeling has always been that moving the visitors’ center between Auschwitz and Birkenau was critical,” he said. “Placing a visitors’ center there means visitors will be coming directly into the part of the camp that emphasizes Catholic victims.”
Van Pelt and Dwork also objected to a decision to build a major highway between the two camps, further undercutting the effort to link them. And van Pelt said the recent crosses might be allowed to remain under the agreement, which “grandfathered in all religious symbols.”
That’s not an issue, say negotiators, insisting that they will not sign any agreement unless all the new crosses are removed.
But even before the profusion of new crosses, Lerman’s agreement was effectively shelved when the World Jewish Congress, a partner in the coalition negotiating with the Poles, did an about-face after Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel insisted that no agreement be signed while the large cross remains.
The Meaning Of Auschwitz
Some of the surface issues, including the new crosses, undoubtedly will be resolved. What’s harder are the underlying differences between Poles and Jews on the subject, and between different groups of Jews.
One issue involves Jewish unease with any Christian symbolism within the confines or along the periphery of the camps. Critics such as Rabbi Avi Weiss say the sanctity of the place where so many Jews perished will be compromised as long as there are any visible crosses or other Christian symbols. That includes the Birkenau church, built in the 19th century and taken over by the Nazis and used as the SS commandant’s house. The building, just outside Birkenau, is again being used as a parish church; Auschwitz purists say the fact that it is visible from inside Birkenau is profoundly unsettling to Jews who want to pray for the dead.
Wiesel, whose objections to the papal cross effectively scuttled this summer’s agreement, declined to address the issue of the original cross. Several Holocaust scholars said the Nobel laureate is deeply troubled by the large Christian symbol but also worried about what will happen if the negotiations break down entirely.
Still, supporters of the agreement that was nearly signed this summer insist that some Christian symbols — in the proper place and in the proper proportions — are appropriate.
“Any absolutist position is unrealistic,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was hidden by a Polish nanny during the German occupation of Poland. “Yes, Christians died there; a Jewish position saying that it has to be ‘Christian-rein’ is impractical and insensitive.”
He said that Jewish negotiators are correctly drawing distinctions between the two camps. When Polish boy scouts erected both crosses and Stars of David at the Field of Ashes in Birkenau, Jewish negotiators insisted on their removal because of the overwhelmingly Jewish character of the genocide that took place there.
But Foxman said the papal cross, marking the place where 152 Poles were killed in Auschwitz l, is not necessarily inappropriate. He did add, however, that the large size of the cross — 23 feet — disturbs him.
“There are many legitimate questions about exactly how Christians should commemorate their martyrs,” he said. “But to say there should be no Christian recognition of martyrdom is absurd. Whether we like it or not, they have a connection to this place, too.”
The nature of that connection is complex, and it is another factor making compromise difficult. The Holocaust was an overwhelmingly Jewish tragedy, but the site has also taken on powerful meanings in Polish culture since the end of the war. But Polish memories of the site were distorted by communist mythology.
“For years the communist line was that 3 [million] to 4 million people were killed at Auschwitz; the implication was always that most of them were Poles,” said Steinlauf, the Gratz College scholar.
In fact, about 75,000 Poles and more than 1 million Jews died at Auschwitz, according to Steinlauf.
Auschwitz, he said, is a “black hole of meaning. Everybody who wants to find meaning goes there and says it is a symbol of whatever narrative they’re pushing. That’s part of what we’re dealing with here.”
Beginning in the 1970s, Steinlauf said, the site was woven more tightly into Catholic mythology, a process that reached an emotional peak with the Pope’s 1979 visit and his landmark statement on Jewish suffering.
And now, with Jews around the world clamoring for some measure of control over the site, Catholic nationalists — the groups that planted the new crosses last month, and threaten more — are using it as a symbol of outside interference in their land — Jewish interference, they make clear.
“This point of view is very much linked to a certain right-wing nationalist Church perspective in prewar Poland,” Steinlauf said, “which says that everything the Jews represent is antithetical to Poland.”
The vocal opposition by some Jewish leaders to all Christian symbols, he said, boosted the standing of the right-wingers and led to the eruption of new crosses.
But Jewish critics who suspect Polish motives in the negotiations do not lack credible evidence of their position.
“The thing we need to remember is that this is a subject of considerable controversy in Poland,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “There are Polish leaders who genuinely want to do the right thing for the Jews, and there are Poles who say they do but really want to redefine Auschwitz as a site primarily of Polish suffering, and there are Poles who want to manipulate it to touch off a new wave of anti-Semitism. And there are conflicts between local and national officials, between different factions of the Church. Looking at this as a Polish vs. Jewish issue is a crazy oversimplification.”
Those dynamics will make it almost impossible to negotiate a compromise, said Stanislaus Blejwas, a professor of Polish history at Central Connecticut State University and a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
“It’s a great source of frustration; the people who are trying to reach a settlement — within the Polish government, in the Church, in Jewish groups — are people of enormous integrity and goodwill,” he said. “They want to reach a solution that takes into consideration the deeply felt sentiments in both groups.
“But the provocative activity by both Catholics and Jews, the people on the margins, are dictating the course of events. And I see that as a great tragedy.”
Blejwas said he sympathizes with Jewish purists who want the site untainted by Christian symbols.
“I understand why Jewish survivors are very upset by what they see as the ‘Polandization’ of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that these Poles are people who had numbers on their arms, too; they endured, just as everybody else,” he said. “The zealots on both sides have hijacked the Holocaust remembrance cause.”
But the Polish and Jewish ways of commemorating the dead and marking the site are profoundly different. And that means that in the end, their ideas of how Auschwitz should memorialize victims are profoundly different.
Catholics, with their belief that martyrs get their reward in heaven, “are able to find a positive interpretation to the death at Auschwitz,” said van Pelt, the author of the original agreement who has since broken with Lerman. “For the Jews, it’s just a catastrophe.”
Religious symbols are a critical part of the Catholic commemoration of the dead, but for Jews, “Auschwitz has to be preserved in its state of abandonment. They feel that anything that is a distraction — religious symbols, or a shopping mall — is an attack on their own history,” he said.
Van Pelt, who said he does not oppose the original papal cross but does oppose its presence near the point where visitors enter the camp, said that the agreement should be postponed until a more comprehensive document can be drawn up and tempers cool.
Although he is a hard-liner, he expresses a measure of sympathy for residents near the camp.
“It’s not nice living in Oswiecim, having people like me come in and telling what they can do,” he said.
The only solution, van Pelt said, is a pragmatic, imperfect one.
“It’s like the Oslo agreement: Let’s just try to resolve those questions we can resolve, hoping that ultimately this creates enough trust and a certain dynamic that allows us to address the broader questions.”
Krajewski, the Polish Jewish leader, said that sensitivity is needed on both sides.
“If we Jews say ‘Auschwitz is our place, others must get off,’ it is wrong for both pragmatic and moral reasons,” said Krajewski, who conceded that he finds the original papal cross disturbing. “Our message should start from positive principles: all victims must be remembered and respected; they should be honored by their relatives and all who feel a connection, in the way they feel is appropriate.
“Only then we can demand [for others)] to respect the fact that 90 percent of the victims were Jewish.”