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Poland: controversy over crosses at Auschwitz.

Warsaw--The Polish government says it will intervene to stop the month-long controversy over the erection of crosses outside the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz--a controversy which has taken on increasingly disturbing overtones.

The conflict comes in the wake of an agreement reached in March 1997, and signed in December, between world Jewish leaders and Polish representatives. This stated that no religious, political or ideological symbols would be erected at Auschwitz. Only a museum would be allowed to remain there. An estimated 1.5 million people, 90 per cent of them Jews, perished there and at neighbouring Birkenau (Auschwitz II).

The dispute began when Polish nationalist leader Kazimierz Switon initiated "Action Crosses" in early August. He was protesting the rumoured removal of an almost 30-foot cross used by the Holy Father during a 1979 visit to Auschwitz, which was planted in a field adjacent to the infamous death camp in 1988. "We want the entire escarpment to teem with crosses," said Switon, who two years ago faced court investigations for alleged anti-Semitic activities. And rapidly, over 150 crosses were planted in the field.

Jewish leaders worldwide vigorously decried the presence of the crosses and pressed for Church and government intervention. "We do expect the crosses to be taken down," said Johan Bein, vice-chairman of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. "There should be no violation of the agreement." However, Bein conceded that the removal of the papal cross, put up before the agreement was signed, could be negotiated.

The Polish bishops also called for removal of all the crosses save the papal one. The campaign "brings harm to the church and turns against our homeland," read a statement by the Polish Bishops Council. It added that planting the crosses at Auschwitz "painfully harms the different sensitivity of our brothers, the Jews."

Their directive was ignored. Polish primate Josef Cardinal Glemp, who initially defended the action, also asked that Catholics stop planting crosses. His request, too, fell on deaf ears.

Finally, Poland's president has assured Jewish groups that the government would resolve the crisis. In a letter made public August 30, President Aleksander Kwasniewski informed Avner Shalev, director of the Yad Veshem Holocaust Memorial, that the area would be returned to its original condition.

While Shalev said he understands this to mean that the papal cross would remain, this may not meet with the approval of Poland's chief rabbi, who according to a report in Canadian Jewish News, says all crosses must go. Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Joskowicz, a Holocaust survivor, said that the presence of any cross prevents Jews from praying at Auschwitz: "We Jews suffered there the most, so I think it would be bad if in this sacred place we could not pray for our nation, our relatives, our friends and for all who suffered there."

However, over a hundred thousand Polish Catholics were also killed at Auschwitz, and Polish people view the camp as a symbol of Catholic persecution under the Nazis.

Compiled from news reports.
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Previous Article:Earlier reply (Holocaust and the Roman Catholic Church).
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