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NEWS ANALYSIS: Auschwitz cross crisis reveals tensions in Polish Catholic church

c. 1998 Religion News Service ROME _ The crisis over a forest of crosses placed by militant Roman Catholics near the gates of Auschwitz over the past few weeks has raised echoes of the bitter conflict between Poles and Jews over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in the late 1980s and early ’90s. A leading […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

ROME _ The crisis over a forest of crosses placed by militant Roman Catholics near the gates of Auschwitz over the past few weeks has raised echoes of the bitter conflict between Poles and Jews over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

A leading Polish Jewish activist, however, says both the reactions and the atmosphere are different from what they were during the convent crisis.

Indeed, according to Konstanty Gebert, editor of the Polish Jewish magazine Midrasz, the issue of the crosses goes far beyond yet another strained chapter in perpetually troubled Polish-Jewish relations and has revealed tensions within the Polish church itself as well as differences within the Polish government and between church and state.”It is terribly disappointing that nine years after the war over the convent we have to do everything all over again _ explain why (the crosses) are not acceptable, restate our determination,”Gebert said from Warsaw. “It is important to note that there is none of the knee-jerk rally-around-the-cross reaction characteristic of the previous conflict,”Gebert added.”The opinions of the church leadership are diversified, and public opinion takes a much more relaxed stance.”This is not a Catholic-Jewish war _ yet,”he said.”So far, it is a conflict within the Catholic community itself, where a group of fundamentalist fanatics has hijacked the entire issue. What is deplorable is the spinelessness of both the government, which dumped the whole issue at the episcopate’s door, and of the church, which made the local bishop solely responsible for its resolution,”he said.

A special meeting of the Polish episcopate, set for Wednesday (Aug. 26), may help resolve the crisis, which erupted at the end of July when radical Catholics, backed by some hardline priests, began erecting the crosses just outside the walls of the former Nazi death camp.

The site is next to the building where the Carmelite nuns had their controversial convent. That crisis was resolved several years ago when the nuns moved to another nearby location.

Led by Kazmierz Switon, a radical Catholic activist and reputed anti-Semite who was long active in the Solidarity union movement, the militants said they set up the new crosses to prevent the removal of a large cross placed there a decade ago when the pope celebrated a Mass at the site.

Some 90 percent of the more than 1.5 million people murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz were Jews. Auschwitz is regarded as the symbol of the Holocaust and the biggest Jewish graveyard. Jews say no religious symbols should be allowed to be placed there.

But tens of thousands of Polish Catholics also were killed at Auschwitz, and Poles regard the camp as the symbol of Polish suffering under the Nazis.

On Tuesday (Aug. 18), Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek said the Polish government would take legal control this week of the fenced field outside the wall of the camp where the crosses have been put up, a step it hopes will help resolve the crisis.

Also on Tuesday, Israel’s two chief rabbis appealed to Polish-born Pope John Paul II to use his influence. So far, however, the Vatican has remained publicly mum.

But officials in Warsaw told RNS that Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, a personal friend of the pope, was scheduled to meet privately with John Paul this week at the pope’s summer residence near Rome, where the issue is almost certain to come up.

Underscoring the tensions in the church is the fact that Poland’s primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, has called on Catholics not to raise new crosses _ a call that has, as yet, had no effect on the militants who want to place 152 crosses in the field.

Indeed, on Thursday, the radicals defied both Glemp and the government by adding five 12-foot crosses to the swarm, and Switon has called for supporters to place even more crosses at the site. Ultimately, he wants 152 crosses there to honor the 152 Polish Catholics killed at Auschwitz.

A survey on Monday showed more than 70 percent of Poles want the large cross associated with Pope John Paul to remain at the site, and just 32 percent support erecting new crosses.

A Catholic source in Warsaw who has followed the cross affair told RNS the militants really have no”noble”reason for their campaign.”It’s not about the Holocaust,”he said.”It’s a provocation by reactionaries opposed to Polish integration into Europe and transformation into a modern democratic state. They are using anti-Semitism”in the guise of national pride.

Many Jewish groups at home and abroad have called for the removal of the crosses, but Jews so far have refrained from public demonstrations at the site.

During the Carmelite convent crisis, Poles reacted with outrage tainted with anti-Semitism when New York Rabbi Avi Weiss and his followers climbed over the walls into the cloistered convent as part of a protest.”Jewish reaction so far has been dignified and determined,”Gebert said.”We need to keep it that way. Any demonstrations in front of the crosses would only inflame matters further. As long as there is hope for a negotiated solution, such measures should be avoided.”

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