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Carmelite Official Says Auschwitz Controversy a ‘misunderstanding’

A Carmelite official here has said the controversy over the Carmelite convent on the site of the Auschwitz death camp arises from a “misunderstanding,” because “the Nazi gas chambers were located in Birkenau and not in Auschwitz.”

Father Anastazy Gegotek, who made the remark on behalf of the provincial Carmelite order that is responsible for the convent, was interviewed last week in Krakow by the Austrian Catholic press agency Kathpress.

In this interview, Gegotek is seen as clearly supporting the presence of the Carmelite nuns in the convent, arguing that the building was technically outside the camp grounds.

“It is true that Auschwitz is for the Jews the symbol of the Holocaust,” said Gegotek. “But the concentration camp was composed of Auschwitz and Birkenau,” and the gas chambers where the Jews perished “were located in Birkenau.”

The building the nuns have appropriated, which straddles the fence of the Auschwitz camp, was used to store the Zyklon B that was used to gas the prison inmates to death. Gegotek did not mention how the building was used.

“Very close to the building, numerous Poles were executed and a little farther, Saint Maximilian Kolbe was imprisoned,” Gegotek said. “That’s why this place is also of great importance for us Poles.”

He termed the Jewish reaction against the nuns’ presence “very painful and incomprehensible.” He also said he was annoyed by young Jews who distributed leaflets in Auschwitz to protest the convent’s presence.

Major European Catholic cardinals signed an agreement with Jewish leaders in Feb. 22, 1987, saying the nuns would vacate the convent within two years. Gegotek made no reference to this agreement in the interview.

Another site farther away from Auschwitz was to be readied for the nuns, but it appears that no work on the alternative building has begun.

ADDED A CROSS

Within the last couple of months, the nuns have added a 23-foot cross to the grounds, which has been roundly criticized by Jews who visited there. It is evidence, the witnesses say, that the nuns are not leaving but digging in further.

Gegotek took umbrage at this criticism, saying he found the remark by Jews that the cross “casts a gloom on the concentration camp” as “conflicting the spirit of dialogue.”

He said the Catholic Church would not oppose at all the presence of a synagogue at Auschwitz.

Gegotek’s comments are seen as an additional sign that local Polish Catholics are still reluctant to respond positively to Jewish calls for the removal of the convent.

In February, a papal nuncio told members of the World Jewish Congress that in effect the Vatican was powerless to act to move the nuns.

According to a letter released by WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg, the papal representative, who some Jewish leaders consider very sympathetic to the Jewish position, reported that the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church on the Carmelite convent stated that the Jews “have been listened to with courtesy.”

The council said it had been explained, nevertheless that “the Holy See was no more implicated in that project and had taken no engagements in that respect, since the problem concerns the exclusive competence of the local Ordinary.”

The ordinary would be the cleric responsible for that area, in this case the cardinal of Krakow, Franciszek Macharski.

Macharski signed the 1987 agreement and gave signs earlier this year that the alternate convent site was being readied.

Words encouraging that alternate site were put into writing by Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, head of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews.

In addition, the Polish minister of religious affairs, Wladyslaw Loranc, has supported the alternative convent.

The WJC plans to raise the convent issue at the general meeting of UNESCO in the fall, said Steinberg, “because Auschwitz is on the World Heritage List of the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and National Heritage of 1972, which aimed at preserving natural or cultural sites or places of historical import.

“The character and the physical appearance of Auschwitz has now been changed by the nuns’ occupation of the convent there,” said Steinberg. “Therefore, we will be raising this as a violation of the convention.”

(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York contributed to this report.)

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