WARSAW (Feb. 6)
A Polish bishop active in Catholic-Jewish dialogue assured a group of visiting American rabbis Monday that the dispute over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz is on the way to a satisfactory resolution.
Bishop Henryk Muszynski, chairman of the Polish Episcopate’s Commission for Dialogue With the Jews, said construction would begin soon on an interfaith center in which nuns from the Auschwitz convent would be relocated.
He said he hoped the new home for the nuns would be the first part of the center to be built.
Muszynski met with the 30-membcr United Jewish Appeal rabbinic mission touring Eastern Europe, which arrived in Warsaw on Monday morning and was to leave for Budapest on Wednesday.
He was accompanied by a leading Solidarity member of Parliament, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, who said the Solidarity-led government is looking forward to close relations with Israel.
The bishop tried to explain why it is taking so long to relocate the nuns. They were supposed to have moved off the Auschwitz grounds in February 1989, according to an agreement reached two years earlier in Geneva by a group of European cardinals and Jewish leaders.
“Activities to build (the interfaith center) will start as soon as possible in the spring,” he said.
A joint committee of church and government leaders is forming in Krakow specifically to promote its construction, the bishop added.
As of now, he said, “the nuns are still in the convent.”
Muszynski explained that “it’s very hard to expect them to move from one provisional place to another, and in Krakow, there is no other place for them to move.”
Krakow is the nearest large city to Auschwitz and the seat of the Catholic archdiocese.
“We have to do everything possible to start building the center,” the bishop said.
He stressed, however, that the problem is not only building the center and moving the nuns there, but changing the attitude of the Polish people on the subject.
“There’s a very strong opposition in Poland against moving the nuns,” Muszynski confided. “We need time to prepare Polish public opinion.
“We have had 45 years of our history now without contact with the Jews. Dialogue is very difficult,” he said. “We have to explain everything from the very beginning.”
Muszynski explained that to Poles, establishing the convent at Auschwitz meant placing a religious symbol at a place of martyrdom that the Communist authorities tried to “banalize” and “atheize” in a way abhorrent to the deeply religious Poles.
AUSCHWITZ MUSEUM TO BE RENOVATED
“It wasn’t appropriation,” he said. “But it’s important to put some sign of religion there. The majority of people died there, I’m sure, with prayers.”
Parliament member Onyszkiewicz said the government, too, “would like to see the convent issue solved, as was agreed in Geneva, by moving the nuns.”
But he agreed the issue is complicated by the grass-roots attitude of Poles.
Onyszkiewicz underscored the desire of Poland’s first non-Communist government in achieving reconciliation with the Jewish people. He acknowledged that there is much in Poland’s past, particularly during World War II, that Poles could not be proud of.
At the same time, he stressed that for centuries Jews have been an integral part of Poland, with a major impact on the country’s history and development that should never be forgotten.
Muszynski also told the UJA mission that plans are under way for an extensive renovation of the museum at Auschwitz, which until now “has been a museum of nationalism and Communist propaganda.”
Major changes will stress more clearly the Jewish experience “in that terrible place,” he said.
A special government commission working on the transformation should be ready with a comprehensive plan by this spring, according to the government newspaper Rzeczpospolita.
Some work has already begun and construction of the interfaith center for information, meetings and prayer will start “in the coming weeks,” the paper said.
CHANGES ALREADY HAPPENING
It added that the commission has resolved that the future of the Auschwitz museum “will be considered in consultation with Jewish organizations.”
The commission was created late last year by Culture Minister Izabella Cywinska, under the auspices of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister in over four decades.
Stanislaw Krajewski, a consultant to the American Jewish Congress who is active in Polish-Jewish affairs and Jewish-Catholic dialogue, said there are already some changes at the museum.
“Much more mention is now made of the Jewish presence at Auschwitz,” he said. Also, the museum will remove references to “4 million” victims there.
“This is not a true figure,” Krajewski said. “There is no way to know exactly how many people died at Auschwitz. It is probably 1.5 to 2 million — 90 percent of whom were Jews.”