Ground Broken for Prayer Center to Replace Convent at Auschwitz

Ground was broken Monday for the interfaith prayer and education center that is to replace the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.

The ceremony was attended by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski of Krakow, in whose diocese Auschwitz lies, and representatives of the Polish government. No Jewish leaders attended.

News that the ground-breaking ceremony would take place Monday was reported Friday by the World Jewish Congress and confirmed by the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations, or IJCIC, which has been negotiating with the Vatican on the issue.

Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director, claimed that “the first spade had been struck” on Monday as a direct result of negotiations between his group and the Polish government. A WJC delegation arrived Sunday night in Warsaw, for meetings with Poland’s leaders.

On Monday, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazo-wiecki opened his conversation with the visiting WJC leaders by personally apologizing for “the hurt caused by the Auschwitz convent controversy,” Steinberg said.

He said Mazowiecki told WJC President Edgar Bronfman, in a live television broadcast, “Today, the cornerstone is being laid for the center, as a first step in the implementation of the agreement.”

Last Thursday, the president of the Bishops Conference for Relations With the Jews, Bishop Gaston Poulain, launched a fund-raising appeal among French Catholics for construction of the new center.

NUNS STILL NOT LEAVING

The construction work, which may take up to a year and a half, solves only a part of the problem posed by the convent. The estimated 17 nuns living there apparently have not left the site, and it is not clear when they will.

Steinberg said the WJC leaders will have a better idea of the timetable when they visit Auschwitz on Tuesday, when a representative of the Polish Catholic Church will officially present the delegation with the government’s commitment to build the center and to move the nuns there.

Commenting on the ground-breaking, Steinberg said that Catholic-Jewish relations “have taken an important step forward today.”

These were also the words of the chairman of IJCIC, Seymour Reich, who met with Vatican officials last week in Rome.

Reich called the ground-breaking “a concrete expression of an intention to resolve the matter. I sense a good-faith attitude on the part of Vatican officials.”

Reich, who is also president of B’nai B’rith International and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Vatican officials acknowledged “that the wrong procedures were used” to try to oust the nuns.

In Brussels, meanwhile, progress on the construction of the interfaith center near Auschwitz did not stop several hundred demonstrators Sunday from expressing anger over the slow pace of the convent’s removal.

A leading Belgian Jew said the construction work “will certainly last several years, and may be stopped at any moment because of lack of money.”

The demonstration was called by the Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations. The Belgian Jewish community has been at the forefront of protests against the convent, since its presence was first made known in 1985.

The chairman of the Coordinating Committee, Lazard Perez, remarked on a disturbing coalition of members of extreme right-wing groups and neo-Nazis, “who are eager to support those who refuse to remove the Auschwitz convent.”

(JTA correspondent Yossi Lempkowicz in Brussels contributed to this report.)

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