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Jewish Leaders Encouraged by Work That Has Begun on Auschwitz Center

American and Belgian Jewish officials returning from recent visits to Auschwitz say they are encouraged by the work that has begun on a center that will house the Carmelite nuns now living in the controversial convent on the grounds of the former death camp.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreli-gious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said he observed a construction van and a small bulldozer at the site where ground was broken in February by the archbishop of Krakow, Franciszek Macharski. Rudin visited Auschwitz with an AJCommittee delegation earlier this month.

The Polish commitment toward building the interreligious center “is not just talk anymore,” Rudin said. But he added that no time frame had been given yet for the center’s completion or for when the nuns will move out of their present quarters.

The nuns’ presence at Auschwitz has caused strain in Catholic-Jewish relations in recent years. Tensions were cased last year after the Catholic Church agreed to abide by its 1987 commitment to relocate the convent away from the site of the death camp.

According to Belgian Jewish leaders, fund raising for the project by the Catholic Church in Paris and other cities ensures that construction of the interfaith center will continue to be financed for at least another six months.

Lazard Perez, chairman of the Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations, and Maurice Pioro, head of the association of former Jewish deportees from Belgium, met recently at the site near Auschwitz with a delegate from the Polish government.

THE CROSS IS STILL THERE

The Belgians reported that a placard in front of the construction site indicates that funding for the building is being provided by a foundation created by the Polish Church. A sketch presents the future configuration of the interreligious center for education, prayer and information.

The center, located approximately 600 yards from the Auschwitz site, will house an administrative building, a hotel and youth hostel, meeting halls, a kitchen and a library. The convent that will house the Carmelite nuns is to be separated from the interfaith center by a wall.

According to the Belgian leaders, the Polish authorities also seem to be willing to rethink the presentation of the official Auschwitz museum, which, the Jews claim, docs not mention that 90 percent of those who died there were Jews.

The Belgian visitors were told by their Polish guide that a new text will be placed at the monument in memory of the victims at the former Birkenau death camp, adjacent to Auschwitz, to remind visitors that Jews were the main victims.

The Belgian leaders were apparently disappointed by the fact that a large cross in the garden of the convent is still there, despite repeated demands that it be removed.

But the Polish authorities said they arc considering the possibility of replacing the cross with a memorial plate to mark the Nazi slaughter of Polish patriots at the site.

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

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