OSWIECIM, Poland (Jul. 27)
The deputy director of the Auschwitz museum told a group of leading American Jews and Catholics that the facility needed an estimated $42 million in order to carry out essential restoration and maintenance work.
The American delegation was in Poland from July 20 to 24 at the invitation of the Polish Episcopate for a series of talks with church and secular officials on interreligious initiatives and Polish-Jewish ties.
“We have 150 buildings (and) 250 ruins” to care for, Krystyna Oleksy told the interreligious delegation. She said the $42 million figure came from a report prepared by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which has been working to preserve the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps and their collection of artifacts.
“For 47 years, the museum was financed by the Polish government. We are doing our best, but there is not enough money so that our plans can be realized,” Oleksy said.
The Lauder Foundation is hoping to obtain the funds from Western European governments, with half requested from Germany.
In addition to planned changes in the museum’s exhibitions — which will reflect the largely Jewish composition of Auschwitz-Birkenau victims — Oleksy said maintenance and conservation were necessities.
“We urgently need heating, temperature and humidity control in the buildings,” she said. “This is our most essential need at the moment.”
EXHIBITS IN DANGER OF DECAY
Many of the exhibitions, particularly the poignant displays of belongings left by Auschwitz victims, are in danger of decay after nearly 50 years.
In addition to Auschwitz, the American delegation visited Warsaw, Cracow and Czestochowa in what the group described as “a pilgrimage of faith, remembrance and reconciliation.”
It was considered the highest-level delegation of American Jews and Catholics ever to visit Poland.
Included in the group were representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Cardinals John O’Connor of New York and Bernard Law of Boston.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad of Lawrence, N.Y., and Baltimore Archbishop William Keeler co-led the 25-member delegation, which was coordinated by the newly founded Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
A key goal that emerged from the visit was a determination to overcome the stereotypes which Jews as well as Polish Catholics still hold about each other and which form a barrier to bettering Polish-Jewish relations.
“I feel a certain obligation to explain to the Jewish community that their perception of Poles has to be changed,” said Bemporad. “One of the great contributions of this trip was to open our eyes to how much the Poles were victimized by the Nazis.
The delegation had a series of what they called “extensive” and “fruitful” talks with senior church leaders, who were led by Archbishop Henryk Muszynski, head of the Polish Episcopate’s Commission on Catholic-Jewish Relations.
The group’s visit to the Black Madonna shrine at the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa — Poland’s holiest Catholic shrine — was of particular significance to their Polish hosts.
“The presence of our Jewish brothers at Czestochowa was a sign of their effort at understanding,” said Muszynski. “They realized they can’t understand the other side without understanding what the other side holds sacred. I am in their debt for this.”
The shrine was also the site where several hundred Jews were detained after the Czestochowa ghetto was liquidated by the Nazis in September 1942.
Delegation member Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of the department of interfaith affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, said the trip had included “a discussion of concrete plans.” It was “not just a ceremonial visit,” he said.
Among the initiatives announced was a plan to establish a formal working relationship between the Sacred Heart interreligious center and the new convent and Center of Information, Meetings, Dialogue, Education and Prayer under construction near the Auschwitz death camp.
The U.S. delegation also discussed with the Polish Episcopate a number of projects — including exchange programs and the translation into Polish of books about Jewish history and inter-religious dialogue — aimed at improving Polish-Jewish relations.