Nuns Now Trying to Turn Convent at Auschwitz into Polish Memorial

The theater building at the edge of the Auschwitz death camp, used as a Carmelite convent for the past decade, was supposed to have been vacated by now.

Instead, efforts are under way to turn it into a memorial to Polish victims of Nazism.

The mother superior of the convent has leased the theater building, which her group has inhabited since the early 1980s, to an obscure Polish nationalist group, which wants to turn the building into the archives of Polish victims of World War II.

Since 1989, at the height of the international controversy over the Carmelite nuns’ presence at Auschwitz, Mother Therese has told visitors she would refuse to move to a new convent that has since been built away from the death camp, across the road.

Six nuns are now living in the new convent, which is part of a complex including a conference center. It is not clear how many, if any, of the 13 nuns who have been living in the old convent remain.

June 30 had been the deadline for the removal of the nuns from the building, which was used by the Nazis to store the Zyklon B gas for the gas chambers at Auschwitz, where about 1.6 million Jews were systematically murdered.

The Society for the Victims of War, which contracted with Mother Therese to lease the building, reportedly intends to convert the building into a memorial to the Polish victims of World War II. The society and Mother Therese planned to unveil a plaque dedicating the memorial at a news conference Thursday.

But their plan may not get far, according to Stanislaw Krajewski, a Polish consultant to the American Jewish Committee. He said that local authorities are trying to stop them.

MAYOR SAYS HE WILL BREAK LEASE WITH NUNS

The nuns have a 99-year lease with the city of Oswiecim, which has jurisdiction over the theater building. And the lease stipulates that the building may only be used as a convent.

Dariusz Dulnik, the mayor of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located, has already declared that he will break his lease agreement with the Carmelite nuns in order to prevent the building from becoming a memorial, according to Krajewski.

Mother Therese made her deal with the nationalist-society on June 29 without consulting church or local government officials, he said, and local officials have already announced their opposition to the plan.

There has been no public statement made by Polish or Vatican officials on the matter.

It is not clear why the city of Oswiecim oversees the theater building when the rest of Auschwitz is apparently under the jurisdiction of the Auschwitz State Museum.

During a two-week waiting period required by Polish law before the contract between Mother Therese and the society goes into effect, the local authorities intend to contest the legality of the nun’s arrangement, according to Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

The matter may end up in the hands of Polish courts.

Rudin on Thursday described Mother Therese’s move as “a ploy,” and said that if the case gets tied up in court, the result is that “we are still left with a situation delaying the final disposition of the convent, which we wanted to have concluded yesterday.”

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