NEW YORK (Jul. 6)
All of the nuns have now reportedly left the Carmelite convent on the grounds of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, each moving either across the road to new quarters built for them or to another convent altogether.
Their departure marks the end of a nine-year controversy that severely strained relations between world Jewry and the Roman Catholic Church, at one point leading to a suspension of official contacts between the two sides.
But a new controversy has erupted over the future of the convent building, in which the Nazis once stored the deadly Zyklon B pellets used in the Auschwitz gas chambers.
Jewish groups had objected vigorously to the presence of a Catholic convent on the site of a Nazi death camp where more than a million Jews were systematically slaughtered.
Catholic Church officials agreed in February 1987 that the convent should be relocated and that a new center for prayer and meditation should be built nearby. But it was not until last week that the old convent was vacated.
The nuns’ final impetus to move came from their local bishop, Tadeusz Rakoczy. In a June 30 letter to Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, the bishop said he had closed the convent that day, which had been the final deadline for the nuns’ departure.
Stanislaw Krajewski, a Polish consultant to the American Jewish Committee, was unable to confirm reports that all of the Carmelite nuns had left the convent. But he said that the important thing is that “the church has abandoned the place. It will no longer function as a convent.”
‘ANOTHER PLOY’ BY NUNS?
But its future function remains in doubt. The mother superior of the convent has leased the building, which her order has inhabited since the early 1980s, to an obscure Polish nationalist group that wants to turn it into a memorial to the Polish victims of World War II.
Mother Therese signed a contract with the nationalist group, the Society for the Victims of War, on June 29, apparently without consulting church or local government officials.
But the nationalist group’s plan may not get far, according to Krajewski, the AJCommittee consultant. He said that local authorities are trying to stop the effort.
The nuns have a 99-year lease with the city of Oswiecim, which has jurisdiction over the 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.
And Rev. Marek Glownia, director of the Center for Information, Meetings, Dialogue, Education and Prayer that was built to accommodate the nuns, put out a statement Tuesday stating that the Carmelite nuns had no right to lease the old convent building to anyone.
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.
“Father Glownia’s public statement is most important because it represents the definitive and forthright position of the Roman Catholic Church and local authorities in Oswiecim,” he said.
Yet the matter may still end up in the hands of Polish courts.
If that happens, said Rudin, “we are still left with a situation delaying the final disposition of the convent, which we wanted to have concluded” already.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the mother superior’s move appears to be “another ploy to gum up the works.”
He said he plans to visit the site Thursday.