The president of Poland has condemned the construction of a mini-mall across the street from Auschwitz.
President Aleksander Kwasniewski was quoted in news reports as saying that he believes that the site for the shopping center is inappropriate, regardless of legal circumstances that might allow for it to be built.
Plans for the mall included a home and garden center, supermarket, fast-food restaurant, clothing and textiles stores, and a parking ramp.
The president’s press office also said he had assured Knesset Speaker Shevach Weiss in Israel that he would take action to resolve the issue.
In addition, the Polish culture minister, Zdzislaw Podkhanski, who formally supervises the museum at the camp, reportedly said he had told the local governor to halt construction and the local authorities to review the construction permit.
The plans for the mini-mall have outraged Jewish groups around the world.
Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a Holocaust survivor, said in an interview that he had appealed to the Polish president on the matter Tuesday morning, communicating his distress about the mall.
“It’s grotesque and insensitive,” Sultanik said, adding that Auschwitz represents all the Nazi camps in Poland.
Some 1.6 million Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II.
According to news reports, town officials and top Auschwitz museum administrators agreed to the mini-mall.
Museum Director Jerzy Wroblewski said the plan was “in no way harmful” and accused the media of misrepresenting it.
He added that the project would “bring order” to the zone around the death camp, a 547-yard protective zone established in 1979 to keep the area’s character and mood.
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, 73, a former Auschwitz inmate who now heads the museum’s council, said he believed that the mall project was created out of “thoughtlessness,” not “ill will.”
Fueling the fire is the contention of the project’s Polish developer that there is nothing wrong with the idea.
The developer, Janusz Marszalek, and a German partner planned to open the mini- mall in a renovated factory and warehouses in early June.
“How can that desecrate the memory of this place?” Marszalek was quoted as saying. He said the project would create jobs in Oswiecim, the town of 45,000 where Auschwitz is located.
Marszalek is also the president of the Polish Catholic organization that now is housed in the former Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.
Jewish groups previously campaigned against the convent and a church at the site, saying that the camps are a huge graveyard and the major symbol of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews died.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA, was one of those actively opposed to the presence of the church and convent. One of Weiss’ protests, in 1989, ended with convent workers kicking him and his followers – in the presence of police.
Weiss said in a telephone interview Monday that he ultimately places the blame for the mall project on the Polish church and the Polish government, both of which, he said, have “no moral backbone.”
Weiss made it clear in the interview that he would go to great lengths to stop the construction of the mall, “even if it means sitting in front of factors.”
The project also reportedly drew condemnation from the region newspaper Trybuna Slaska, which last week called for it to be halted in a story headlined “Supermarket Auschwitz.”
In addition, Szymon Szurmiej, chairman of the Coordinating Committee of the Jewish Organizations in Poland, said, “It is simply unthinkable that directly in front of the biggest death factory of all time” that a “supermarket is to be built.”
He added, “Maybe tomorrow they’ll set up roulette tables in the barracks.”