Jewish debate stalls agreement on future to preserve Auschwitz

WASHINGTON, July 14 (JTA) — The shadow of a 26-foot cross over Auschwitz-Birkenau is marring efforts to reach a deal on the future of the memorial site. An agreement on how to protect and preserve the concentration camp, originally slated to be signed in Poland this week, has stalled in the face of criticism from some Jewish activists who say it sanctions existing religious symbols adjacent to the camps. Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has been leading a coalition of Jewish groups over the past two years in an attempt to work out a deal with the Polish government, which approached Lerman in 1996 to discuss a master plan for the site. Last year, the coalition led by Lerman, which includes the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, the World Jewish Congress, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and Yad Vashem, successfully negotiated the removal of eight crosses from the area known as the Field of Ashes. But religious symbols still stand just beyond the boundary of the memorial site, including a church with a large cross on top and in front, as well as another large cross alongside the old Carmelite convent, which was moved from its location next to the camps in 1993 after years of controversy. The draft agreement states that no religious symbols can “henceforth” be introduced to the site. Some Jewish activists have criticized that language, which would allow existing symbols to remain. The WJC, for its part, decided it could not sign the agreement after consulting Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who advised against negotiating “in the shadow of the cross.” In addition, the museum, and Lerman in particular, has been hit with stinging criticism from Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Coalition for Jewish Concerns – - AMCHA. Weiss called the sanctioning of the religious symbols “an intolerable desecration of the largest Jewish graveyard on the planet.” Moreover, he believes the museum is inappropriately using its federal status to sign international agreements when it has no authority to do so. Lerman is giving “the impression” the declaration “has the imprimatur of the U.S. government and it doesn’t,” Weiss said. He is calling for Lerman and Ruth Mandel, vice chair of the museum’s governing body, to be removed and is urging a congressional investigation of the matter. For his part, Lerman declined to go into specifics, citing the “complex issue,” but he said the museum is in “full cooperation with the State Department.” Lerman criticized Weiss for “irresponsible statements that whipped up a firestorm in Poland.” Lerman pointed with pride to last year’s agreement to remove the crosses, saying “we accomplished by negotiation, not by demonstrating” what “no one else has been able to.” David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, insists that the declaration “does not validate any existing religious symbol,” but simply creates “a framework to discuss and resolve the issue of religious symbols.” “I do believe that failure to sign such an agreement would be short-sighted for our Jewish interests,” he added. The draft agreement attempts to preserve and protect the concentration camps, while physically linking the two sites with a walking path. Relatively few visitors currently visit Birkenau, where the vast majority of Jews were killed, and the plan attempts to remedy that. The agreement seeks to balance the commercial and development interests of the two towns — an important concern on the Polish side — against the Jewish imperative, as Lerman has described it, of preserving “for posterity the sacredness, physical integrity and centrality of Jewish suffering and martyrdom at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Further complicating the issue, the situation in Poland has changed since the government first asked for Jewish input. At the same time that the Polish government is trying to reach an agreement with Jewish groups, it has also directed all cities in Poland to submit plans for developing their urban areas. This means that a plan developed by the municipality that encompasses Auschwitz-Birkenau could supercede any agreement on the area reached between Poland and Jewish groups. Because of this concern, two prominent Holocaust scholars who were selected by the museum to help draft the Auschwitz-Birkenau plan — Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt — decided to disassociate themselves from the process. The coalition led by Lerman, meanwhile, is looking to go ahead and sign the declaration, but Lerman said there is no deadline in place right now.

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