Pledge on Auschwitz Crosses Advances Talks over Memorial

Jewish and Polish officials have moved a step closer to resolving a long-running dispute over religious symbols at Auschwitz- Birkenau.

Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek last week pledged to remove 300 new crosses erected during the summer by radical Catholics at the site of the Nazi death camp.

In a letter to Jewish leaders who have been attempting during the last two years to work out a deal with the Polish government on the future of the memorial site, Buzek said the crosses would be removed “as soon as possible.”

Polish officials are currently trying to remove the crosses through court action, but if that fails, Buzek said the government would adopt a new law enabling it to do so.

The crosses have stood as the latest stumbling block to efforts to work out a long-term plan to preserve and protect the concentration camps. Last year, a coalition of Jewish groups negotiated the removal of crosses and Stars of David from the area known as the Field of Ashes.

The coalition is still trying to work out an agreement concerning religious symbols just beyond the boundary of the camp, including a church with a 26-foot cross on top, another cross in front and a third large cross alongside the old Carmelite convent.

Jewish groups have long protested the presence of the religious symbols as disrespectful. But some radical Catholic groups consider the crosses – - particularly the 26-foot cross that served as a backdrop to a 1979 papal mass — a symbol of the Nazis’ Polish victims.

Jewish and Polish officials had discussed replacing the church cross with a less intrusive monument to the Poles who died there, but talks stalled when the 300 new crosses were erected this summer to protest the negotiations.

Jewish groups and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said they were encouraged by the Polish prime minister’s pledge, which a Polish official conveyed at a meeting of the coalition in Washington earlier this month.

The Jewish groups agreed to give the prime minister time to address the issue through the legislative process but emphasized they will not reopen the negotiations until the 300 crosses are removed.

Poland’s pledge came as an outspoken critic of the plan for Auschwitz-Birkenau stepped up his criticism of museum officials involved in the negotiations.

New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of AMCHA, the Coalition of Jewish Concerns, leveled a blistering attack at a meeting of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council this week, arguing that no Christian symbols should be tolerated.

He also charged that museum officials have no right to negotiate international agreements and said he would work with Congress to ensure that federal dollars are used solely to fulfill the museum’s mandate of education and remembrance.

Miles Lerman, chairman of the museum’s council, has been leading the coalition of Jewish groups that has been negotiating the agreement with Poland. It includes the American Jewish Committee, American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, Anti-Defamation League, Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, World Jewish Congress and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel.

“If the Auschwitz-Birkenau agreement is signed, you will forever be held accountable for having been complicit in violating the memory of the dead,” Weiss told council members Tuesday after they took the unprecedented step – - albeit reluctantly — of allowing an outsider to speak at a council meeting.

“You have an obligation to order your leadership to cease and desist from dragging the museum into the Auschwitz-Birkenau negotiations lest the museum – - and you as its council — be forever disgraced,” the activist rabbi said.

His remarks left most museum officials and council members aghast.

Lerman angrily dismissed Weiss’ remarks, telling JTA in an interview, “the man has a personal vendetta” and “he does not understand.”

In remarks to the council, Lerman said the State Department, Congressional Research Service and the museum’s general counsel informed museum officials that the negotiations with Poland “are totally consistent with our federal mandate.”

Some museum officials have said they believe Weiss has an ax to grind with the museum’s leadership following the ouster earlier this year of Walter Reich, his brother-in-law, as the museum’s director.

Weiss denied his criticism was based on his relationship with Reich and said he is driven solely by memory of the Holocaust.

Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and one of three people designated to respond to Weiss’s remarks, said the Polish government has “come a long way in meeting the concerns of the Jewish community.”

He charged that Weiss’ “name-calling destroys the atmosphere and denies all serious dialogue.”

Beyond the religious symbols, at issue in the negotiations is a plan to physically link Auschwitz and Birkenau with a walking path to induce more visitors to see Birkenau, where the vast majority of Jews were killed.

The talks are also aimed at balancing 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.”

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