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Jesuit Priest Champions Cause of Jews at Site of Auschwitz Camp

Though a longtime Jesuit priest, Stanislaw Musial says it was only later in life that he saw the light.

It was in 1985, a year after a Carmelite convent was built adjoining the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Musial, in his comments to a Jewish journalist from Belgium, joked at the time that the nuns would “pray in Hebrew.”

Ensuing protests and growing outrage from Jewish groups over the convent’s location led Musial to believe that the Catholic Church was insensitive to Auschwitz as a prime symbol of Jewish suffering.

Since then, that sensibility has governed his life. Musial became a leading Jewish supporter in Poland, relatively rare in a country known more for its deep-rooted anti-Semitism.

From 1986 to 1994, Musial was secretary of the Commission of the Polish Episcopate for Dialogue With Judaism. He was a key figure in negotiations with Jewish groups that led to the convent’s relocation several years ago.

Musial is a forceful voice in the current conflict between Poles and Jews over some 300 wooden crosses that have been planted near Auschwitz, close to where the convent once stood.

More important, perhaps, the 61-year-old priest says he is now on a crusade for the church to come clean on its role before and during the Holocaust.

While Jewish groups prod the Vatican to open its wartime archives, the soft- spoken Musial raises daring, painful questions within the church itself.

“We prepared the way for Hitler with our anti-Semitism over the centuries,” he recently told JTA. “Of course, Christianity didn’t create the idea of camps or of physical extermination; rather, of the spiritual extermination of the Jews through conversion.

“For this, I’m asking the Catholic Church to offer a clear declaration of apology.”

Musial has allied himself with Jewish groups in the drive to prohibit the use of religious symbols at Auschwitz. A law signed this week by President Aleksander Kwasniewski is expected to force the removal of all the crosses but one — the so-called “papal cross,” which is linked to Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Poland in 1979.

But Musial says no crosses should remain, describing them as “offensive” and a “provocation” to Jews. The 24-foot “papal cross” is visible from one point inside the Auschwitz camp.

“For me, these are not crosses,” he said. “Anyone can put together two pieces of wood, but it’s the religious authorities who determine what is a cross.”

Musial, for years an editor and contributing writer for the Krakow-based Catholic newspaper Universal Weekly, has been denounced by leading church officials and told to keep quiet.

And the public, in a stream of hate mail, can’t fathom why a Polish Catholic of proud peasant stock would be such a fan of the Jews.

Still, Musial persists in what he calls “my fight.” Besides, he says, there’s whiff of hypocrisy to the cross-planting campaign.

“We were in silence during the Shoah,” he said. “Maybe Pope Pius XII was a good man, but he did not lead as a shepherd, or help form a consciousness of `Thou shall not kill.’ And for this reason, we should not falsify the historical perspective as if we were always there. We were not, so now we have no right to put up these crosses.”

Auschwitz, he said, must be remembered primarily as a Jewish tragedy. It was there, and in neighboring Birkenau, that the Nazis killed 1.5 million people, most of them Jews.

There were, however, also tens of thousands of Poles murdered.

Musial suggests a simple monument, flat on the ground, as a more appropriate commemoration of the Polish victims.

“Six million Poles died during the war — half of them Christian, half of them Jewish,” Musial said. “We have our places of martyrdom everywhere.

“But for Jews, Auschwitz is the symbol. In the future, they must have the biggest say of what happens there, because it was predominantly Jewish blood that was lost there.”

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