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Poland’s removal of crosses at Auschwitz earns goodwill

NEW YORK, June 1 (JTA) — A move by the Polish government to remove some 300 crosses near the Auschwitz death camp appears to have earned Poland some goodwill with the international Jewish community. Polish police removed the crosses last Friday from outside Auschwitz, sending them to a nearby church. The police action occurred only days before Pope John Paul II is scheduled to begin a trip to his homeland during which he will stress religious tolerance. The pope’s 13-day visit is slated to begin Saturday. The Polish move also came one day after police detonated explosives at a site where Kazimerz Switon, the Polish Catholic activist who led a campaign beginning last August to erect the sea of crosses, was staging a sit-in. “We have to congratulate the Polish government and President Kwasniewski for their swift action,” Kalman Sultanik, the vice president of the Auschwitz Museum Council, said, referring to President Aleksander Kwasniewski’s signing last month of a bill that would set up protective zones around Auschwitz and other former Nazi death camps in Poland. “This action will enable the Polish government to renew its dialogue with the Jewish community and Israel,” he said. Some 1.5 million people, mainly Jews, were killed at Auschwitz and neighboring Birkenau during World War II. Tens of thousands of Poles were murdered there. The controversy over religious symbols at Auschwitz is nothing new — and despite the burst of goodwill, the controversy over crosses is far from over. In 1984, a Carmelite convent was installed flush against the Auschwitz camp’s northeastern wall. By 1988, Jewish groups were pressing for the convent to be relocated, which it was in 1993. It was in 1988 that a 26-foot “papal cross” reappeared, erected next to the convent as a sign of resistance. The large cross was originally erected for a mass Pope John Paul II held at Birkenau in 1979 that was attended by 300,000 Poles. Until 1988, it was stored in a local parish. Despite a yearlong protest by Israel and Jewish groups, the papal cross will remain near Auschwitz — at least for now. A coalition of Jewish groups that deals with Polish relations is scheduled to meet in New York on June 7 to discuss the removal of the papal cross, according to Sultanik. The position of the Jewish community, said Sultanik, remains firm: Religious symbols have no place at Auschwitz — “not crosses, not Stars of David, not anything.” But, he added, the removal of the smaller crosses makes it likely that Jewish leaders will give the Polish government more time to remove the papal cross.