Cardinal Franciszek Macharski complained to an Israeli Cabinet official on Tuesday that widespread Jewish protests were making it impossible for him to abide by the agreement he signed to remove a convent built on the grounds of the former Auschwitz death camp.
Macharski, the archbishop of Krakow, discussed the issue during a two-hour meeting with Zevulun Hammer, Israel’s minister for religious affairs, who is visiting Poland.
Hammer explained that Auschwitz, where 2 million Jews died in the gas chambers, remains the most profound symbol of the Holocaust for the Jewish people and that they resent the presence of a convent or any sectarian institution there.
Macharski said he believed a compromise must be reached to effect the convent move, but he warned that it would take a long time and would require a “long educational process” aimed at the Polish people.
According to accounts of their talk, Macharski told Hammer he was deeply hurt by reports that anti-Semitism was manifested at Auschwitz. He said those reports did him an injustice.
But he admitted that tempers were running high among Polish Catholics.
Local residents cannot understand why they cannot pray in the convent and why the nuns cannot live and pray there in peace, Macharski told Hammer.
ANTI-SEMITIC LEAFLETS SURFACE
That lack of understanding increasingly appears to be manifested in incidents of blatant anti-Semitism. A group of Holocaust survivors visiting Auschwitz this week was called “dirty Jews” by Polish bystanders.
And in Krakow, anti-Semitic leaflets have surfaced recently blaming “the Jews” for Poland’s current economic woes and wartime atrocities against Polish soldiers.
Macharski said that was why there needed to be an educational campaign to re-establish communications and understanding between Jews and Poles.
The cardinal explained that the problem was intensified by the surge of Polish nationalism in the wake of recent political changes that have weakened the hold of the Communist Party on everyday life.
Macharski was one of four European cardinals who signed an agreement with leaders of international Jewish organizations in Geneva on Feb. 22, 1987, that stipulated the convent would be relocated no later than Feb. 22, 1989.
That deadline was not met, and the nuns refuse to leave.
Macharski said he wanted to abide by the agreement, but could not implement it under pressure from Jewish organizations.
He urged Hammer to help him remove the convent issue from media headlines and to stop widespread Jewish protests.
Two weeks ago, the cardinal suspended construction of a ecumenical prayer center away from the Auschwitz grounds, where the convent was to be relocated.
He said at the time that he was angered by what he considered gross behavior by some Jewish protesters.
He was apparently referring to a group led by New York activist Rabbi Avraham Weiss, which tried last month to scale the convent walls and was viciously assaulted by Polish workers.
DIALOGUE TO CONTINUE
Despite Catholic criticism of his tactics, Weiss is currently traveling to various European cities to explore the possibility of further actions at Auschwitz.
Hammer told the cardinal it would not be easy to suppress the outcry of Jews throughout the world who are deeply hurt by the presence of the convent at Auschwitz.
He spoke of the right of Jews whose relatives and people died there to be alone with their sorrow and pain.
“This place is the height of evil, the worst place which ever existed, a mass production line for murder,” the Israeli minister said.
“It is saddening that now victims of this place (Jews and Christians) should have to fight one another,” he added.
He and the cardinal agreed that the issue must be pursued further. Macharski said he would continue the discussion with Mordechai Palzur, head of the Israeli interests section established in Warsaw last year. Palzur holds the rank of ambassador.
Macharski also agreed with Hammer that the convent issue should not interfere with the dialogue Israeli and Jewish leaders are holding with Poles.
He said he supported the State of Israel and would like to visit it sometime, but could not do so as long as he was the target of attacks by Jews.
WEISS GROUP ‘PREPARED TO RETURN’
Hammer told reporters later that all of the Polish leaders he met with before his talk with Macharski had agreed that the convent must be moved.
But despite the understanding expressed by Polish statesmen, there is a detectable hardening of attitudes on the issue, Hammer said.
At the same time, Jewish activists are showing no signs of backing down.
Rabbi Weiss, who led demonstrations at Auschwitz on July 14 and 16, is currently canvassing European cities to see if there is sufficient sentiment to mount new protests at the convent.
Weiss, who spent the last several weeks in Israel, arrived in Amsterdam on Monday and planned to continue on to Brussels and Paris, according to Glenn Richter, a participant in last month’s demonstrations who was reached in New York.
“We’re certainly fully prepared to return,” Richter said, “even though we know we may again encounter physical violence.
“But if what we did was a trigger leading to further Catholic-Jewish dialogue on the convent,” he said, “it’s worth any suffering we may endure.”
(Contributing to this report were JTA staff writer Allison Kaplan in New York and JTA Jerusalem Bureau Chief David Landau.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.