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Behind the Headlines: Days of Auschwitz Convent Numbered As Building of New Center Proceeds

April 2, 1991
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Progress is continuing in the construction of an interfaith prayer and education center to replace the controversial Carmelite convent on the site of the Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland.

Construction of the center, which began in February 1990 after a three-year delay, is expected to be completed next year, putting to rest an issue that for years poisoned Catholic-Jewish relations.

The new complex, which is to include a cloistered convent, a research facility, and a meditation and conference center, should be inaugurated in May or June with the opening of the first building, Bishop Henryk Muszynski, chairman of the Polish Episcopal Commission for Dialogue With the Jews, announced during a recent visit to the United States.

The center will be located across the road from the present convent and not visible from Auschwitz, the death camp regarded by world Jewry as the consummate symbol of the destruction of Jews during the Holocaust.

Between a dozen and 20 nuns from the Carmelite order currently occupy a former theater at Auschwitz, a building used by the Nazis to store the Zyklon-B pellets used to kill an estimated 1.6 million Jews at the death camp.

To the dismay of Holocaust survivors and much of world Jewry, the nuns have inhabited the building since 1984. But they are expected to move into their new convent when it is finished.

“The Vatican has told us that the head of the Carmelite order has written to the nuns informing them that they’ll be moving out when the new convent is completed,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.

One of the buildings is said to be nearly completed, the foundation and walls of another have been poured, and the foundation of the third has been laid, according to Steinberg.


The water and electricity were connected a month ago. And now that the winter is over, the pace of construction is expected to pick up, he said.

The Vatican has contributed some $144,000 toward construction of the new complex, and the Catholic churches of Western Europe are said to be aiding the effort as well.

Still, finances are a potential stumbling block.

“We are now short of funds,” the Rev. Stanislaw Musial, secretary of the Polish Episcopal Commission for Dialogue With the Jews, said in an interview last week during a visit to New York.

Nevertheless, “the convent issue is basically resolved,” according to Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of interreligious affairs for the Synagogue Council of America, a body representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and congregations.

The issue is “now one of time and how (the new complex) is used once it’s established,” he said. “The people responsible are doing their best to keep the promise they’ve made. The most important thing is their commitment to getting it done.”

“It’s not a fevered issue right now, because it’s getting done,” agreed Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

“The nuns will move, and we won’t hear anymore about them, because they will be in their cloister,” he said.


The Polish Episcopal Commission on Dialogue With the Jews, together with the Archdiocese of Krakow, has created a commission to plan what will take place in the new Auschwitz Center for Information, Education and Prayer, as it is being called.

Two American Jews have been invited to be part in the center’s International Programmatic Council: Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

The first meeting of the Programmatic Council will take place Sunday in Krakow.

Rev. Musial hopes that when it is completed, the Auschwitz center will serve as an educational institution to give context to what visitors to Auschwitz will experience.

We hope “the young people will pass through the center before visiting the camp,” he said.

After World War II, Auschwitz “became a symbol of (Polish) martyrology. The path of the Jews was played down,” Musial admitted. “It became a museum of horrors, of the techniques of killing, and a banalization of the whole problem.”

No framework for understanding Auschwitz was ever provided, and that is what the new center hopes to accomplish: to create a center for information “about the start of the problem, of the Hitlerian ideology and of the indifference of many states,” said Musial.

The center also will serve as a forum for interreligious meetings and dialogue.

Its completion will be an important step for Polish Catholics’ own religious reconciliation with past anti-Semitism, just recently recognized by the church to be sinful, according to Musial.

“We ask for pardon,” he said. “We must clean our hearts. We have to free ourselves from this heaviness,” he said. “We were not (in Auschwitz) when the Jews were suffering there, so we don’t have the right to be there now.”

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