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Polish Extremists Seize Control of Debate over Auschwitz Crosses

September 8, 1998
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The crisis over the forest of crosses at the site of Auschwitz has demonstrated that the fight for the memory of the former death camp is far from over.

But the struggle has also taken on deep political, religious and national overtones that have exposed several fault lines in modern Poland.

Extremists have seized control of the debate, hobbling efforts by both the Roman Catholic Church and the government to defuse the situation and damaging Poland’s image abroad.

Since the end of July, Roman Catholic fundamentalists have erected more than 200 crosses to commemorate the 152 Polish Catholics who were killed at Auschwitz — and to “defend” a much larger cross that was used by Polish-born Pope John Paul II during a mass at Birkenau in 1979, and erected outside Auschwitz 10 years ago.

The cross affair has given a prominent public platform to virulent anti-Semites normally on the fringe of political life.

The two leaders of the campaign to put up the crosses, Kazimierz Switon and Mieczyslaw Janosz, “use the affair for self-promotion and to spread ethnic hatred,” Stanislaw Krajewski, a board member of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, told JTA in a telephone interview from Warsaw.

News reports, he said, quoted Janosz as saying that Jews controlled Poland, the government, the media, and the courts, and that the Mossad had infiltrated the country. He was even quoted as calling the Polish church hierarchy who have condemned the crosses “Jewish bishops.”

Some 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before World War II. More than 3 million were murdered in the Holocaust. Only about 10,000 to 15,000 Jews live in Poland today.

The standoff has also pitted Catholic radicals against the mainstream Catholic church in what Krajewski described as a “religious war.”

This was exemplified by the fact that a German priest from the Society of St. Pius X — right-wing followers of French-born Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated in 1988 for refusing to accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council — blessed the crosses and attacked Polish bishops.

Krajewski says it might take direct intervention by the pope himself to move a roughly 25-foot-high cross — the so-called papal cross — that is at the center of mounting Catholic-Jewish tensions.

Jewish and Israeli organizations, as well as some Polish figures, have called for the removal of all crosses and religious symbols at Auschwitz, including the papal cross.

Poland’s Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Polish government have condemned the erection of the smaller crosses and called for their removal, but both have stated that they believe that the papal cross should remain in place.

“Short of the pope’s direct intervention, I can’t foresee the cross being relocated,” said Krajewski.

“His intervention would be perhaps a last resort and would be very, very welcome,” said Krajewski, who is also the American Jewish Committee consultant in Warsaw.

So far, the pope has remained silent on the issue.

“Those who should be the first to defend the cross are on the opposite side of the barricade,” he said.

“The war inside the church is escalating,” Krajewski said. “Christians are fighting Christians. But the general feeling is that it is all the fault of the Jews. The atmosphere is very bad.”

Krajewski, noted, however, that divisions on how to approach the cross issue have also emerged within Poland’s Jewish community.

Members of the board of the Union of Jewish Community distanced themselves from a hard-line pronouncement by Chief Rabbi Menachem Joskowicz last month. Joskowicz, himself an Auschwitz survivor, declared that the presence of any cross prohibits Jews from praying at Auschwitz; one cross, he said, was as bad as 1,000 crosses.

“Joskowicz’s statements were perceived as a war against Christianity,” Krajewski said.

Krajewski faulted some Jews for failing to recognize that even though 90 percent of the 1.5 million people killed at Auschwitz were Jews, Polish Catholics, too, have a right to consider Auschwitz a symbol of Nazi persecution and to mourn the thousands of Poles who were murdered there.

Poles, he said, have the impression that Jews ignore the fact that Poles also were killed at Auschwitz. “Defending the cross” has been made into a symbol of Poles’ right to commemorate these victims.

“Poles do have real, justified rights,” he said. “If Jewish leaders publicly expressed this, it could help improve the situation.”

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