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Posted Wednesday, August 12, 1998


Continued Controversy over the Crosses at Auschwitz Site

Two Reuters reports, August 5, 1998


OSWIECIM, Poland, Aug 5 (Reuters) -- Radical Roman Catholics defied Polish bishops and courted conflict with Jewish groups on Wednesday by erecting more large crosses outside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.

Some 40 members of nationalist groups and fringe Catholic organisations gathered outside the walls of the camp and set in concrete two wooden crosses three metres (nine feet) high.

"The Bishop can't tell us there mustn't be a cross here, the episcopate must confirm that the cross will remain," said Kazimierz Switon, a hard-line Catholic who staged a 42-day hunger strike to prevent a large Papal cross being removed.

The cross that stood on the altar when Polish-born Pope John Paul II prayed at Auschwitz in 1979 now stands in the centre of a fenced-in field, surrounded by around 50 of the Christian symbols, most of them knee-high but some larger.

The Pope prayed at a spot where Nazi German occupiers shot 152 Poles in World War Two and the campaigners in Oswiecim, the southern Polish town where Auschwitz stands, said they wanted at least 152 crosses to stand in the field.

"We wont allow foreigners to govern here, this is our Polish land and we are going to defend it," said Ryszard Majdzik, head of a small local trade union who planted his cross amidst praying and hymn-singing on Wednesday.

Jewish groups object to any religous symbols being placed near the camp, where 1.5 million people were murdered in the war, some 90 percent of them Jews, and say they have a semi-formal agreement with the Catholic Church on the issue.

Last year, crosses and Jewish Stars of David were removed from the adjacent Birkenau death camp.



Israel on Wednesday officially called on Poland to remove the forest of crosses that have sprouted outside Auschwitz saying they harmed the character of the site.

Polands small Jewish community has said the cross-planting was anarchic and asked the government to take a firmer stand. But it has avoided tough statements for fear of inflaming the situation.

The affair has embarrassed the Polish government and the Church in this predominantly Catholic country.

The governing centre-right coalition has declared the issue the churchs responsibility and has remained largely silent for fear of irritating right-wing Catholics within its ranks.

Some six rightists quit the coalition recently and formed the nucleus of a nationalist opposition group. It may use the cross issue to attract further defectors, which would threaten the governments thinning majority.

Catholic bishops have condemned the erection of the crosses as divisive but have not yet called for their removal.

Analysts say they are fearful such a move will provide ammunition to fundamentalist Catholic groups linked to the Radio Maryja radio station, which has a large and conservative audience and is a thorn in the side of the bishops.

"This is not a conspiracy, this is a classic case of spinelessness being exploited by a small bunch of determined fanatics," said Konstanty Gebert, editor of a Jewish monthly magazine in Poland.

Newspaper editorials have called on the government and church to end the stand-off before further damage is done to Polands image, which was hurt in the past by strains in the relationship between Poles and Jews.


JERUSALEM, Aug 5 (Reuters)- Israel urged Poland on Wednesday to act to remove a forest of crosses planted by Polish Catholics outside the former Auschwitz Nazi death camp.

"Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh asked the Polish ambassador to work to remove the crosses at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp which harm the character of the site where millions of Jews were murdered," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement.

Members of a Catholic workers' group last month erected some 50 crosses, one of them three metres (10 feet) high, just outside the walls of Auschwitz in the Polish town of Oswiecim as part of a campaign to maintain Christian symbols at the site.

The directors of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial this week said the erection of the crosses was a "provocative act" by "extremist groups" and urged their removal.

Yad Vashem said the crosses violated an international accord under which no religious, ideological or political symbols would be erected at the site where 1.5 million people died during World War Two, 90 percent of them Jews.


One Catholic who held a 42-day fast to prevent the removal of a seven metre (22 feet) cross set up to mark a visit by Polish-born Pope John Paul said last month he wanted "the entire escarpment to teem with crosses."

Polish clergymen have distanced themselves from the crosses without condemning them outright.

Auschwitz has long been the focus of a struggle between Jews who see the camp as the worlds largest Jewish burial ground and Catholics who say they also have a right to pray at the site.

About 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before World War Two. Some 90 percent were murdered by the Germans and most survivors later left after anti-Semitic episodes.

The Papal cross was placed in the garden of a Catholic convent which was itself the subject of an international Jewish outcry and was vacated in 1993.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.All rights reserved.