In a freak spring snowfall, a Carmelite nun walked silently past the 14 Stations of the Cross along a path outside the infamous Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp.
Each station, commemorating Christ's crucifixion, bore a red triangle and blue-and-white stripes symbolizing the uniforms of prisoners at Auschwitz, where 4 million people, including 2.5 million Jews, were killed by the Nazis in World War II.
The nun is from a Roman Catholic convent just outside the outer wall of the concentration camp, now a Polish government museum in Oswiecim, a town in southern Poland.
Embroiled in Controversy
The convent is embroiled in controversy with international Jewish organizations that say the convent shouldn't be there. They contend that it obscures the memory of Auschwitz as a symbol of the Jewish Holocaust.
The Catholics differ.
"For us, Auschwitz is the place of the tortured man--and you cannot make divisions into Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Frenchmen, Poles, Russians and even Germans," said Sister Maria Magiera, speaking through an iron-barred screen separating her from visitors in the convent's reception room.
"We don't mean to cause any kind of conflict or take this place away from the Jews," she said. "We just want to honor all the martyrs of Auschwitz."
The nuns offer special prayers for the beatification of a Carmelite nun, Edith Stein, who was of German-Jewish origin and died at Auschwitz in 1942, Sister Magiera said.
Sister Magiera, who is one of three nuns among the 11 in the convent permitted to speak to visitors, said their daily routine consists of prayer, meditation and work on renovating the convent, which was a ruined warehouse when the nuns received permission from Polish authorities to occupy it in June, 1984.
The red-brick building was built before World War I as a theater and later was converted into a warehouse where, Sister Magiera said, the Nazis stored soap and occasionally cyklon B gas, the type used in the gas chambers.
Jews Upset by Nuns
The nun said that on March 26 about 30 Jews from the Belgian branch of the World Jewish Congress pushed their way into the convent and shouted at her in what she described as an aggressive and rude manner, assailing the nuns for "wanting to live in a cemetery."
Sister Magiera said there was a misunderstanding because the convent is near the blocks where thousands of Polish Catholics, including the recently canonized priest, the Rev. Maksymilian Kolbe, died and is several kilometers from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp where most Jews died in the gas chambers.
"We don't think the church would order us to leave," said Sister Magiera, adding that the Jewish visitors threatened to demonstrate before Pope John Paul II. "Now we will have to lock the door, as we are afraid of the Jews."
Few Jews Remain
Leaders of Poland's Jewish Religious Union said their organization has not taken a position on the convent but planned to discuss it at an upcoming meeting. Poland's prewar Jewish population was 3 million; an estimated 90% were killed by the Nazis. Only about 12,000 to 15,000 Jews remain in the country today.
Concerns about the convent were first raised by the Belgian Jewish community last fall after an appeal by a Belgian priest for Catholics to make donations to the convent.
In March, five leading European rabbis, including Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, Britain's chief rabbi, and Grand Rabbi Rene-Samuel Sirat of France, appealed to the Pope to close the convent.
"We cannot but deem it utterly incongruent to sanctify ground which is desecrated and accursed," the rabbis wrote. "The very word 'Auschwitz' has become synonymous with the Holocaust, and to have this place of infinite inhumanity serve as a religious shrine would cause affront and agony."
Theo Klein, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, accused the church of being indifferent in World War II to the Jews' martyrdom and said in a letter to the papal nuncio in Paris that Auschwitz should be a place for private prayer.
"It is too late, excellency, to repent on the scene of the crime," said Klein. "The sky was empty then, it must remain so. . . . Do not let a shadow, be it that of the cross, fall on the immense field of our unquenchable pain."
Settling the Dispute
A Vatican official in Rome said he did not know whether the Pope would respond to the Jewish protests and said the dispute should be settled by Polish authorities and the Catholic archbishop of Krakow.
Sister Magiera said that before being elected Pope, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, as archbishop of Krakow, supported the nuns' efforts to establish the convent.
The Polish government spokesman, Jerzy Urban, said the Communist authorities saw no need to intervene in a dispute between faiths and noted that a Carmelite convent existed for years near the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich in West Germany without protests.
Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, the current archbishop of Krakow, said in a statement released in March that the convent would be "like a signpost pointing that love is possible and stronger than evil."
Keep the Memory Alive
He added that the convent was part of the Polish church's efforts to keep alive the memory of the crimes committed at Auschwitz, which he described as "a new 'holy place' belonging at the same time to all humanity."
The Rev. Stanislaw Musial, who writes on Polish-Jewish relations for a Krakow-based Catholic weekly publication, expressed fear that closing the convent could evoke anti-Jewish feelings.
Musial said the convent, which when renovated will house 25 nuns and a small public chapel, answers a need for "a spiritual touch" near the Auschwitz museum, which is visited by more than 500,000 people annually.
"I know that our Jewish brothers are sensitive. They are afraid that during the war they experienced physical extermination and now are threatened with the extermination of the memory. But these worries are not right," Musial added.
Houses of Worship Encouraged
He said the Polish church would like Jews and other religious denominations to build houses of worship near Auschwitz.
Sister Magiera recalled that as a teen-ager in the nearby town of Wadowice, which is the Pope's birthplace, she smuggled food to Jewish friends in the town's ghetto and could see the smoke rising from Auschwitz's crematoriums.
She still has vivid memories of visiting the camp several weeks after its liberation in 1945.
"I feel very much that my place is here," she said.