Auschwitz: Jews, Poles Differ on Its Primary Significance

Times Staff Writer

Many of the Polish tourists glanced a few yards to their left as they emerged from the “Block of Death” where special prisoners of Auschwitz once awaited execution. There, past the barbed wire and the watchtower, on the other side of a 12-foot concrete wall, they could see the upper floors of a recently refurbished, four-story brick building and, next to it, the top of a large wooden cross.

“That building houses the Carmelite cloister that the church authorities are fighting for,” said their tour guide.

That remark triggered much angry murmuring among the seemingly passive Poles. “This is our country!” grumbled one. “Poles were also murdered here!” a second said. “It’s not right that they should be protesting!” declared a third.

“They” are the Jews who view a Roman Catholic convent at the site of Nazi Germany’s most infamous World War II death camp as a religious desecration and an assault on the memory of their unique suffering as the target of the most brutally systematic attempt at genocide in recorded history.

Church officials in this predominantly Roman Catholic country have unilaterally suspended an earlier agreement with world Jewish leaders to move the five-year-old convent to a planned interfaith center to be located farther from the Auschwitz site. They said they did so because of what they assert were the agreement’s “unrealistic” terms and “aggressive” actions on the Jewish side.


There were indications over the weekend that some compromise may be in the offing to defuse what has proved to be an explosive and acutely embarrassing squabble for a Polish nation that is elsewhere basking in Western admiration for installing Eastern Europe’s first non-Communist government in more than 40 years.

But as the comments by the Polish tourists suggest, here at Oswiecim--as the town and camp are called in the Polish language--it looks as if no matter what is finally decided, divisions will remain between the Polish and Jewish understanding of each other on the matter of Nazi atrocities inflicted on both peoples.

An Enormous Evil

As enormous as is the evil that Auschwitz represents, it is as if it is still not big enough for Poles and Jews to share.

Both peoples see Auschwitz and the adjacent death camp known as Birkenau as monuments to unfathomable hatred and cruelty. But for Poles, it is a national memorial to extraordinary wartime suffering little appreciated by the outside world; a reminder of a conflict that not only laid waste to their country and killed millions of its non-Jewish citizens, but which then handed them over to the domination of another alien power, the Soviet Union.

To Jews, Auschwitz is a symbol that transcends war and nationhood. It represents the culmination of 2,000 years of irrational persecution and contempt by a Christian world which accused an entire people of deicide. And any action seen as diluting this central theme is considered unconscionable.

“The state museum of Oswiecim-Brzezinka is a monument of the martyrdom and struggle of the Polish and other nations,” according to a sign at the entrance to the complex that employs the Polish names for the two camps.

No Hebrew Version

There is no special mention of the Jews, who numbered at least 2.5 million of the 4 million murdered here. And while the sign is translated into several languages, including Italian, Danish, German, and Russian, there is no Hebrew version.

Through the end of last year, more than 19 million people had visited the museum since its opening in 1947. While many of the nearly 4 million foreign visitors have been Jewish, the great majority who come here are Polish Catholics.

One of about 200 groups that came this past weekend was on a pilgrimage organized by a parish church in the Poznan area. Auschwitz was one of several stops on a three-day tour that also included Poland’s holiest shrine at Czestochowa, the former home of Polish kings at Krakow and the birthplace of Pope John Paul II.

“It’s as if I’m going through the occupation again,” said Lucja Mikula, 67, who was here for the first time. “The young people don’t know,” she added as she began to weep. “But we remember it. We lived through it. I worked five years (as a forced laborer) for the Germans.”

Polska Lucyna, 63, from the same tour group reached behind her neck and also started to cry. “The pain, here,” she explained as she recalled her arrest during the occupation. “I feel they are beating me again.”

Several Poles stayed outside while their groups entered Block 11--the so-called Block of Death. “I can’t go in,” said Kristin Wielgosz, 52. “I don’t want to go through the experience.”

‘Everybody Should Come’

Andrzej Skowronski, who was a wartime courier in the Polish underground, said he has visited Auschwitz many times from his home in Rabka, near Krakow, often escorting family and friends from abroad. “I think everybody should come here and experience this in his own way,” he said.

He knew many who died at Auschwitz, Skowronski added--"Poles. And Jews as well.” And he sighed audibly when asked about the controversy over the Carmelite convent. “I think it’s totally unnecessary,” he finally said. “My personal opinion is that whoever prays here, it won’t hurt those who died here.” He blamed “groups who come here shouting and screaming” for whipping up trouble. “It’s out of place,” he said.

The Rabka man was alluding to a group of American Jews who trespassed on convent grounds in mid-July to protest the failure of the Polish church to live up to a 1987 agreement meant to resolve the issue. The nuns were supposed to have been moved to a new interfaith prayer center by last Feb. 22 under that agreement, but so far, no work on such a center has even begun.

Doused With Water

The protesting Americans were forcibly ejected by Polish workmen who roughed them up and doused them with water in an ugly scene captured by television cameras.

A month later, Cardinal Franciszek Macharski of Krakow, the Polish cardinal who helped negotiate the 1987 accord, said that he was suspending it because of “aggressive” demands and protests of Jewish activists.

Then, three weeks ago, the Polish primate, Cardinal Josef Glemp, voiced during a sermon what apparently were extemporaneous remarks in which he alluded to alleged Jewish control of the media and a Jewish role in spreading communism.

Glemp asserted that anti-Semitism in Poland would disappear if Jews would cease anti-Polish remarks and actions. And regarding the convent, he said: “Dear Jews, do not talk to us from the position of a nation elevated over all others and do not put to us conditions which are impossible to meet.”

The primate’s remarks angered Jews further and shocked many non-Jewish observers as well. A trip he was scheduled to make to the United States later this month was canceled because of “circumstances not favorable” for his visit.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is Polish-born, said that Glemp’s remarks were indicative of a national anti-Semitism that Poles “suck in with their mother’s milk.”

‘Our Own Stupidity’

Adam Michnik, a deputy in the Polish Parliament who had earlier condemned Glemp’s statement, was equally incensed by Shamir’s, calling it “absurd” and “an offense to all Poles. . . . Let us remember that no hatred--be it anti-Semitism or ‘anti-Polandism'--can be ‘sucked in with mother’s milk.’ Hatred is always a product of our own stupidity and immorality.”

Glemp met over the weekend with Zygmunt Nissenbaum, the head of a family fund that restores Jewish monuments in Poland, and according to the official PAP news agency, “a draft of a satisfying solution of the Auschwitz conflict was shaped.”

According to unconfirmed reports, Nissenbaum will help finance the proposed interfaith prayer center, where the convent would be located, a distance away from the Auschwitz camp.