Convent at Auschwitz Strains Jewish-Catholic Relations

PIOTR, the official guide, had just finished leading a tour of the Auschwitz death camp outside Krakow. He had described the prison work detail, the collecting of eye glasses, gold fillings from teeth, and other personal belongings from condemned prisoners, and the workings of the crematoriums where an estimated 1.6 million people perished.

Until asked, Piotr never mentioned the words ``Jews'' or ``Judaism,'' even though most of the victims - an estimated 1,355,000 - were Jewish.

``This is a Polish tragedy,'' he explained. ``It wasn't just Jews who died here.''

His widely shared attitude lies behind the most serious dispute between Jews and Roman Catholics since World War II. In the past weeks at Auschwitz, Polish workers have battled with Jewish demonstrators, each accusing the other of defacing the memory of the camp.

To the Polish Catholic Church, the Holocaust is not just a Jewish tragedy. It also is a Polish tragedy, which only can be properly remembered through persistent prayer. For this reason, 14 Carmelite nuns established a convent in the camp's old theater in 1984, and have since engaged in religious activity there.

The Nazis stored their death gas, Zyklon B, in the theater. After the war, it was turned into an agricultural warehouse. The nuns rented it from the municipality. They refuse to discuss their motives with the press, saying, ``We are here to pray, not to give interviews.''

This attitude shocks Jews, who fear that if the Carmelites install a permanent monastery on the grounds of Auschwitz, future generations could forget that Jews were special targets of destruction.

As soon as the Carmelites installed themselves at Auschwitz, the affair clouded Jewish-Christian relations.

Negotiations were held in Geneva between the World Jewish Congress and the Roman Catholic hierachy, and an agreement was reached on Feb. 22, 1987. It called for the removal of the Carmelites from the death camp by Feb. 22, 1989, and the establishment of a new monastery outside the camp boundaries.

In addition to the monastery, a center for Holocaust research and Jewish-Christian education was supposed to be constructed.

But on Feb. 22 the Carmelites still were installed inside the camp. The French Cardinal, Albert Decourtray, apologized and asked for a five-month delay. He blamed administrative delays and the difficulties of constructing a new monastery in Poland. On July 22, the Carmelites still had not moved.

A group of Jews have since been staging daily demonstrations outside the monastery. At a press conference here in Paris, Theo Klein, the leader of the Jewish negotiating team, called for freezing all relations between Jews and Christians.

``We can have contacts, but we must not hold real reunions or colloquia together,'' Mr. Klein said. He criticized Pope John Paul II ``for refusing to speak publicly on the subject'' and demanded that ``Jewish communities boycott John Paul II'' on his future pilgrimages.

The Catholic response has been mixed. Cardinals outside of Poland involved in the negotiations have been embarrassed. Cardinal Decourtray, blaming ``psychological obstacles stemming from incomprehension,'' called for Carmelites to take ``concrete signs'' to show that the Geneva accords will be carried out.

Polish ecclesiastical authorities have taken a more ambiguous position. Stanislaw Musial, secretary of the Commission of Poland's Episcopate for Dialogue with Judaism, declared that the Episcopat had just managed to buy the land needed to construct a Jewish-Christian center. He said he hoped that land could be found for the new monastery ``later this year.''

For some Poles, this is not fast enough. Kryzsztof Sliwinski, managing editor of the Solidarity newspaper Gazeta, and founder of a new independent Polish-Israeli friendship society, wrote an editorial calling for the Carmelites to leave the camp.

``This issue is destroying all hopes of a reconciliation between Poles and Jews, and Catholics and Jews,'' he told the Monitor. ``It must be resolved - quickly.''

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