Preserving Auschwitz-Birkenau - Without Commerce and Crosses

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While the world may believe that the issues have been resolved related to the desecration of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Jewish graveyard in the world, this is far from true.

Negotiations between the Polish government and a coalition of Jewish groups led by Miles Lerman, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council - the governing body of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) - are to culminate this summer with the signing of an agreement on a master urban plan for Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It is expected to allow a developer to put in a visitors center with a fast-food restaurant across from the gates to Auschwitz. Ironically, this is the very same developer whose efforts two years ago to put a shopping center at the same site were stopped by intense international pressure.

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Such commercial enterprises, as well as crosses and churches that will also be allowed to remain by this agreement, are in direct violation of the 1,000-meter protected zone mandated by the UN Convention on the Protection of World Cultural and National Heritage.

The churches and crosses also violate the 1987 "Solemn Agreement" signed by four Roman Catholic cardinals and European Jewish leaders, which declared that there shall be "no permanent place of Catholic worship at Auschwitz-Birkenau."

It is important to understand that at Birkenau about 95 percent of those who were murdered were Jews, approximately 1.1 million people. But Jews have no interest in installing Jewish symbols. There is, instead, a commitment to preserving the historical integrity of Auschwitz-Birkenau - meaning no religious symbols of any kind nor any commercial enterprises at the site of this enormous tragedy.

Mr. Lerman and his team in the negotiations must declare that no agreement will ever be signed that leaves standing the church at Birkenau with a cross on top and in front, or the 26-foot cross at Auschwitz. And they must declare that they will not permit construction of commercial enterprises of any kind in the restricted zone.

Lerman's involvement in these negotiations is particularly troubling because, as the council chairman of the federally funded Holocaust museum, he is the head of a federal, not a Jewish, institution. The federal government should not be negotiating the final status of the largest Jewish graveyard in the world. Indeed, the mandate of the Holocaust museum is remembrance and education - to remember those murdered in the Holocaust and to educate the public about it.

The museum has no mandate to negotiate international agreements on the future of Auschwitz.

The federal government itself, and, in particular, members of Congress, should be asking themselves what business Lerman has in these negotiations, and whether he is inappropriately using the museum's federal status to sign documents in the international arena when he has no legal authority to do so. The Polish government might never be in these talks without the federal imprimatur that Lerman brings. And Lerman, for his part, abuses his federal mandate - and plays fast and loose with the memory of the dead - by dragging the museum into such deals.

* Rabbi Avi Weiss is president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N. Y. He is a longtime activist in Auschwitz-Birkenau preservation efforts.

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