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Convent at Camp : Auschwitz: Controversy Over Symbol

June 22, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

"The Jewish people see Auschwitz as the place of the Shoah, the Holocaust, the final solution," he said in English. "The Polish people see it as the place that killed half their intelligentsia."

He sounded as if he believes that both concepts are valid, that neither excludes the other.

Exhibits on Display

Except for the barbed wire and the ironic iron sign that the Germans put over the gate-- Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free), Auschwitz I looks like an ordinary compound of dormitories. But the government has filled these barracks with exhibits that try to tell the story of Auschwitz.

Some exhibits are stark--hanks of hair severed from corpses, artificial limbs torn from victims, hunger cells for starving prisoners to death. But the most poignant and startling exhibits are the enormous displays of suitcases and pots and pans.

The suitcases are covered with names and addresses, neatly lettered by the victims who hoped to retrieve them after undressing and entering the "shower rooms." The pots and pans were brought by Jews who had been told they would need them in their new homes.

Ruins of Gas Chambers

Birkenau, unlike Auschwitz I, still has an eerie, bleak air. A visitor can climb to the top of the watchtower at the gate and see the full story immediately. Lines of railroad tracks creep forward, seemingly heading nowhere, then stop abruptly, a couple of hundred feet from the twisted, churned concrete ruins of enormous gas chambers and ovens. The Germans dynamited them before retreating before the advancing Soviet armies, hoping to destroy the evidence of what had happened at Auschwitz.

The convent is in a building that was used as a theater before World War I, at a time when this region of Poland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During World War II, the Germans used it as a storehouse for canisters of crystallized prussic acid, which produced the killing gas, hydrogen cyanide, known as Cyklon-B.

There is some question as to whether the building is legally part of the grounds of Auschwitz, and Graff did not point out the convent until he was asked about it.

A group of 10 Carmelite nuns, after receiving permission from the Polish government, set up the convent in the fall of 1984. The idea of a convent at Auschwitz had the full support of Cardinal Franciszek Marcharski, the archbishop of Krakow. He said the nuns would "live in seclusion offering prayers of expiation for the crimes committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau."

One of the nuns was a survivor of Auschwitz, and the sisters wanted at first to name the convent in memory of Stein, the Carmelite nun gassed at Birkenau and beatified in ceremonies at Cologne, West Germany, on May 1.

But the nun's beatification is also a sensitive issue among Jews, for she was a Jew who converted to Catholicism, and many Jews insist that she was gassed not because she was a Catholic nun but because she was born a Jew. The Carmelites have abandoned the idea of naming the convent here after her.

Catholic Fund-Raising Drive

Foreign Jewish organizations first became aware of the convent in 1985, when a Catholic group in Belgium organized a drive to raise funds for it. The matter was complicated by the tone of the appeal, which struck some Jews, perhaps mistakenly, as a call for conversion. The appeal, in any case, ignored the special meaning of Auschwitz for Jews.

European Jewish leaders and Polish Catholic officials soon found themselves in conflict. The Jewish position was probably put most forcefully by Steg, who heads the Universal Israelite Alliance in France. He made it clear that many Jews felt that the Catholic Church was trying to take away the symbol of the Holocaust and perhaps the Holocaust itself from Jews.

"How are we to remain calm," he said in Geneva, "when, rather than seeking the pardon of Jews for what they have suffered for 2,000 years in Christian countries, the Carmelites come to Auschwitz to exalt the triumph of the Church?

" . . . How could we fail to be appalled by this triumphant annexation of the Shoah, erasing it, subtly changing its character? All of this can only lead to the denial of the Shoah."

The Jewish position received powerful Catholic support. Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris, and Cardinal Albert Decourtray, the archbishop of Lyon, agreed that the Carmelites should leave Auschwitz. Cardinal Lustiger, a convert, was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants to France; his mother died in Auschwitz.

Support from Polish Jew

The Carmelite nuns, on the other hand, received the support of Stanislaw Krajewski, an unofficial but influential spokesman for the small Jewish community left in Poland. Krajewski argued in the Polish press that the Catholic prayers could not hurt the symbol of Auschwitz.

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