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Commentary

Symbols of Christianity Give a Distorted Message at Auschwitz

Holocaust: There should be no religious symbols at the Nazi death camps.

November 06, 1998|WALTER REICH | Walter Reich, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998

The escalating controversy over the presence of crosses and churches at Auschwitz in Poland has provoked increasing rancor between Poles and Jews. As Jews have protested the presence of Christian religious symbols and structures at the death camp and as Poles have responded to those protests with the erection of new crosses, fears of an outbreak of anti-Semitism and accusations of insensitivity to religion or to the dead have multiplied.

The current battle over Auschwitz began last July when news spread that an agreement was about to be signed prohibiting placement there of new religious symbols and structures but still permitting the presence of existing crosses and churches, which for years have been standing in violation of an international agreement.

Some Jewish groups objected that the existing symbols and structures should not be grandfathered into international acceptance. Their most vigorous protests were against a 26-foot-tall cross at Auschwitz I, the oldest part of the Auschwitz complex, and a church in the former SS headquarters at nearby Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, the huge death factory designated to finish the task of exterminating Europe's Jews. The church has a cross atop it and one in front of it overlooking the remains of Birkenau's barracks.

Protesting Jews noted that of the 1.1 million to 1.5 million victims who perished in Auschwitz, about 90% were Jews, and that in Birkenau, the site of the church and of the vast majority of the murders in the Auschwitz complex, about 95% were Jews.

They recognized that the approximately 75,000 Catholic Poles who perished in the camp constituted a massive loss for the Polish nation and deserve eternal commemoration. But they argued that the overwhelming majority of the victims of Auschwitz were Jews and that the presence of crosses and churches skews the perception of history for visitors to the site--a perception that would become ever more accepted, so that, years from now, visitors would assume that the people murdered there had been, quite simply, Catholic Poles.

Almost immediately, Polish Catholic nationalists erected additional crosses, by now more than 200, near the large cross at Auschwitz I and insisted on keeping them there even after the Polish government and the Polish bishops urged that these new crosses, though not the large one in Auschwitz I nor the Birkenau church, be removed.

One Polish nationalist insisted that "Jews cannot tell Poles what to do" on their own soil. Others, including skinheads, asserted that Jews controlled both the government and the church.

On Aug. 11, six members of the U.S. Congress wrote the Polish prime minister protesting the new and old crosses at Auschwitz I and the Birkenau church. Such religious symbols and structures, they said, are "inappropriate at this location and are in violation of the UNESCO agreement which Poland signed in the late 1970s." They stressed that they respect crosses and churches as places and symbols of holiness, but added that "we believe they do not belong at a place such as Auschwitz-Birkenau." The signing of the agreement has been postponed.

Unfortunately, the same kind of controversy could well erupt at the sites of several other Nazi death camps in Poland, which were pure extermination centers focused overwhelmingly on the murder of Jews. At Treblinka, 750,000, conservatively estimated, were gassed, including most of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto; at Belzec, about 600,000, perhaps more; at Sobibor, about 250,000; at Chelmno, about 320,000. Given the inadequacy of records, these numbers can only be estimates.

Crosses already have been erected at some of these sites, and more seem likely to come. Eventually, these death camps in Poland may be seen primarily as places of Polish Catholic martyrdom, with the true identity of the victims distorted by the religious symbols and structures.

There should be no religious symbols or structures of any faith at the camps.

The ashes of the dead should be allowed the undisturbed dignity of their tragic repose. Only words of accurate history should be placed at those sites to tell visitors who was murdered there, how many and why. Only truth can be their fitting and lasting memorial.

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