Auschwitz memorial divides Jews, Poles

January 27, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

OSWIECIM, Poland -- The human bone and ash of 50 years ago have long since worked their way into the soil. But from deep in this sediment of genocide, not far from the long rows of empty barracks and lonely chimneys, some very old mistrust and suspicion have worked their way back to the surface.

That was evident yesterday when Jews and the rest of Poland parted company at the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

It happened when international Jewish organizations upstaged the Polish government by holding their own memorial service a day before this morning's government ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation from the Nazis.

On the surface, the rival ceremonies are the culmination of an unseemly, months-long spat over matters of honor and remembrance.

But with its eerie echo of events of a half-century ago -- when Jews were set apart from others by black-clad SS men -- the

dispute represents much more.

It is the latest fight in a struggle for control of Holocaust history, not only in Poland but in every eastern European country where Nazis once rounded up Jews, Gypsies and other "undesirables."

The dispute is also the most public display yet of the ambivalence and anxiety of Poland's Roman Catholic majority, which has yet to resolve what it thinks either of the Holocaust or of the Jews.

"It is undignified, and it also mars the memory of those who died here and suffered here," Susan Berger, international coordinator the Shoah Foundation, a Holocaust history project, said of the dispute that led to yesterday's breakaway ceremony. "It's become a political issue when it should be a celebration of the liberation and a commemoration of those who died."

Jean Kahn, president of the European Jewish Conference, touched on the most immediate cause of the split during yesterday's solemn ceremony of speeches and Jewish prayers.

Church, government assailed

He criticized the two strongest pillars of Polish society -- first, by citing "the Catholic Church, which wished to Christianize the Shoah [Holocaust]." Then, by citing "the Polish government, which wished to organize a nationalist ceremony by reducing the Jewish dimension of the Shoah."

The government ceremonies which have caused so much turmoil are scheduled to begin this morning with a speech by Polish President Lech Walesa.

Representatives of several religions and nationalities were to follow with more speeches and prayers.

The only scheduled Jewish speaker was to be Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who had been imprisoned at the camp for 11 months.

Crosses were to be displayed with equal prominence alongside the symbols of Judaism. And the theme of the Polish nation's suffering was to be emphasized.

"The Polish president doesn't want to admit that Auschwitz was a Jewish tragedy," Mr. Kahn said in an interview. "He continues to give the version that it was a Polish tragedy. So we decided we could not pass the 50th anniversary without a Jewish ceremony."

90% were Jewish

Jewish organizations have inevitably drawn ammunition for this argument from the camp's grim body count: of the 1.1 million to 1.5 million killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, about 90 percent were Jews, most of whom perished in the gas chamber.

While overwhelming in the weight of its numbers, the logic has made some people uneasy, Jews among them, by seeming to pit one group's pile of corpses against another's.

The talk has also angered many Polish Catholics, who feel their own wartime suffering has been minimized

"Auschwitz is in Polish soil. My mother died at Auschwitz," Stanislaw Kalembryk, a Catholic, said as he stood in the central town square of Oswiecim, the Polish name for Auschwitz.

His mother was imprisoned for being the wife of a Polish army officer.

Brother at Dachau

"For four years my brother was in the concentration camp in Dachau. My heart is aching from all these disagreements and misunderstandings," Mr. Kalembryk said.

And millions of other Poles -- many of them Jews, many of them not -- were executed at other death camps.

People such as Mr. Kalembryk have not been well-served by their schools over the decades since the war.

During the 44 years of nondemocratic Communist rule, the Jewish plight in the death camps was barely mentioned, even when Auschwitz was studied.

The Auschwitz museum also reflected this slant until recently, only mentioning the Jews in passing amid a generous scattering of Communist shrines and Catholic crosses.

Protest signs

A recent effort by Jewish groups to have one of the most prominent crosses removed -- it stands about 10 feet high -- has led to protest signs that are written in the red and white of Poland's flag.

"Protect this cross from the next attack of the Jews and the Masons," one sign says.

Which leads to another aspect of the recent Jewish criticism, which disturbs some Poles most of all: namely, the implied allegation that Polish anti-Semitism created a climate in which it was easy for Nazis to kills Jews at Auschwitz.

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