OSWIECIM, Poland -- For nearly a decade, a giant cross has towered over the fence at Auschwitz, a monument to thousands of Polish Catholics who died in the Nazi death camps during World War II.
But now, local Roman Catholics say the cross is in peril. It could, they say, disappear at any time. Their daily prayer vigils are filled with sidelong glances. Last month, they began to patrol the area after dark.
"Our ancestors died here. This place is soaked in Polish blood," declares Emilia Wanat, 68, kneeling on the cold sidewalk to say the rosary and sing hymns. "I'm going to guard this cross even if I have to shed my own blood to do it."
At the height of the spring tourist season, with thousands of schoolchildren and Holocaust survivors expected to converge on Auschwitz this month for the annual period of remembrance, the Nazi concentration camp in southern Poland is once again the focus of a furious debate.
The issue is a 26-foot wood cross blessed by Pope John Paul II himself.
Long ago, the Polish government volunteered to move the cross in deference to an international agreement to clear the Auschwitz complex of religious symbols and let the horror of the crematoria speak for itself.
During a lengthy interview in February with the French Catholic weekly La Croix, Krzysztof Sliwinski, the Polish ambassador to the Jewish diaspora, let the news slip. Sliwinski said some small wooden crosses and about a dozen Stars of David already had been removed from Birkenau, a death camp two miles from the cross at Auschwitz. Soon, he said, the giant papal cross outside the walls of Auschwitz would be moved as well.
The comment, given a few lines in the French story, hit Poland like a Nazi artillery shell.
The news was all the more shocking given that this particular cross had been blessed by John Paul II, the first Polish pope and a national hero, when he celebrated Mass at Birkenau in 1979. The cross was moved down the road to Auschwitz 10 years later.
Now, Polish Catholics are mobilizing to keep the cross at Auschwitz and some are blaming the Jewish community for their plight.
"We've seen many more Jewish people around the museum lately. That's why we decided to monitor the cross night and day," confides Jan Bartula, 49, a burly local councilman who founded the newly formed Social Committee for the Protection of the Cross.
Every night for the past six weeks, three to five recruits have prowled the streets in cars, mak- ing sure the cross stays put. During the day, a 71-year-old woman named Bozena watches from her apartment across the street.
"We are very much afraid of the Mossad people," Bartula adds, referring to the vaunted Israeli spy agency. "We expect them to try to remove the cross at any time."
Jewish leaders around the world are perplexed by the controversy. Virtually no one in the international community, including Israeli officials, has demanded that the cross be removal.
"I don't think Jews really care about it," says Ralph Grunewald, director of external affairs at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "The removal of that cross has been an issue initiated by the Poles themselves. We never pushed it."
Since the issue arose, a handful of prominent Polish Jews have spoken in favor of moving the cross -- notably Rabbi Manachem Joskowicz, Poland's supreme rabbi and an Auschwitz survivor. Joskowicz and others say the enormous cross -- visible from an important corner of the camp near the "Wall of Death," where thousands of prisoners were executed -- is an insult to Jewish mourners. But others have publicly stated the cross should stay.
"The cross bothers me, but the religious war over the cross bothers me more," said Stanislaw Krajewski, co-chair of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews and local representative for the American Jewish Committee.
"I don't think there's any Jew in Poland for whom the matter of the cross is so important that they'll remove it at any cost."
Those defending the cross protest indignantly that the world has forgotten that Jews were not alone in their suffering at Auschwitz, the deadliest place in the deadliest century in the history of mankind.
More than 1.1 million people died in the complex of camps constructed by the Germans outside the Polish town of Oswiecim -- Auschwitz in German. The cross stands just outside the fence at Auschwitz I, a neat red-brick complex originally built as a Polish military barracks.
The site has come to symbolize the Holocaust: The main entrance to the Auschwitz museum is here, as is the famous gate with the Nazi inscription, "Arbeit Macht Frei" -- Work Brings Freedom.
But while more than 960,000 Jews died in the Auschwitz camps, very few ever set foot in Auschwitz I. Most historians agree the Jewish victims were murdered two miles away at Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau. About 100,000 people died at Auschwitz I, historians say, and three-quarters of them were Polish Catholic.