Dilemma of the Auschwitz Crosses

Archbishop Henryk Muszynski

Archbishop Henryk Muszynski of Gniezno is the Polish Church's foremost authority on Christian-Jewish ties. As founder-chairman of the Polish Church's Commission for Dialogue with Judaism, a position he held until 1994, Archbishop Muszynski is a veteran of Catholic-Jewish debates and has helped calm tensions over the stationing of crosses at the former Auschwitz concentration camp. He spoke recently with the Register's Eastern Europe correspondent, Jonathan Luxmoore, at his Gniezno residence.

Jonathan Luxmoore: Late last summer, the council of Poland's Bishops Conference condemned the “arbitrary stationing of crosses” at Auschwitz's Gravel Pit, but defended the presence of an existing cross, used at the Pope's 1979 Auschwitz Mass. Many Jews have welcomed this gesture of compromise. But Polish nationalists occupying the site have vowed to continue their “Action Crosses.” How do you interpret these reactions?

Archbishop Muszynski:

Apart from a few extremist voices, the Jewish and Christian reactions have generally been positive. I received a long letter commending the statement from the director of Washington, D.C.'s Holocaust Museum, Miles Lehrman. I also spoke about it with France's chief rabbi, and was told the International Council of Christians and Jews had received many messages praising the statement.

But you can't expect such an important statement to be accepted by everyone. Its rejection by those you mentioned has been sad and unpleasant — especially since they declare themselves Church members. But we should draw a sharp distinction between the well-intentioned people who were maneuvered into this, and those who have actually inspired it by exploiting the symbolism of the cross.

For many, the statement has provided an opportunity for deep reflection. The Church isn't just an organization. It's a living organism, the Body of Christ. And the particular responsibility of bishops in this organism is to teach in Christ's name.

The statement follows a mid-August homily by Bishop Tadeusz Rakoczy of Bielsko-Zywiec, who heads the diocese where Auschwitz is situated, deploring “activities which have nothing in common with the cross, but are carried out in its name.” What did you hope to achieve with this more comprehensive condemnation?

The main aim was to support Bishop Rakoczy, by showing the bishops were united and highlighting the political character of the so-called Action Crosses. We hope it will help people of good will see how their trust has been exploited, and how this is undermining the good of the Church, of Poland, and of the Jewish nation. We cannot allow the cross to be used instrumentally. The cross is a symbol of unity, peace, reconciliation, and love. Everything contrary to this should be rejected.

Who has an interest in this conflict, and in damaging the image of Poland and the Catholic Church in the West? Polish commentators have cast a suspicious eye at virtually everyone, from former communist agents to the Russian government.

There's no lack of radical elements on both sides — indeed, the ones you mention might well see an interest in provoking disputes. Poles still nurse vivid memories of their past struggles for the cross, under Russian and German occupation, as well as under communism. Most aren't aware that Jews attach a very different meaning to it. Instead, they see any opposition to the cross as opposition to Christianity itself. So pressure for the removal of crosses causes an emotional reaction. It's like a wildfire — very easy to ignite. And it makes the cross an easy source of conflict.

Yet Jewish opinions are divided over the presence of a cross at Auschwitz. Some say they'd see any cross as a profanation; others say they'd have no objection to a memorial stone with a cross engraved on it.

There's an important difference between the cross already standing on the Gravel Pit and all those additional crosses. This is a place where 152 Poles were shot. And when the original cross was placed on their mass grave, it had some justification and was accepted in some Jewish circles — large crosses are a normal feature at the many mass graves in Poland. But the other crosses shouldn't be there. Once a cross is placed on a grave, there's no need to place any more. Local people believe the Gravel Pit lies outside the concentration camp. This may be so, topo-graphically speaking. But in reality the area is intimately connected with it. We have to learn to value each other in all our specificity and contrasting sensibilities. There is no Christianity without the cross.

Does the cross have to be so dominant? The original cross was set up in 1989, when Jews were demanding closure of a Carmelite convent on the same spot. It's 26 feet high, twice the size of the imposing folk crosses which decorate the Polish countryside. Couldn't it be smaller?

Many Jews see the cross as a provocation. We should recognize this — if we want others to respect our feelings, then we must also respect theirs. I thought we were close to an understanding, but this has moved further away. We now need to allow emotions to calm, tidy the place up, and start looking for a mutually acceptable solution.

In short, you don't rule out the possibility that the “Papal Cross” will have to be removed.

We didn't use the term Papal Cross in our statement. It is the Pope's cross, in the sense that it was used at a Papal Mass. But as some Polish Protestants have pointed out, there is in reality only one cross — the cross of Christ. To label it a “Papal Cross” means dragging yet another figure into the dispute, and causing bad associations. As for the future of this cross, the Polish bishops were quite clear. “We express the conviction,” they noted in their statement, “that it will stay in its place.” At this stage, I wouldn't want to risk causing anger by making any suggestions. A lot of people are attached to this cross and are demanding guarantees for the future.

Preaching at Poland's Zakopane resort on June 6, 1997, under the cross on the summit of Mount Gierwont, the Pope said the cross reminded Poles of their “Christian dignity and national identity.” “Defend the cross,” he urged Catholics; “do not offend God's name in your hearts, in family or social life.” Defenders of the Auschwitz cross have cited this as a justification.

As the Pope's countrymen, we should do everything to spare him further problems and sufferings. The Poles frequently declare their love for the Pope. Well, they should express this love by finding a solution to this conflict in the spirit of his teachings, thus relieving him of part of the burden he carries for all the Church.

The Pope did say “defend the cross.” And he meant it in a real sense — we shouldn't downplay his words. But they must be understood in context. Under Communist rule, the cross was attacked as a symbol of Christianity. Against this background, the Pope wasn't talking about a single cross, but about the wholeness of Christianity. He showed how our life should be shaped by love, how we should never desecrate the cross. The cross should be defended with everything it symbolizes at every moment, in every place and every situation.

The latest dispute has spurred new calls for a final settlement of the status of Auschwitz. Poland's chief rabbi, Menachem Joskowicz, has proposed that the camp be declared an “extraterritorial entity” under the jurisdiction of countries which lost citizens there. Wouldn't this help deflect responsibility from Poland?

I don't think many Jews would subscribe to this suggestion. Just imagine what the consequences might be — for example, for the status of Jerusalem. The Poles fought for decades to assert their freedom and sovereignty. So we could expect vigorous reactions against such an idea, both here and among American Poles.

The status of Auschwitz has many angles — religious, social, political. But Poland's independence is a matter for the governing authorities. There are many ways of guaranteeing rights, and some international presence might certainly help. But the request for extraterritoriality goes too far. I think we should guarantee the same access to Jews as we are seeking for Poles at the wartime massacre sites of Katyn, Kharkhov, and Miednoye in Russia and Ukraine. The religious dimension is more complex at Auschwitz, and the symbolism is different. But a solution should enable Jews to commemorate their dead according to their traditions.

Thanks to my own contacts with Jews, I understand these traditions more fully. But to people who have no contact with Jews in everyday life, they remain alien. Since we worship the same God, many assume, we must commemorate our dead in the same way. This is a great oversimplification.

Up to 80% of all Jews can point to Polish family connections, dating from when Poland was the world's foremost Jewish homeland. But many are also bitter about the popular anti-Semitism which grew up here and still persists. In 1991, the Polish Bishops Conference condemned anti-Semitism in a pastoral letter. But doesn't the Auschwitz conflict threaten to reverse the progress achieved in combating prejudices?

The process has moved ahead significantly. It can't be judged by one particular conflict, caused by particular people at one particular moment. There's still a lot to do. But I see progress, above all, among young people, who are totally open, as well as in Church teaching and catechesis. There's great interest in Jewish religion and history, and the awareness is slowly taking root that Poland's thousand-year Jewish heritage is our common one.

The young are free of the prejudices encountered among older people. And it's very important that young visiting Israelis have a chance to exchange views and experiences with their Polish counterparts. This is the most effective way to fight stereotypes.

But we need this to be a mutual process. There are stereotypes on the Jewish side too — especially that all Poles are anti-Semitic. When terms like “Polish concentration camps” are used in the Western media, they deeply offend the Polish people. Many visiting Jewish friends have been shocked to find their impressions were so removed from reality.

Yet critics of the Polish Church say things aren't so simple. Although the bishops have reiterated Vatican II's general condemnation of anti-Semitism, they argue, they haven't done enough to discredit the elements which make up Polish anti-Semitism. Some Church leaders have even used anti-Jewish stereotypes as a weapon against their opponents.

All forms of anti-Semitism must be condemned as sins — I don't question this in any way. But the term “Polish anti-Semitism” poses a problem. To admit that such a thing exists, means to confirm a stereotype. The notion that a specific type of anti-Semitism prevails here has often been misused — indeed, some people have been persuaded that “Polish anti-Semitism” is the worst form of all. In their letter, the bishops tried to define the anti-Semitism on which our sorrow and remorse should be fixed. We have to confess our guilt — but we can't confess to everything that's been attributed to us.

You have made lifelong efforts to understand Jewish culture from a Christian standpoint and build personal bonds between the communities. Do you feel isolated among other Catholics?

My problem lies in the fact that I had the occasion to encounter the Jewish mentality — first through Bible studies and later through personal contacts. I see many things somewhat differently. Here in Poland, where there are hardly any Jews, I find myself explaining the Jewish perspective. But in Jewish milieus abroad, I present the perspectives of Catholics. Even these vary considerably. For many Poles, the cross is a symbol of justice. Our 19th-century uprisings began in its name. So did the movement for freedom in modern times. Yet this would seem strange to Christians in other parts of the world.

So my role is a paradoxical one. Bishops and priests often ask me about specific issues, and they may not always agree with me. But although I often encounter some lack of understanding, I don't sense any enmity or resentment.

The latest conflict over the Auschwitz Crosses has again focused attention on Catholic-Jewish relations — on what's been achieved, and what remains undone. Could the conflict bring positive results by forcing a meeting of minds?

One thing which strikes me is that everything which happens at Auschwitz gives birth to such pain and suffering. The conflict over the Carmelite convent generated acrimony for years. Yet when the sisters moved out, the protests ceased, and they were still able to continue praying in Christian fulfillment. The only difference was that they had moved a few hundred meters further away. We learned a lot from this — to be much more careful in what we do, and to remember that Jewish sensitivities are different.

If Jews have learned something about Christian sensitivities too, we can learn to love each other more mutually. This is what we are both called to, even if not in the same way. People died the same death, in the same land, persecuted by the same ideology. It isn't a question of the quality of that death, or even of its quantity. The only real problem concerns our understanding that Jews were sentenced and had to die. The Poles, by contrast, could survive as Untermenschen, inferior beings. But the Jews were denied human status altogether.

Yet the competition of suffering which occurs here is incomprehensible to outsiders. For so many years, we were on the same side as victims, faced by the same oppressors. Perhaps the positive good which has emerged from this painful experience will create a basis for dialogue with the passage of time.

The Pope has made Christian anti-Semitism part of his pre-millennium theme of repentance and atonement. Can the Polish Church contribute something to this process of self-questioning and self-improvement?

The Polish Church can contribute through its particular experience of the Holocaust, the Shoah. For us, the Holocaust isn't an abstraction; it's a living reality whose consequences we still carry within us. The German concentration camps were situated on Polish territory. Yet it was only in Poland that sheltering Jews carried a mandatory death penalty. It required great heroism here. Of course, some people showed their sinfulness and weakness by collaborating. But our task now is to show where the border lies between where we are truly guilty and where we are merely accused.

— Jonathan Luxmoore

Archbishop Henryk Muszynski

Personal: Born 1933, in Koscierzyna, Poland. Ordained in 1957; elevated to an auxiliary bishopric of Chelm in 1985. Named Bishop of Wloclawek in 1987; appointed metropolitan of Gniezno, Poland's oldest see, in 1992. Archbishop Muszynski has been vice president of Poland's Catholic Bishops Conference since 1994, as well as heading its Commission for Catholic Teaching.

Accomplishments: Work at the Papal and Franciscan Bible institutes in Jerusalem, and at the Institute of Qumranic Studies in Heidelberg, Germany. Founding director of the Polish Church's Commission on Dialogue with Judaism up to 1994.