The 1998 War of the Crosses


Whose Holocaust is it, anyway?

Crosses put up in 1998 in front of Block 11

In 1998, Polish nationalists embarked upon a mission to put up 152 Christian crosses in honor of the Polish Catholic resistance fighters who were executed by the Nazis in a gravel pit behind Block 11 at the main Auschwitz concentration camp. This was their way of protesting Jewish demands, over the previous 10 years, that the 26-foot souvenir cross from a Mass, said by the Pope at Birkenau, be removed. The basic attitude of the Poles, as expressed to me, was "This is our country. You have your country and we have ours. If we want to put up a Catholic Cross in our country, we'll put it."

It was Kazmirierz Switon, a Polish citizen, who began the crosses campaign in August 1998. The crosses were removed on May 28, 1999, and peace was restored. The place where the crosses were set up was right next to the building where Carmelite nuns had set up a convent. At that time, the plot of land where the crosses were set up had been leased to a non-profit "save the cross" group that wanted to save the Pope's cross, which the Jews wanted removed.

Graffiti on billboards along the route to the Auschwitz camp in 1998 alerted visitors to the War of the Crosses before they even reached the camp. The graffiti that I saw was light-hearted and joked about the controversy, even mentioning Winnie the Pooh. When I was there in October 1998, the War of the Crosses had escalated to the point that the Polish Catholics were threatening to put up over 1,000 crosses, or one for each year that Poland has been Catholic territory. During the years when Poland had ceased to be a country, it was the Catholic Church that kept the spirit of Polish nationalism alive.

Jewish protests against Christian symbols were increasing in 1998, and there was a new demand that the Catholic Church in the former SS administration building at Birkenau be removed because it is not appropriate at the place where over a million Jews perished in the gas chambers.

In October 2005, when the photo below was taken, a Catholic Church was still in this building.

Catholic Church in former SS administration building at Birkenau

The War of the Crosses was the culmination of years of tension between the Poles and the Jews. The Jews are still resentful that some of the Poles collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, and even worse, after the war in 1946, there were pogroms in which more Jews were killed by Polish civilians. The Jews say that the Nazis killed the Jews because they were acting under orders, but the Poles killed the Jews because they wanted to. As late as 1968, there was violence against the Jews in Poland, and even today Jewish memorials and Synagogues in Warsaw must be constantly guarded against vandalism and arson.

The desire of the Jews is to make Auschwitz an international site, rather than a place under the control of the Polish government. Jewish students come from Israel, and from other countries all over the world, for a bi-annual event called the "March of the Living" and at this time, they meet and talk informally with Polish students in an attempt to understand the past and to prevent future bloodshed.

Auschwitz is the world's largest Jewish graveyard. It was here that over a million innocent Jews lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis. The very name Auschwitz is synonymous with Jewish suffering and genocide. So why would anyone ever want to put up Christian crosses at Auschwitz? Worst of all, why would anyone put up crosses just outside the grounds of a Holocaust Memorial Site, where they might be seen by Jewish mourners praying inside?

The photograph below shows Block 11, the prison building at the main Auschwitz camp with the execution wall, called "the black wall," on the left. A person standing here in October 1998 would not have been able to see the crosses that were erected in the gravel pit on the other side of this building.

The other side of the Block 11 building, taken from inside the camp

Actually, the place where most of the Jews perished in the Holocaust is not at the Auschwitz main camp, called Auschwitz I, outside of which Christian crosses were placed in 1998, but at Auschwitz II, a huge subsidiary camp, 3 kilometers from the Auschwitz I camp. Auschwitz II is better known as Birkenau, and the whole camp complex is now called Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Every school child in America knows about the Holocaust and the fate of Anne Frank, who died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen, where she was transferred after being a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The place where Anne Frank was sent was actually Auschwitz II, now called Birkenau. Birkenau is the German name for the village of Brzezinka where the camp for Jewish prisoners, brought from all over Europe, was located. It was at Birkenau that the genocide of the Jews was carried out, not at the main camp where the crosses were placed.

To understand the War of the Crosses, from the viewpoint of Polish nationalists, one needs to understand that the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz I, which has been turned into a museum, is called the Museum of Martyrdom, suggesting a non-denominational connotation. When the main Auschwitz camp was first turned into a museum in 1947, the official decree read, "On the site of the former Nazi concentration camp, a monument to the martyrdom of the Polish nation and of other nations is to be erected for all time to come." There was no mention of Jews or the Holocaust in any of the official Museum guidebooks at that time. The Museum was intended to be strictly political, a monument to the struggle of the Communists against the Fascists. The Museum was officially described as an "International Monument to Victims of Fascism."

It was only after the fall of Communism in 1989 that the genocide of the Jews was even mentioned on the monument in the former Birkenau camp. Before 1989, few people from outside Poland had ever seen Auschwitz-Birkenau, but there were actually more visitors during the Communist regime than there were in 1998 because all Polish citizens were encouraged to go on group tours of the camp and most of these visitors were Catholic. In 1998, the largest group of visitors were the Polish Catholic high school students who were fulfilling an educational requirement to visit Auschwitz where so many of their Catholic grandfathers suffered and died bravely during the Polish resistance to the Nazi occupation.

From the first day that the Auschwitz main concentration camp opened in June 1940, it was the place where Polish political prisoners were sent. It was Catholic religious pictures that were laboriously scratched with fingernails onto the concrete walls of a basement prison cell at Auschwitz by Polish resistance fighters who were imprisoned there. It was mostly Catholic political prisoners who were led naked to the black wall at Auschwitz and executed with a shot in the neck. It was mug shots of Polish Catholic prisoners that lined the walls of the corridors in 1998 in the former camp buildings at Auschwitz that have been converted into a museum.

For the Polish people, who are 98% Catholic, Auschwitz-Birkenau is the place where not one, but two, of their Catholic saints died as martyrs. Both Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, and a Carmelite nun named Edith Stein met their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau and have been canonized as Catholic saints. The prison cell in Block 11 at the Auschwitz main camp, which was occupied by Father Kolbe who volunteered to die to save the life of a fellow prisoner, is a prominent Catholic shrine. In 1998, the controversial crosses were placed in front of the side wall of the Block 11 building, where Father Kolbe was imprisoned in a "starvation cell."

Pictured below is the inside of the basement cell where Father Kolbe was left to die. On the wall is a memorial plaque. This cell is always decorated with fresh flowers, but notice that there is no cross here, as this building is inside the main Auschwitz camp, which is now a museum.

2005 photo of Prison Cell No. 18, Father Kolbe's cell

Edith Stein was born a Jew and was an atheist, but converted to the Catholic religion and became a Carmelite nun under the name of Sister Benedicta of the Cross. Because she was a Jewess, she was gassed in the gas chamber in the little cottage known as Bunker 2 at Birkenau on August 9, 1942; she was canonized a saint in the Catholic Church in October 1998.

The original War of the Crosses began in 1979 after pious Catholics erected a Christian cross at the ruins of Bunker 2, following the announcement by the Pope that the Church was initiating the beatification process, the first step toward sainthood. Jews then erected a Star of David symbol and soon there was a proliferation of crosses and stars: the war had begun.

2005 photo of the ruins of Bunker 2

The original War of the Crosses ended when an agreement was reached in May 1997 and signed in December 1997 between Jewish leaders and Polish leaders. The agreement stated that no religious, political or ideological symbols would be placed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The papal Cross, used by Pope John Paul II when he said Mass at Birkenau, was exempted in the agreement. The Jewish leaders did not approve of this exemption and in 1998, the new War of the Crosses began.

It was the Carmelite nuns who had placed the papal cross at the Auschwitz main camp in 1988, near their convent which was just outside the walls of the camp. The Carmelite convent had been established in 1984 in a brick building, which was formerly used by the Nazis to store the Zyklon-B pellets that were used for gassing the Jews. There is also a Carmelite convent just outside the walls of the former Dachau concentration camp, and the Christian cross on the top of it is within sight of, and only a few yards from, the Jewish Memorial which was built at a later date. The convent at Dachau has an entrance through one of the former guard towers at the camp and it is open to tourists who are visiting the former concentration camp.

The Jews have also protested against the Dachau convent, but to no avail. It was still there when I visited in May 2007, along with a Protestant Memorial Chapel and a Catholic Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the former camp. There are no crosses or Christian symbols of any kind atop the memorial chapels at Dachau, although the nearby Jewish Memorial has a Menorah on top and a Star of David on the entrance gate.

Protests about the convent at Auschwitz were more effective and finally the hierarchy of the Catholic Church agreed to evict the nuns from the building. The controversy became even more heated in the summer of 1989 when the nuns failed to meet the deadline for moving. Local residents reacted furiously when Jewish activists from the USA and Israel staged a series of protests at the site. The Poles interpreted the protests as a hostile foreign intrusion and an assault on the sovereignty of the Polish nation by the governments of other countries. The nuns finally moved to new quarters across the street in 1993, but left behind the cross from the Pope's mass, which they had erected near their convent.

Poland became the premier country for the world's Catholics because it was the birthplace of Karol Wojtyla, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow, who was elected in 1978 as the first-ever Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in 450 years. The birthplace of John Paul II is only 30 kilometers from Auschwitz in Wadowice, a small and once obscure town that has become a popular place of pilgrimage for pious Catholics. Wadowice now has an international airport to handle the many visitors to the town.

On June 7, 1979, Cardinal Wojtyla came back to Poland, as Pope John Paul II, and honored the country of his birth by saying Mass at the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz II or Birkenau. Birkenau was chosen because it is the closest place to the Pope's home town that was large enough to hold the crowd of 500,000 people who attended this unique event in the history of Catholic Poland.

The 26-foot cross from the altar of that Mass is the same cross that was erected by the Carmelite nuns in 1988 at their new convent in a building just outside the grounds of the Museum of Martyrdom at Auschwitz I. The building that the nuns moved into had formerly been a theater before World War II.

The pictures below, taken in 1998, represent a panoramic view of the scene of the controversy about the crosses. The first picture starts at the left of the scene and shows the former building occupied by the Catholic Carmelite nuns; the other pictures were snapped from left to right as you take in the whole area of the crosses. Shown in the last two pictures is the brick building inside the camp, called Block 11, where Father Kolbe was imprisoned. On the other side of Block 11 is the infamous black wall where many Polish Catholic prisoners were shot. On the spot where the large cross now stands, 152 Polish Catholics were shot. The gas chamber where Jews and Russian Prisoners of War were gassed between January 1942 and March 1942 is on the opposite side of the camp, as far away as you can get from the place where the crosses were erected in 1998.

Building which was formerly a Catholic Carmelite convent

Polish flag and flowers honoring 152 Polish Catholics executed on this spot

Some of the more than 200 crosses erected outside Auschwitz I camp

Block 11 which was the prison block at Auschwitz I main camp

26-foot cross used by Pope John Paul II to say mass

As the last three pictures above show, the crosses were placed on three sides of a former gravel pit, surrounding the 26-foot cross from the Mass said by the Pope in 1979 which was erected in the middle of the former gravel pit, now covered with grass. At the time that these photos were taken on October 1, 1998, the number of crosses here was over 200. The whole display was tastefully done and not as chaotic or disrespectful as one might imagine from reading about the controversy in the Los Angeles Times.

The yellow sign erected along the fence, shown in the first picture, demanded the return of the Carmelite nuns to the beautiful brick building here. The nuns moved to new quarters in 1993 in response to Jewish protests, led by Rabbi Weiss in New York, but left behind the 26-foot cross that was erected in 1988.

The photo below shows the front of the building from which the nuns were evicted. A new house was built for them across the road, and this building is now empty.

2005 photo of building where Carmelite nuns formerly lived

The former gravel pit, which is in a sunken area below the fence around the Auschwitz I camp, is the spot where 152 Polish Catholic political prisoners were executed by the Nazis. This spot is located just down the street from the tourist entrance to the former camp and the brick administration building which is now a part of the Museum. Since the crosses are in a low spot, not even the 26-foot cross can be seen from inside the camp because it is hidden behind the Block 11 building.

When I visited Auschwitz again in October 2005, only the 26-foot cross remained in the gravel pit and everything had returned to normal.

Block 11 with 26-foot cross in the former gravel pit

On Sunday, May 28, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the Catholic Church, visited the former camp at Auschwitz, which was mainly a prison for political prisoners, and the Birkenau camp where 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered.

The photo below shows the Pope, wearing a white robe and red shoes, as he walks into the Auschwitz main camp through the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate, followed by his entourage of Catholic bishops and cardinals.

Pope Benedict enters Auschwitz main camp

Photo Credit: Associated Press

The photo below shows Pope Benedict XVI standing at the International Monument at Birkenau as he pays homage to the victims who were gassed in Crematorium II and Crematorium III, the ruins of which are only a few steps away, on either side of the monument.

Pope Benedict XVI stands at the International Monument at Birkenau

Photo Credit: Associated Press

The Pope's visit did nothing to heal the rift between Catholics and Jews. In spite of the fact that Pope Benedict XVI paid his respects to the Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz and bowed his head in shame, he was widely criticized in the media for not mentioning the anti-Semitism of the Catholic church which contributed to the hatred of the Jews in Europe, and for not addressing the failure of Pope Pious XII to do everything in his power to prevent the deportation of the Jews to the death camps. Pope Benedict XVI offered no apology to the Jews for Auschwitz.

The Pope spoke in Italian, so as not to offend the Poles and the Jews by speaking in the hated German language, but still managed to insult the Jews with these words: "In a place like this, words fail; in the end there can only be a dread silence, a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"

It was not God, but rather the millions of Catholics in Europe who were silent, and it was not God, but the ordinary Germans who tolerated the genocide of the Jews, according to the media critics.

In his speech at Auschwitz, Pope Benedict XVI blamed the Holocaust on the "criminals" in the Nazi regime and did not acknowledge the collective guilt of the German people who enthusiastically supported Hitler. The Pope also neglected to acknowledge his own Nazi past as an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth and a soldier forced to fight in the German Army.

The Pope visited the Black Wall at Block 11 and lit a candle in honor of the political prisoners who were executed there, but he wisely avoided the other side of Block 11 where the cross used for the Mass said by Pope John Paul II still stands. He visited the cell where Father Kolbe died, but stayed far away from the Catholic Church in the former administration building at Birkenau and avoided the empty building where the Carmelite nuns formerly lived.

The general consensus in the media was that the Pope did his best, but his best wasn't good enough.

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Last updated on January 3, 2012