AUSCHWITZ CONVENT. In 1984 Cardinal Macharski, archbishop of Cracow, announced the establishment of a Carmelite convent in Auschwitz in a building on the camp periphery which had originally been a theater but was utilized during World War II to store the poison gas used in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria. When a Catholic organization called Aid to the Church in Distress issued an appeal to mark the pope's visit to the Benelux countries in 1985 under the slogan "Your gift to the Pope – a convent in Auschwitz," the Jewish community – initially in Belgium – reacted with outrage. They were joined in their protest by leading Catholic dignitaries in Western Europe. Jews stressed that although others had suffered there, Auschwitz had become a symbol of Jewish martyrdom and while not objecting to a convent devoted to commemoration of Catholic suffering in Auschwitz, it should not be situated within the boundaries of the camp. Although similar Christian institutions existed in other camp sites, Auschwitz, it was felt, was different. The presence of the convent would contribute to the minimization of the Jewish aspect, already scarcely mentioned in the official communist era descriptions on the site as prepared by the Polish government. One reaction in Polish circles was to emphasize the theme of the fate of Poles for whom Auschwitz was also "a synonym for martyrdom and extermination." The issue energized the Jewish world and became the major subject in Jewish-Catholic discussions, overshadowing all other aspects of the ongoing dialogue.
Two top-level meetings in Geneva in 1986 and 1987 (attended on the Catholic side by four cardinals and on the Jewish side by West European leaders) led to the undertaking by the Catholics to create a new "center of information, education, meeting, and prayer outside the area of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps" with the Carmelite convent transferred to this new area. Cardinal Macharski, who was one of the participants, agreed that the nuns would be moved to the new site within two years.
The issue then dropped to the background and only came again to the fore as the two-year deadline approached and there was still no sign of progress and indications that the Catholics were not fulfilling the Geneva promises. Macharski claimed that the problems encountered with the Polish authorities over the new site made postponement inevitable. Moreover the nuns in the convent and some elements in the Polish Catholic Church were opposed to the move. Tensions rose as the Catholics announced a delay, and the Jews complained that no indication was being given for the fulfillment of the original agreement. Jews were further incensed by reports that a large cross had been erected on the grounds of the convent. Protests and demonstrations were held in various countries. A French-Belgian delegation attempted to deliver a petition signed by 800 Belgian Catholics requesting the removal of the convent but were not received by the nuns. On the other side, over a thousand inhabitants of the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz) protested "the illegal demands of the Jews to ruthlessly carry out an unwarranted eviction of the nuns," while other anti-Jewish reactions were reported from elsewhere in Poland.
As the new deadline of July 22, 1989, approached, tensions rose still higher. One indication was the call of the Board of Deputies of British Jews for prayers to be recited in all synagogues in Britain calling for the removal of the convent. The Catholics restated that they intended to keep the agreement but that an educational program had first to be implemented in Poland. The situation reached a flashpoint when an American rabbi, Avraham "Avi" Weiss, and six colleagues dressed in concentration camp garb scaled the walls of the convent blew a shofar, and screamed "Nazi antisemites." Polish workmen at the site demanded that they leave and then poured paint and water on the protesters and physically removed them from the site. Reactions were divided in the Jewish world to the demonstration, but Polish sources portrayed it as an attempted attack on the nuns. The deadline passed with a march around the convent by 300 European Jewish students, to the sound of the shofar. In August Cardinal Macharski announced that in reaction to the Jewish campaign, the agreement was to be canceled and the nuns would remain where they were.
At this time the archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal Glemp, delivered a sermon in Czestochowa to a congregation of 100,000 including the Polish premier, which was seen as antisemitic when he called on the Jews "not to talk to us from the position of a superior nation and do not dictate terms that cannot be fulfilled…. Your strength is in the mass media, at your disposal in many countries. Do not use it to spread anti-Polonism." Glemp's remarks were condemned not only by Jews but also in Polish quarters, with Lech Walesa calling them "a shame and a disgrace." Glemp's attacks on the Geneva agreement were also seen as revealing a rift with his fellow prelate, Cardinal Macharski, and indicating a division in the Polish Catholic hierarchy and also divisions between those Poles who sought a pro-Western orientation and hence friendlier relations with the Jews and those who sought to build Polish nationalism in another way. The three Western cardinals who had signed the agreement – Cardinal Decourtray of Lyons, Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, and Cardinal Daneels of Brussels – also publicly opposed Glemp.
The convent controversy revealed the conflicting claims to Auschwitz. When Jews heard the word Auschwitz, they naturally thought of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camps, which were the site of the murder of some one million Jews, or Auschwitz III (Buna Monowitz), the work camp where many Jews were worked to death or to near death before they were sent to the gas chambers. They thought of Auschwitz in purely Jewish terms. They did not think of Auschwitz I, the prison camp, which had been the site of Polish incarceration, torture, and death. For Poles of a certain generation reared on the notion of Auschwitz as the site of Polish martyrdom, Auschwitz was a sacred site of Polish nationalism, as they had been taught; they believed four million had been murdered at Auschwitz, two million Jews and two million Poles. Consequently, they confidently advanced the notion of this site as a Roman Catholic, Polish national site. It took time – much time – for the revised figures of the dead at Auschwitz, 1.1 million, 90% of them Jews, to seep into Polish culture and Polish consciousness. The number of people killed at Auschwitz was a figure determined by chief historian Franciszek Piper of the post-Communist Auschwitz State Museum, who dramatically revised the figures; the perceptions of what happened at Auschwitz I, II, and III took a much longer time to change.
Shortly thereafter the Vatican spoke out for the first time, supporting the relocation of the convent in order to restore good relations with the Jews, and even expressed its willingness to contribute financially to the project. Cardinal Glemp, who was then visiting England, executed a volte-face and two days after delivering a speech calling the agreement "a form of wishful thinking," he wrote a letter (the Vatican statement had appeared in the meanwhile) stating that the convent should be moved as soon as possible. With this the crisis was defused.
Although the original deadline for the new complex, set in 1990, proved overly optimistic, work progressed on the interfaith center and the convent, which was ready in 1993. Nevertheless the nuns continued to be reluctant to leave the old building, and this was only accomplished in the summer of 1993 following a letter from the pope and pressure from the Polish Bishops' Conference. Seven of the 14 nuns agreed to move to the new convent, the others going elsewhere. Jewish-Catholic relations returned to normal and the dialogue was resumed. In particular Jews were encouraged by the understanding that had been evinced towards Jewish sensibilities by many Catholic quarters.
Jewish sensitivity to Auschwitz was also recognized by the new Polish regime, which succeeded the communists, and a special commission was set up, with the participation of Jewish scholars, to prepare completely new texts for the information and inscriptions presented in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the literature available there, in which due prominence would be given to the Jewish aspects of the site and to the fact that of the then current figures of 1,100,000 victims at Auschwitz, 90% were Jews (the others being approximately 83,000 Poles, 19,000 gypsies, and 12,000 Soviet prisoners of war).