June 3, 1999
Auschwitz Talks to Resume
Negotiations over the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps in Poland could begin in a matter of weeks now that hundreds of crosses planted by Polish Catholic extremists have been removed, according to Miles Lerman, chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and the head of the coalition negotiating with the government in Warsaw.
Lerman stressed that no decisions have been made about the future of the large "Papal cross" remaining at the site, the issue that derailed negotiations last year.
Other sources close to the talks say that negotiators hope to work out an agreement for a smaller monument to the Polish Catholics who were killed at the site.
Negotiations broke down last year after the World Jewish Congress, a participant in the coalition, backed out of negotiations because of the presence of the large cross. Then, Polish extremists erected the additional crosses to protest what they claimed was Jewish meddling in internal Polish affairs.
"I advised the Polish government that until they were removed, there is no way I could bring the coalition back to the table," Lerman said. "Now that those crosses have been removed as a result of the cooperation of the Polish government and leaders of the clergy, we are back to the status quo. So we are prepared to sit down with the representatives of the Polish government and negotiate all outstanding issues.
Lerman said negotiators will focus on three areas. Currently, most visitors come only to the Auschwitz l site; Lerman said an overall plan must "induce visitors to come to Birkenau, where they will learn that 95 percent of the victims there were Jews."
A second priority is to clarify rules that protect the perimeter of the camp from commercial encroachment. The new law giving the federal government in Poland jurisdiction over all the death camp sites, which was pushed through to enable the government to remove the 300 crosses, could make that process easier, Lerman said.
Finally, negotiators will seek a solution for the 26-foot Papal cross. During debate over the new law, Polish lawmakers added an amendment that required the cross to remain. It was removed before final passage, but the Polish prime minister has indicated that he does not want to remove the controversial cross.
"But there may be a way of dealing with it through a calm and thoughtful negotiating process," Lerman said. "But it will not happen quickly."
Lerman said that the coalition will meet with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in the next two weeks; Holocaust Council sources say they will not move forward without Wiesel, whose reservations helped scuttle the preliminary agreement last year.