Catholics have planted crosses outside Poland's infamous Nazi concentration camp. Auschwitz, they claim, should not be remembered as the holiest site of Jewish martyrdom. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews were also killed there. Their actions have infuriated Jewish groups and are threatening Poland's entry to the EU. By Adam LeBor. Photographs by Witold Krassowski
It is raining at Auschwitz. A steady grey downpour falls from a dark autumn sky, drenching the camp's brick-red barracks, its crematoria, the tourist coaches in the car-park, the iron - and ironic - gate sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes You Free) under which the visitors stroll. Drenching too, Auschwitz's newest addition, the field of crosses just outside the perimeter fence. Some are tall, others plain, a few elaborately carved. Largest is the 8m-high papal cross, named for Pope John Paul, which has been in place since 1988, and which once formed the backdrop to his mass at the nearby Birkenau extermination camp, part of the Auschwitz complex.

It is an unsettling, even disturbing sight, this phalanx of crosses, standing in the wind and rain at Auschwitz, epicentre of the Holocaust. Under an agreement signed in Geneva in 1987 between the Polish Church and Jewish organisations, no religious symbols at all are supposed to be displayed at Auschwitz, and there are no stars of David commemorating more than one million Jews who were killed here.

The crosses on the Nazi killing field commemorate the shooting of 152 Poles, mainly intellectuals, at the start of the war. The new crosses have been there since this summer, erected by Catholics both mainstream and radical. Their presence at Auschwitz, the holiest site of Jewish martyrdom, has drawn furious protests from Polish Jews as well as from Israel and international Jewish organisations. Their anger is directed against the desecration of the biggest Jewish graveyard in the world and, worse, its attempted "Christianisation", for Orthodox Jews cannot pray in the presence of a crucifix.

But more than that, the crosses have also ruptured the ever-delicate dialogue between the Polish Catholic Church and the country's Jewish community, revived the stereotype (for Jews) of Poland as the world's most anti-semitic nation, and split the Catholic Church. Even Cardinal Glemp, head of the Church, had to backtrack rapidly after injudicious comments last summer about what he called "continuous and increasing harassment by the Jewish side", referring to Jewish demands that the crosses be taken down. For now, all the ambitious multi-million- dollar plans to preserve the site have been put on hold, as Jewish groups have cancelled talks with the Polish government until the crosses are removed.

The furore is a public relations disaster for Poland as it prepares for fast-track entry to the EU and Nato, derailing the centre-right government's attempts to project itself as a modern democracy. The government recently failed in a legal attempt to take over the site, and court proceedings grind on. As prime ministerial adviser Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska said: "We are beginning to be perceived as xenophobes, ruled by our emotions."

These passions, will, eventually, abate. Perhaps more importantly in the long term, the crosses have triggered a nationwide, and international, debate about who has the right to decide the future of Auschwitz and how we should remember what happened there.

For now, Auschwitz is another stop on the southern Poland tourist trail. Hotels in nearby Krakow offer tours by taxi to "the beautiful Zakopane mountains", the "Black Madonna Sanctuary at Czestochowa" and "Auschwitz- Birkenau, site of the death of 1.5 million people". The former extermination camp is now a state-run museum. Dozens of administrators, secretaries, maintenance engineers commute there daily. There is a car-park, a bookshop, a cinema, a cafe and a restaurant serving cheap and plentiful food. Hundreds of visitors daily tramp its paths, peering at the narrow bunks, the barracks and the crematoria. Visitors can step inside a punishment where inmates were locked in and starved to death, or touch the walls of the gas chambers.

Arguments about crosses aside, there are practical, logistical problems to consider. Should the gas-chambers and the crematoria be rebuilt, or allowed to crumble? How to maintain a graveyard?

Such matters do not concern the man behind the field of crosses, Kazimierz Switon. A 67-year- old radical Catholic activist and promoter of anti-semitic pamphlets, Switon lives next door to t he field of crosses, controlling access to them through a padlocked gate.

Dressed in gumboots and a grubby felt hat, Switon spends his days in his tiny caravan, or under the plastic awning over the garden table and chair that form his command post in his war against Jews, liberals, freemasons and other supposed "enemies of Poland", the usual round-up of the central European xenophobe's suspects. His supporters, mainly pious old ladies and skinheads, bring him a steady supply of food and newspapers, while he co-ordinates his campaign by mobile telephone. Nationalist banners are draped across his plot, over four upright yellow scythes, symbol of the Polish national uprisings in the 19th century.

Curt and cantankerous, Switon says he will have to be dragged off by force before he will leave. "Poland has always been faithful to Christ, and that's why we are so attached to the cross. We won't allow anybody to tell us where our crosses should stay," he says. Apart from gnomic utterances about the need to "defend the cross" (a demand also painted on a nearby wall), Switon does not have much to say about his campaign or what motivates him. Persistent questions draw only a persistent demand for money before he talks, money which is not paid.

The pamphlets stuck up under plastic sheeting on a nearby wall give a clearer idea of Switon's views. There are calls to "save Poland from the dark deeds of Jewish-masonry", a claim that "the Jews are responsible for the [Auschwitz] conflict" and the question, "Why should we have a dialogue when they demand the removal of the Pope's cross? How long will we allow the Jews to decide the destiny of our beleaguered homeland?"

For Poland's Jews to decide the destiny of Switon's "beleaguered homeland" would be quite a feat. Before the war Poland was home to about 3.3 million Jews. There are perhaps 10,000 today. About 3 million were killed by the Nazis. Poles kept slaughtering Jews even after the Third Reich was defeated. More than 40 were murdered in 1946 in the village of Kielce. That triggered an exodus of about 100,000 Jews. Another 25,000 or so left in 1968 after Polish authorities launched a nationwide anti-semitic campaign. Now liberal Poles say that both the Kielce pogrom and the 1968 drive against the country's remaining Jews were Communist provocations. Certainly the events of 1968 were run by the authorities, but they well knew which buttons to press in the Polish psyche.

It's curious that the sporadic dialogue between Jewish organisations and Poles, and the Polish church, is far more bitter than that between Germans and Jews, which is cool, but generally correct and formal. Perhaps it's because the lives of Jews and Poles were intertwined for centuries, like separate members of the same family, and family disputes, like civil wars, are always the most vicious. While the Germans killed us, argue many Jews, the Poles betrayed us, after almost a millennia of living together. But like all stereotypes, the Jewish view of the Poles as innately anti- semitic is both wrong and simplistic. Those three million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust - once the largest Jewish community in Europe - are testimony to the fact that, for centuries, Jews were an integral part of Polish life.

Jews arrived in Poland in the Middle Ages, many believing that the very name promised them a new and happy domicile, "Po-len" meaning, "here shall you rest" in Hebrew. The early Polish princes certainly welcomed the Jews, as they arrived from both the Balkans and the eastern, Russian lands. The Statute of Kalisz, signed by Prince Boleslav the Pious in 1264, was a remarkably advanced piece of legislation: it guaranteed Jews full protection of life and property, outlawed discrimination and gave Jews freedom to practise their professions.

In the mid-14th century King Kazimierz the Great, who was even said to have had a Jewish mistress, took in waves of Jewish refugees fleeing the Hundred Years War, and the pogroms triggered by the spread of the Black Death, blamed on the Jews. By the second half of the 18th century, writes Eva Hoffman, in her book Shtetl, "it was widely recognised that Jews were a permanent and prominent element of Polish life".

Until the Holocaust.

The furore about the Auschwitz crosses is just the latest stage in a long-running dispute over who has the moral right to the site of the Nazi extermination camp. The dispute began in 1984 when Carmelite nuns moved into a nearby building, triggering outrage among Jewish organisations. Despite the Geneva agreement of 1987, that stipulated the nuns must leave, they stayed until 1993, under order from the Vatican.

"This is a clash of symbols, and symbols have their own life," says Zbigniew Nosowski, editor of the Catholic monthly Wiez, referring to the crosses. "You cannot discuss things with symbols, just as you cannot discuss issues by using stereotypes. Fifty per cent of Poles say in opinion polls that Auschwitz is a place of the martyrdom of many nations, including Poland, because that is what we were taught under Communism. That is the biggest problem, that we look at Auschwitz with Polish eyes. But the whole world knows that 90 per cent of the victims there were Jewish."

More than that, this is a dispute about memory, of what happened to both Jews and Poles during the Second World War, remembrances shot through with guilt and recrimination. Consider the "Warsaw Uprising". Who in the West, and how many Jews, know that there was not one, but two Warsaw Uprisings?

The first, in spring 1943, thinly fictionalised by Leon Uris in his book Mila 18, saw Jewish fighters, outgunned and vastly outnumbered, valiantly hold off the Nazis for several weeks, until they, and the ghetto, were eradicated. Meanwhile, outside the ghetto walls, a few brave Poles attempted to smuggle arms inside to aid the Jewish fighters. Most citizens of Warsaw did nothing, merely went to work and carried on with their lives as the Jews were massacred.

A year later, in August 1944, the second Warsaw Uprising began. This time 250,000 Poles were killed fighting the Nazis, while waiting in vain for help from the Red Army, which sat on the opposite banks of the Vistula, watching. After 63 days the uprising was defeated, triggering the systematic destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis.

That Poles feel bitter that their uprising against the Third Reich is unknown and ignored in the West, which feels guilty about the Holocaust and so prefers to laud the Jewish fighters, is understandable. That Jews feel their Polish neighbours abandoned them during the April 1943 ghetto revolt, waiting over a year to take up arms, is also understandable.

The same factors stoke the Auschwitz crosses furore. The first inmates there, in June 1941, were not Jews, but Polish political prisoners. Around 75,000 non-Jewish Poles died at Auschwitz, as well as 20,000 gypsies, 15,000 Russian prisoners of war and, by far the largest group, 1.1 million Jews, transported to the camp from countries all over Europe. Few Jews recognise that Auschwitz is also a place of Polish martyrdom. The time has come now to stop trading statistics, and make peace, says Jerzy Wroblewski, director of the Auschwitz museum.

"The Jewish people consider Auschwitz as a symbol of the Holocaust, where the extinction of the Jews was carried out. The Poles consider this a place of national martyrdom, and national memory. Both of them are right. The first prisoners were Poles, and Auschwitz was created to exterminate the Polish intelligentsia. Only later did it become a place of Jewish extermination. It would be good if this difference in symbols could be understood in a natural way. I cannot see why there is a need to compare tragedies. Auschwitz was an unimaginable tragedy for both nations."

In fact, appropriating Auschwitz for partisan advantage is nothing new. Under Communism, Polish authorities - following Moscow's line - denied even that Auschwitz was a place of special Jewish martyrdom. While nationalities from Russians to Austrians each had their own memorial block at Auschwitz, the Jews had none (Block number 27 has since been dedicated to commemorate Jewish victims). The Communist line was Jews were not singled out for persecution, merely suffered as part of the general Nazi onslaught. Recognition of Jewish suffering might lead to sympathy, or worse, in the Marxist lexicon, support for Israel and Zionism.

The still-extant Communist-era Hungarian exhibition, rich with the arid vocabulary of Marxism, best illustrates this. "The theme of this exhibition is not the fate of the Jewish people. This exhibition is part of Hungarian history. Jews did not form a separate linguistic or ethnic group. They were not a national minority," exclaims the introductory exhibition panel. Small wonder that someone has carefully removed the word "not" from parts of the translated captions.

The official stance of the Catholic Church in Poland now is that while the papal cross should remain, the others, put up by Kazimierz Switon and his supporters should be removed. The church has no legal power to force this, but considering the powerful symbolic associations of the cross for Polish Catholics, this is a remarkable about-turn in respect of Jewish sensitivities.

"There is a big difference in perception about the crosses. For Poles a cross is a symbol of redemption, love and salvation. But for the Jewish side a cross is a symbol of shame," says Father Adam Schulz, spokesman for the Polish Episcopate. Bridging that gap of perception will be a long and painful experience, he says, but now is the time to begin.

"Auschwitz is a site of martyrs for Poland, but for Jews it is the Holocaust itself. These two experiences do intersect through this conflict, and now we are being forced to conduct a dialogue of mutual understanding. It is a very painful experience."

And part of that dialogue means that Jews too, must reject old stereotypes. "It is not true that Poles are inherently anti-semitic. I have heard too much of this. Look at the history of Polish rescuers in the Holocaust. The most awards for Righteous Gentiles at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem are for Poles. This stereotype is very damaging to Polish- Jewish relations. There is a dialogue going on, but when these inflammatory statements come from abroad, more is said about them than the dialogue. Both sides have to change their mentality, learn more about one another, respect their differences and find solutions to concrete problems."

A Jesuit, one of the Catholic Church's frontline theological soldiers, Father Schulz is ahead of many of his faith when it comes to Polish-Jewish dialogue. As he says: "Overall there is an openness among Catholics to the differences between us and Jewish people, but there are also those who have not matured to a point where they can appreciate them."

Many Polish Jews fear, perhaps understandably, that their opposition to the field of crosses will ignite a new wave of anti-semitism. But others, such as Konstanty Gebert, editor of the Jewish magazine Midrasz, argue the opposite, that the crosses row is crystallising opinion in the Church, and forcing it to take a clear moral stand on a Jewish issue.

"The people putting up crosses at Auschwitz are rebelling against the bishops, and they are out of sync with Polish public opinion. This is not just about Jews and liberals, but about the Catholic Church itself. For the first time it has had to come to an opinion about something, and it has split," says Gebert, a former underground activist in Solidarity. "When Cardinal Glemp made questionable statements about Jews he was denounced by a number of bishops and forced to retract them. It is a huge thing here for the Catholic church to reverse its opinion and say that it is wrong to put crosses at Auschwitz."

As well as memory, this is a conflict over national symbols, always a potentially explosive issue in eastern Europe. There were times during Polish history when the country did not even exist as such, and was held together by the church. So a crucifix in Warsaw has a far more powerful national and cultural resonance than one in London or Dublin. For a nation sliced for centuries between Prussia, Russia and other rapacious neighbours, the crucifix is a symbol of national continuation.

"The 152 Poles killed at Auschwitz do deserve commemoration. We have suggested a memorial plaque with a cross on it. We do not want an 8m cross overshadowing the camp. This is the one spot where it is legitimate to demand that there is no cross. If this was a religious dispute between men of goodwill, then there wouldn't be any crosses. But it is not, because it involves national pride. This row is about asserting ownership, that `No Jews are going to tell us Poles what to do, and if you don't like it you can take your ashes to Israel.' I heard that on the radio," says Konstanty Gebert.

Optimists believe that just as in the West, such public expressions of anti-semitism are now becoming unacceptable in Poland. In fact only a tiny minority of Poles, 7 per cent, support Switon's campaign, while 35 per cent want the papal cross to stay, according to opinion polls. In one way, Switon has performed a service to the Catholic church, says Zbigniew Nosowski. "He has helped change opinions within the church for the better. Many clergymen and bishops who were rather old-fashioned now look at the situation with new eyes. Cardinal Glemp's deputy, Henryk Muszynski, was the first bishop in Poland to engage in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and says that Switon's actions are an offence to the cross."

The Auschwitz crosses dispute has even helped trigger something new in Polish public behaviour, says Konstanty Gebert, open solidarity with the Jewish position. "I have been stopped on the street by average Poles, who want to express solidarity with us, and say that not all Poles are fanatics. Once at a tram stop when a man insulted me, another man came over immediately, and insulted the man insulting me, and apologised. So now we have something new here, the anti-anti-semites."

How ironic then, and perhaps how apt, if it was Auschwitz, the graveyard of both Jews and Poles, that finally brought them together in the beginnings of reconciliation and mutual understanding.

Adam LeBor's book, `Hitler's Secret Bankers', is published by Simon & Schuster (pounds 7.99). Troublemaker: Kazimierz Switon, radical Catholic activist, Polish nationalist and promoter of anti-semitic pamphlets. He has set up home in a tent next to the field and controls access to the crosses Where the streets have no name: visitors daily tramp the paths of the camp, peering at the narrow bunks, the barracks and the crematoria The former extermination camp is now a state-run museum with a large staff. Above: from the watchtower above the main gate, a guide explains the camp's layout to visitors. Left: the restoration team goes to work at the camp every day, along with maintenance engineers, administrators and secretaries