Controversial plans to build a shopping complex right outside the gates of the former Auschwitz death camp were put on ice by the Polish government yesterday following fierce protests from international Jewish groups and senior Israeli politicians.
Poland's Culture Minister, Zdzislaw Podkanski, declared all building work on-site should be halted forthwith pending a full investigation into the project. Other government officials, however, declared there was now virtually no chance it could ever go ahead.
"There has been a very strong reaction against this scheme and we have to be sensitive to it," said Krzysztof Sliwinski, the Polish ambassador responsible for relations with Jewish communities. "The Auschwitz site still has a very powerful significance and nothing done there should be motivated by profit."
Under the plans drawn up by a consortium headed by a Polish developer, Janusz Marszalek, the proposed shopping complex was to include a home and garden centre, a supermarket and a fast-food restaurant.
The project, to be housed in existing buildings just outside the main camp gate, was approved by local authorities in the nearby town of Oswiecim who argued it did not contravene a 1979 Unesco order establishing a 500-metre protective zone around the camp. The plans also won the backing of the director of the Auschwitz museum, Jerzy Wroblewski, who said they were "in no way harmful".
Jewish leaders and Auschwitz survivors thought otherwise, slamming it as an affront to the memory of the estimated 1.5 million killed at the most infamous of the Nazi death camps and comparing it to a similarly insensitive - and unsuccessful - attempt in 1991 to build a shopping complex at the site of the former concentration camp at Ravensbruck in Germany.
"It is simply unthinkable that directly in front of the biggest death factory of all time . . . a supermarket is to be built," said Szymon Szurmiej, a leader of Poland's Jewish community. "Maybe tomorrow they will set up roulette tables in the barracks."
Zygmunt Sobolewski, a camp survivor and vice-president of the Auschwitz Awareness Society in Canada, castigated what he described as a "brazen attempt" to capitalise on the half a million visitors to the camp each year.
The row over the proposed shopping complex at Auschwitz comes just over a year after relations between Poland and Jewish organisations were badly strained in a disagreement over how to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.