Planned mini-mall at Auschwitz site draws protests

NEW YORK — The president of Poland has condemned the construction of a mini-mall across the street from Auschwitz.

President Aleksander Kwas-niewski was quoted in news reports as saying that he believes the site for the shopping center is inappropriate, regardless of legal circumstances that might allow it to be built.

Original plans for the mall included a home-and-garden center, supermarket, fast-food restaurant, clothing and textiles stores and a parking ramp.

The president's press office said Kwasniewski had assured Knesset Speaker Shevach Weiss in Israel that he would take action to resolve the issue.

In addition, Polish culture minister Zdzislaw Podkanski, who formally supervises the museum at the camp, reportedly said he had told the local governor to halt construction and asked local authorities to review the construction permit.

The planned mini-mall has outraged Jewish groups around the world.

Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a Holocaust survivor, said he had appealed to the Polish president Tuesday of last week, communicating his distress about the mall.

"It's grotesque and insensitive," Sultanik said.

Some 1.6 million Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II.

According to news reports, town officials and top Auschwitz museum administrators approved the mini-mall.

Museum director Jerzy Wroblewski said the plan was "in no way harmful" and accused the media of misrepresenting it.

He added that the mall would "bring order" to the 547-yard protective zone designated around the death camp in 1979 to preserve the area's character and mood.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz inmate who now heads the museum's council, said he believes the mall project was created out of "thoughtlessness," not "ill will."

Fueling the fire is the contention of Janus Marszalek, the Polish developer handling the project, that nothing is wrong with the idea.

Marszalek and a German partner planned to open the mini-mall in a renovated factory and warehouses in early June.

"How can that desecrate the memory of this place?" Marszalek was quoted as saying. He said the project would create jobs in Oswiecim, the town of 45,000 where Auschwitz is located.

Marszalek is also the president of the Polish Catholic organization that now is housed in the former Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.

Jewish groups previously campaigned against both the convent and a church at the site, saying the camps are a huge graveyard and the major symbol of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, was one of those actively opposing the presence of the church and convent. In 1989, one of Weiss' protests ended with convent workers actually kicking him and his followers — in the presence of police.

Weiss said in a telephone interview Monday of last week that he ultimately places the blame for the mall project on the Polish church and the Polish government, both of which, he said, have "no moral backbone."

Weiss made it clear that he would go to great lengths to stop construction of the mall, "even if it means sitting in front of tractors."

The project also reportedly drew condemnation from the regional newspaper Trybuna Slaska, which last week asked that construction be halted in a story headlined "Supermarket Auschwitz."

In addition, Szymon Szurmierj, chairman of the Coordinating Committee of the Jewish Organ-izations in Poland, said, "It is simply unthinkable that directly in front of the biggest death factory of all time, [a] supermarket is to be built."