Hatred and conflict are synonymous with this dismal complex of barbed wire, brown wood and red brick that epitomizes 20th century evil.
The name alone, Auschwitz, resonates with the terrifying imagery of Nazi death camps in World War II - suffocating rail cars clattering across Europe; shivering prisoners shot and starved or gassed and burned to ashes.Visiting leaders who pay respects to the 1.5 million dead utter the same simple phrase: "Never again."
But more than a half-century after gunfire last echoed off the Death Wall, the cursed ground continues to sow acrimony, even over a symbol revered by hundreds of millions - the cross.
The dispute between Roman Catholics and Jews over a 26-foot-tall cross next door to the death camp dates back a decade, an unresolved inflammation of the deep emotional scars borne by both sides from the war.
Beneath the political subplots lies a fundamental question: Is it possible for Jews and Catholics to each honor their mutual suffering at the most notorious Nazi death camp?
Jews regard Auschwitz as emblematic of Hitler's "final solution" to exterminate them. The cross, they say, is a Christian intrusion on the memory of the more than 1 million Jews killed at the Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau camps and must be moved away from what they view as the biggest Jewish cemetery.
"For the Jews and everyone outside Poland, Auschwitz is the symbol of the shoah, and rightly so," said Stanislaw Krajewski, a board member of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews. "The Jewish view has to be taken into account as a major view. . . . The cross is something that is like an intrusion."
But Polish Catholics don't understand that and have their own powerful links to Auschwitz, Krajewski said.
Next to the destruction of Warsaw when German troops crushed the uprising of 1944, Auschwitz is Poles' most significant symbol of suffering under the Nazis. The camp originally was built for Polish political prisoners, and 100,000 non-Jewish Poles died there.
Then there is the cross itself, erected in 1988 to commemorate 152 Poles executed at the site by the Nazis in 1941. It formed the backdrop to Pope John Paul II's 1979 mass at Birkenau, giving it extra significance tied to the papal visit credited with inspiring Poles to unite against communist rule.
Social psychologist Zbigniew Zaleski said Poland's countless memorials to the war dead - from lofty monuments in town squares to small candles and bundles of flowers along roadsides - are solemn gestures by its overwhelmingly Catholic population.
"The most solemn expression is to put up a cross," he said. "It is kind of intrinsic in the Polish soul."
Passions rose anew this year when Jewish groups cited the papal cross in refusing to sign a $93.5 million preservation plan for Auschwitz-Birkenau negotiated with Polish authorities. They said the cross violated earlier agreements that prohibited religious symbols at the camp, an assertion denied by Poles.
Fearing the government would give in and move the cross, conservative activist Kazimierz Switon, an author of anti-Semitic pamphlets, began a hunger strike in June at a tent he pitched next to the cross.
His campaign inspired Catholic faithful and fringe followers, including a group of skinheads from Wroclaw, 100 miles away, to plant dozens of smaller crosses near the papal cross. Some of the crosses are plain, while others are made of birchwood, symbolic of protest in Poland, or hand-carved with nameplates of supporters.
"Poland has always been faithful to Christ, and that's why we are so attached to the cross," the 67-year-old Switon said, sitting outside his tent. "We won't allow anybody to tell us where our crosses should stay."
But most people hanging around the field of crosses seem less radical.
"The huge cross should stay. Maybe the smaller ones can go," said Marcin Chomentowski, 62, a gap-toothed pensioner.
He said Birkenau, nearly two miles down the road, was where most Jews died.
"In Birkenau, we pray for all nations," he said. "We put this cross up as a prayer for murdered Poles. We don't want to disturb anyone's prayers."
As the crosses multiplied, so did protests from Jewish groups around the world. The Israeli government appealed to Poland's government to intervene.
Polish bishops responded by accusing Jews of haranguing and trying to dictate how Poles should honor their dead. Jews saw the church response as Polish insensitivity, or even anti-Semitism, and the complaints continued.
Church leaders softened in late August, calling for the smaller crosses to be removed but saying the papal cross must remain.
"The cross standing in a place where 152 people were executed deserves respect as much as religious symbols of those who died in the camp," the bishops said in a policy statement.
Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek's government, weakened by defections of conservative Solidarity lawmakers over economic policies, has been reluctant to dictate a solution that differs from the church, which is a powerful force in Poland.
Even President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist and political foe of Buzek, supports keeping the papal cross.
During communist rule, Auschwitz was preserved as a memorial to Poles and other Nazi victims. No religious symbols were allowed and no special significance was given to the Jewish victims, who accounted for the majority of the 1.5 million killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
As the communist grip on power loosened in the 1980s, Catholics and Jews worked separately to commemorate their suffering. Disputes arose quickly.
Carmelite nuns moved next door to Auschwitz in 1984 to pray for the dead, sparking a confrontation similar to the cross dispute. Despite agreements with Jewish groups in 1987 and 1989, the nuns did not leave until 1993, on orders from the Vatican.
A year earlier, an international campaign by Jewish groups succeeded in getting 19 commemorative plaques at Auschwitz changed to make clear for the first time that most victims were Jews.
By then the papal cross was standing at the nunnery, visible from the Death Wall inside Auschwitz.