Fifty years ago this month, on Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet troops of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front entered the Auschwitz concentration camp.
There, amid an icy wasteland of incredible horror, they found 7,000 skeletal survivors.
Nine days earlier, as the Red Army approached, the Nazis had blown up crematoriums and gas chambers, set fire to documents and other buildings and forced 60,000 Auschwitz prisoners on a death march westward into the heart of the German Reich.
Wanting no living witnesses to testify to the Nazi atrocities, the Germans left behind only the sick, the weak, the dead and the dying.
In the half century since the Red Anny liberated what was Nazi Germany’s biggest and most notorious concentration camp complex, Auschwitz has become one of the world’s most potent symbols of man’s inhumanity against man.
Because of the potency of its symbolism and the enormity of what it represents, Auschwitz has long been the object of controversy.
Thus it is not surprising that it has also become the object of controversy as Poland prepares to host ceremonies on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27 to mark the 50th anniversary of its liberation.
Believing that Polish officials were focusing too much on a universal message of suffering rather then the specific sufferings of Jews, some Jewish organizations have decided to sponsor their own, specifically Jewish, commemoration on Jan. 26.
Some Jewish leaders have also charged that the preparations for the ceremonies have been marked by delays and needless inefficiencies on the part of “bungling” Polish bureaucrats.
Since the Polish government has still not announced the official commemoration program, some said, it is still uncertain which Jewish leaders will participate.
Even Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is among those currently assessing their exact role at the Polish commemorations.
Auschwitz’s very name has become a synonym for the Holocaust, as well as for evil.
The exhortation “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes You Free”) arching in iron letters over the camp’s main gate stands out as the ultimate in cynical depravity.
“The meaning of Auschwitz is powerful,” Stanislaw Krajewski, a Polish Jewish intellectual and activist, said in an interview. “People want to relate to it.”
As a symbol, “it can be used and misused, he said.
In addition to its universal symbolism as the ultimate in inhumanity, Auschwitz represents different things to different people.
It is as if at times the word means different things in different languages.
“An interesting thing that emerges from our research in various countries is that there is no one meaning,” said David Singer, director of research and publications of the American Jewish Committee.
“Different people, different historical experiences, different memories end up filtering the memory of Auschwitz itself,” he said.
Between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people were murdered at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945.
Ninety percent of the victims, or at least one million, were Jews from all over Europe. Most of them were killed during the last two-and-a-half years of the camp’s operation, at the Auschwitz II camp at Birkenau, two miles from the main camp.
For Jews, and for most of the world, Auschwitz has come to represent the ultimate symbol of the Nazi genocide against the Jews.
Auschwitz also symbolizes the genocide against the Gypsies, some 21,000 of whom were killed there.
Yet Auschwitz was set up in 1940 primarily as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners. For the first two years of its operation, its main purpose was the torture and murder of the Polish elite, including priests.
In all, at least 75,000 ethnic Poles were killed there.
For Poles, Auschwitz represents the chief symbol of the Nazi oppression of Poland – and indeed, under the Communists, this was what was taught in Polish schools.
The museum and monument set up at the former camp in 1947 were called a “Monument of the Martyrdom of the Polish Nation and of Other Nations.” Until the changes that came with the fall of communism in 1989, museum exhibits minimized or ignored the fact that 90 percent of Auschwitz victims were Jews.
“It was as if Auschwitz had abandoned the memory of the Jews,” wrote Jewish scholar Jonathan Webber. “It stood for other memories, other meanings.”
Since 1989, this has changed dramatically. Museum captions, exhibits and inscriptions were changed to reflect the reality of the overwhelming Jewish presence at Auschwitz without belittling Polish suffering there.
Official Polish ceremonies marking the 5Oth anniversary of the liberation – the first major commemorations linked to the end of World War II – were intended to stress the universal meaning of Auschwitz.
They were meant to symbolize man’s inhumanity to man while at the same time paying tribute to both the Jewish and non-Jewish victims and their suffering.
But this ecumenical, universalist approach to honoring the memory of the dead came under fire from the beginning.
Polish President Lech Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for leading the Solidarity labor movement in Poland, had intended to invite all living fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners to attend the ceremonies and launch an appeal for peace and tolerance to the world.
This triggered an avalanche of protest from Jews, however, since it would have included Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, who jointly won the 1994 prize along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Jews protested the inclusion of Arafat, who for decades was the symbol of Arab terrorism against Jews.
The protest forced Walesa to change the invitation to include Nobel Peace Prize recipients only through 1993.
In addition to the Arafat debacle, some Jewish organizations have protested that Jewish participation in the commemorations should be given more prominence and criticized what they saw as attempts to “Polonize” the ceremonies.
Two weeks before the ceremonies, Jewish groups in Warsaw announced that a separate Jewish ceremony would be added to the program.
“We have the right to weep alone,” said Amold Mostowicz, an Auschwitz survivor and head of a Polish organization of Jewish ex-combatants and survivors.
He said that Jewish groups would participate in the official events, but would also gather on Jan. 26 for a Jewish commemoration service at Birkenau, while the official dignitaries are at lunch.
According to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which is involved in the Jan. 26 Jewish commemoration, said it is “not meant as a substitute” for the formal Polish ceremonies, but “to insure that the Jewish content of the commemoration will be preserved.”
Steinberg expressed dissatisfaction with the way some Polish officials have handled preparations for the commemoration and said that WJC only received a program for the ceremonies last Friday.
Steinberg described the Polish preparations as the result of “bungling bureaucratic disorganization instead of ideological insensitivity.”
While more recent contacts with Polish officials have been “enormously helpful,” Steinberg said that because of the confusion surrounding the events, his organization has still not decided whether to send its president, Edgar Bronfman, and other top officials.
Meanwhile, Elie Wiesel’s participation is also currently in doubt.
The Nobel laureate and survivor was expected to play a prominent role in the ceremonies, but was dismayed that Polish officials contacted him only recently to invite his participation.
“To my regret, you gave me too short notice,” Wiesel wrote to Walesa in a letter dated Jan. 6 that was obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“I am not even sure I will be able to take part in the 50th anniversary ceremonies of the liberation of Auschwitz.”
Responding to an additional request by the Polish government that he script a message on behalf of all the Nobel laureates, Wiesel wrote: “I am afraid that in this case also, it came too late.
“How can I write a text of such importance, share it with our colleagues who will surely comment on its content and formulation, get their remarks and then work on them – all that in 2-3 weeks? Granted, I am a writer – but I write slowly, carefully.”
In addition to protests from Jewish groups, non-Jewish Poles who were former Auschwitz prisoners have complained that they, too, had not been represented adequately in the program.
“There are thousands of Polish Christians who are former Auschwitz inmates,” Krajewski said.
“Auschwitz has a very strong and personal meaning for them, which is different from the outside image of Auschwitz as the place where Jews were brought to the gas chambers in trains from all over Europe,” he said.