Focus on Issues: Disputes About Auschwitz Weave Complex Web of Competing Needs

Auschwitz-Birkenau is, as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel put it in an emotional speech this month, "the largest invisible Jewish cemetery in history."

In the half-century since the Holocaust, however, the former Nazi death camp outside the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland has become more than that.

At Auschwitz, the Nazis killed at least 1.5 million people, the overwhelming majority of them Jews.

Most of those murdered were gassed at Auschwitz I and then incinerated at Birkenau, the Auschwitz II camp located two miles away.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, which the Polish government turned into a museum/memorial in 1947, is regarded around the world as the paramount symbol of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews.

But in the postwar years, the Communists made it the paramount symbol of the Nazi subjugation of Poland — and this is how it was primarily regarded in Poland for decades.

For many worldwide, it has also more broadly become the paramount symbol of humankind’s capacity for evil.

In physical terms, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a grim tourist attraction that draws more than a half million visitors a year — from Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as from Europe, North America and Israel.

The camp also is a looming presence for the city of Oswiecim’s approximately 50,000 citizens, who try to go about normal lives alongside the constant reminder of past horrors.

These varied facets of Auschwitz contain the seeds of the recurring controversies that surround its present and its future.

"There are difficult practical problems," Krzysztof Sliwinski, Poland’s roving ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora, said in an interview. "The practical problems of preserving the testimony of what has happened here; the practical problems of dealing with visitors; the practical problems of the people living there in the town.

"No doubt there is a sort of conflict of memory among Jews and Poles which makes another emotional contribution."

How the practical problems of daily life conflict with Auschwitz’s role as a symbol has been at the root of an ongoing controversy about the attempted construction of a commercial center across the street from the camp’s main gate.

In the 1970s, the United Nations called for the establishment of a 547-yard protective zone around the camp to preserve the area’s character and mood.

But what now stands outside the camp is a grim collection of ramshackle buildings, ugly overgrown lots and unsightly corrugated iron structures containing warehouses and wholesale outlets with signs advertising meat, sausages, bananas, paints and tobacco products.

Protests from Jews, Auschwitz survivors and the Polish government forced developer Janusz Marszalek to cancel his original plans to build a mini-mall there to serve Oswiecim residents.

Marszalek agreed instead to build a visitors center for the hundreds of thousands who go to Auschwitz each year.

Such a center would have allowed for fast-food kiosks, bookstores, souvenir stands and parking facilities to be removed from the museum grounds and relocated across the street.

Local authorities, however, did not approve the new plans and threatened to use force to stop unauthorized construction.

Marszalek threatened to sue for millions of dollars of damages if he could not build.

The situation, regardless of its outcome, drew attention to the need for a major, coordinated plan for the management of the Auschwitz zone and for dealing in a dignified way with the practical needs of all parties involved.

Last month, in response to the conflict, Poland’s Cabinet approved a costly three-part plan including the removal of unsuitable buildings and enforcement of the camp’s protected zone.

Leszek Miller, the Cabinet’s chief of staff, said the plan "envisages that both the extermination camp and the town should undergo complex actions" in order "to keep the town’s character both as a place of national remembrance and a center where normal life must go on."

A detailed plan was due to be ready by Sept. 15. Until then, the government ordered a halt to all construction in and around Auschwitz.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski provided a glimpse of the broad outlines of the plan at a meeting last week with Jewish leaders in New York.

Poland will attempt to resolve the situation, the president said, by dividing the area around Auschwitz into two zones: "The City of the Living," which would serve the needs of Oswiecim’s residents, and "The City of the Dead," where preserving the memory of the camps and their surrounding areas would be the top concern.

Coming on the heels of the construction controversy is a second Auschwitz conflict, this one rooted in the conflict of traditions.

Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, made an impassioned appeal this month for the removal of crosses from Birkenau.

He was referring to seven 10-foot wooden crosses erected 12 years ago by a Krakow group of non-Jewish and Jewish youths in a remote corner of Birkenau where the ashes of victims were scattered.

Six-foot Stars of David are also scattered among the field’s chest-high weeds. At least one of the stars is crumbling.

Wiesel, who spoke last week at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of a 1946 Polish pogrom that killed 42 Jews in the southern city of Kielce, said, "Birkenau is its own eloquent symbol. The chimneys, the ruins of the crematoria. Nothing else should be there.

"With all due respect to all religions and all believers, the presence of crosses on sacred soil covering multitudes of Jewish victims in Birkenau was and remains an insult."

"There can be no justification for placing crosses over their remains," he said. "Whoever did this may have been inspired by good intentions, but the result is a disaster, a blasphemy."

Polish Catholics reacted immediately.

The cross, said a statement by the Polish Episcopate’s Commission for Dialogue with the Jews, had served as a symbol of faith and national resistance to atheistic domination by both Nazi Germany and the Communists.

"Therefore, an act against the cross, albeit unwitting and in good faith, places the promoter of such an act on the side of those who were both against the Jews and also against Christians," the statement said.

An editorial in the liberal Roman Catholic newspaper Tygodnik Powszechny said the crosses were not meant to offend anyone and that it was necessary to understand the Polish Catholic way of paying respect to the victims, some of whom were Christian.

The issue was the topic of heated discussion at a two-day session last week of the International Council of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, the body charged with protecting the integrity of the Auschwitz grounds.

In a statement, the council said it decided to authorize the council’s president, former Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski — himself an Auschwitz survivor — "to pursue initiatives aimed at finding solutions that would not hurt anybody’s feelings."

The council remains divided on the monument issue, Kalman Sultanik, one of its members and the vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said Monday in a telephone interview from Italy.

Sultanik, also a Holocaust survivor, said he believed that the crosses and the Stars of David should be removed.

Auschwitz is "not a place of religious symbols," he said.

Another member of the council said some members were concerned that removing the crosses now could "cause unrest and potentially dangerous conflict here."

And he said that Jewish members of the council were even more critical of a monument in the field of crosses and Stars of David that Wiesel did not mention.

The monument, which resembles a tombstone, memorializes Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who became a nun and was killed at Auschwitz.

"We feel that this is highly inappropriate," the council member said. "She is the only person to be singled out individually with a monument there."

(JTA staff writer Alissa Kaplan in New York contributed to this report.)

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