OSWIECIM, Poland, Sept. 12 (JTA) The Polish government has joined Jewish groups in criticizing the opening of a disco near Auschwitz and wants the owners to move it to another location.
But the mayor of Oswiecim the town near the former death camp said this week that the city needed outside financial help to do so and also to resolve other questions of commercial use of property associated with Holocaust suffering.
“We are confident that this problem will be solved. But our town needs help,” Mayor Jozef Krawczyk told leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Monday. “The local government is too weak to buy all real estate marked by blood and suffering.”
The Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center has been at the forefront of Jewish protests against the disco, which opened last month in a sprawling structure on a main road a mile or so from the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp where the Nazis killed nearly 1.5 million people, most of them Jews.
Authorities in Oswiecim consented at the time to the disco, saying the building was outside a zone where activities that could be offensive to the memory of concentration camp victims are prohibited.
But the disco is situated in a former tannery where the Nazis employed slave laborers and where luggage and clothes brought to Auschwitz by its victims were sorted.
“You don’t need a treaty to know that it was a wrong decision to open it there,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, told JTA.
“We are not here to tell the people of Oswiecim how to live their lives, but 1,000 people died in that building during the Holocaust.
“I have confidence that the people of Oswiecim will find a use that is appropriate for that building and they know that a disco is not,” he said.
Last Friday, the Polish government issued a statement saying, “Places of amusement should not be situated at areas marked with the suffering of the inmates of former death and concentration camps.”
The government acknowledged that it could not order the disco’s closure because it is privately owned. But the government strongly urged its owners to move it to another place.
“The government will do all it can to see this is done under the existing legal order,” the statement added. It did not say what this could involve, and a government spokesman declined to elaborate.
The disco is located in a low, white-painted building next to a German-run International Youth Meeting Center. It is separated from the center by a parking lot and small sports field.
Staff at the center complain that the noise disturbs the center’s activities and guests.
“We are also concerned about drunkenness and possibly vandalism,” said a volunteer at the center who gave her name as Anna.
The disco’s owners took a wait-and-see attitude following the government statement and said they would need to be compensated for lost investments if they moved.
A spokesman for the owners said the pressure was “unjustified” and noted that the disco was located well away from the Auschwitz camp and outside the protected zone.
“Oswiecim is a place where normal people live and want to have normal lives,” Zdzislaw Bieniek was quoted as saying.
The Wiesenthal Center’s International director, Shimon Samuels, described the situation as “volatile.”
He said that he and Cooper had told the mayor of Oswiecim on Monday that “the clock is ticking” and that the disco had to be moved.
Cooper and Samuels met the mayor the day before a Jewish prayer, education and study center was inaugurated in the sole remaining synagogue in Oswiecim.
The $10 million Auschwitz Center project was conceived and sponsored by the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, founded in 1995 by philanthropist and businessman Fred Schwartz.
Its aim is to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and mourn their loss, not by showing how they died but how they lived, focusing on the life, culture and history of the pre-war Jewish community of Oswiecim as a microcosm of destroyed European Jewry.
“We recognize that the city of Oswiecim faces a myriad of social and political issues and continues to do so,” said the foundation’s executive director, Daniel Eisenstadt.
“All we can hope is that they resolve them in a way that recognizes the memory of those who died here, and also is empathic of the people who live in the town today.”