KRAKOW, Poland (Jan. 17)
Each year, the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet forces is marked on Jan. 27, but this year the 60th anniversary has given Poland, site of the most infamous Nazi death camps, a special opportunity for remembrance and reflection. The anniversary ceremonies, which will be held at the memorial site in Birkenau, will draw an assortment of international dignitaries and leaders. Among those slated to attend are Israeli President Moshe Katsav, Ukrainian President-elect Viktor Yuschenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pope John Paul II, originally from the Polish town of Wadowice, which lies approximately 25 miles from Oswiecim, as Auschwitz is know in Polish, will send French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger — who was born Jewish — as his special envoy.
In addition to world leaders, the most honored guests will be former prisoners of Auschwitz from many countries.
Jaime Ashworth, director of education at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, said the 60th anniversary is significant because “this might be the last time survivors participate to this extent in Holocaust commemoration ceremonies.”
The last roll call at Auschwitz was taken on Jan. 17, 1945. The next day, some 60,000 prisoners were sent out of the concentration camp on death marches, headed to German camps in the west. Approximately 16,000 people were left behind in Auschwitz II, also called Birkenau.
Today more than half a million people visit Auschwitz each year.
Poland has a particularly complicated role in Holocaust remembrance. The Nazis chose Poland as the site of many death camps because it borders Germany and was in the center of occupied Europe.
More Jews — approximately 3.5 million — lived in prewar Poland than in any other country, and Poland lost more Jews than any other nation.
Today Poland is home to anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 Jews, many unaffiliated with the Jewish community.
Despite Poland’s reputation for anti-Semitism, the country today is confronting its history effectively. According to the U.S. State Department’s report on global anti-Semitism, released Jan. 5, “surveys over the past several years showed a continuing decline in anti-Semitic sentiment, and avowedly anti-Semitic candidates have won few elections.”
The report continues, “In June, the government held a major international conference to unveil its proposal to open an international center for human rights education in Oswiecim.”
The report includes some incidents of vandalism and verbal attacks against Jews but points to a generally favorable trend in governmental support for Jewish projects and communities.
In the post-Communist era, many groups have been created to foster Polish-Jewish dialogue and mutual understanding. Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of the Polish Parliament, works with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations. An American, Dennis Misler, moved to Poland several years ago to create the Polish-American-Jewish Alliance for Youth Action, which unites Polish and American Jews and non-Jewish Polish students interested in Jewish history and culture.
In addition, the Polish Jewish community has grown to include Orthodox and Progressive congregations, a choir, several publications and many youth groups and lectures.
Still, Auschwitz remains the focal point of Holocaust history and memory in Poland, and Polish schoolchildren visit it every year.
Joanna Kempinska, 24, remembers learning about Auschwitz in high school.
“When you read about it you just get a sense of it, but when you actually go to see it, you realize someone died here, many people,” she said.
Leszek Bizo, 25, from Andrychow, a nearby town, said, “I felt so shocked when I saw the shoes, the hair, in Auschwitz.”
The Auschwitz Museum has an extensive educational center, which welcomes visitors and conducts programs year-round. Historians, professors and members of the Jewish community from across Poland teach monthly postgraduate teacher-training courses in Jewish history and the history of Auschwitz there.
Alicja Bialecka, a member of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum’s education department, said that over the six years the program has been offered, about 200 teachers have completed the training of 350 classroom hours.
Bialecka said many teachers return to their schools and tell their colleagues about the training, creating more trained teachers and eventually an entire Holocaust curriculum.
The museum’s education department is in the middle of a year-long program for 1,000 students and teachers in the region. The program, “Auschwitz My Home,” shows visitors parts of the former concentration camp that usually are not shown, and makes participants think deeply about what it means to live in Poland.
“We want the students and their teachers to feel responsible for being part of this history, but also proud of this responsibility,” Bialecka said.
Bialecka looked at how far Holocaust remembrance has come in Poland since the early 1990s, immediately after the Communist era.
“In the field of education, of Auschwitz, the Second World War, and awareness of the suffering of victims of the Nazi regime, consciousness is high and I am optimistic,” she said.
Germany, like Poland, has been considering its history for many years. Susanne Meier, a German living in Krakow, remembers hearing about Auschwitz and the Holocaust in school.
“You come across the topic in history lessons in Germany, but during the last 10 years the German attitude toward history is becoming much healthier, something that has nothing to do with guilt,” she said.
Meier said that when she thinks about Auschwitz, “There’s no way as a human being that it cannot touch you, because it’s horrifying. But if it touches me, it has nothing to do with my Germanness. I feel it because I am a feeling person.”