Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945-1979, by Jonathan Huener

Article excerpt

Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2003. 326 pp. $44.95.

As I was finishing reading this fine book, I was in the process of negotiating the inscription for the entry to the new memorial that opened on June 2, 2004 at Belzec. The negotiations were conducted between Poles, Israelis, and American Jews, between men of two different generations and three different orientations to history and memory. Code words were being spoken: "Martyrdom," "Belzec death camp for Jews," "industrialized murder," and "Final Solution to the Jewish Question [Problem]." They meant different things to different people, different things in different languages. The Hebrew word for victim -- korban -- also has an echo of the religious meaning of sacrifice. It is no wonder that even with the best of will, the negotiations stretched on and on and on.

The Psalmist said and American music made famous again: "By the waters of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion." The place from which you remember events shapes the nature of that memory. And place is not merely a concept of space, but one of time. Public memory, as Jonathan Huener so wisely states, is a dialogue between the past and the present pointing toward the future.

In tracing the history of the site of Auschwitz, Poland through the postwar years from 1945 to 79 as his title indicates, Huener in fact does more than that. He does not stop with 1979, the year of the Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland, which included a stop at Auschwitz, but traces the history through the fall of Communism. He deals with the Auschwitz Convent Controversy and stops at 1989 when Communism falls and a new democratic government takes its place. Given what is happening to the site in the post-Communist era as Poland draws close to the West and recovers a fragment of its long history with the Jews, the current book virtually mandates a sequel that should be every bit as interesting as the first book, if not more so.

His title is chosen with precision. Auschwitz, Poland. The town is near the camp is Oswiecim, yet the Germans called the concentration camp of Auschwitz, and the concentration camp was actually three camps in one: Auschwitz I, the prison camp; Auschwitz II, the death camp known also as Birkenau; and Auschwitz III, the work camps that stretched many miles into the surroundings countryside (also known as Buna-Monowitz, which was the site of many German slave labor camps and the place where heavy investments were made by Nazified German industry).

The Poles inherited the concentration camp after the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the future of the camp as well as the history of the camp was contested from the very beginning. The outside world -- including the Jews -- does not differentiate between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II [Birkenau], though the camps, their populations, and their functions were vastly different. …