At Auschwitz, the Debate Is How to Remember a Horror

Article excerpt

ALMOST half a century has passed since the Soviet Army arrived at the gates of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, and the world first glimpsed the incomprehensible evil of the European Holocaust.

Today, as officials make preparations for the semicentennial of Auschwitz's liberation, there is a growing debate about the future of the camp itself.

Is it a museum, or is it the world's largest cemetery? Should it be preserved to bear witness into the next century, or should it be given a decent burial? What is the best way to honor the memory of 1.1 million to 1.5 million people who died here, without forgetting the immorality that allowed it to happen?

Over the last few years, Holocaust museums and memorials have multiplied and flourished in the United States while Holocaust movies have broken box office records. At the same time, a vigorous neo-Nazi movement has taken root in Europe and arguments that the Holocaust never even took place have become a staple of the American college lecture circuit.

"This is the most emotional place in the world," said Krystyna Oleksy, deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which has been responsible for the site since 1947.

"For Jews, it is the symbol of the Holocaust. For Poles, it is the symbol of our national struggle. For Germans, too, it is a symbol of something very problematic.

"Naturally, there are disagreements about this place, and not everyone is happy with what we do. But we believe our duty is to preserve what is here, not to add or subtract anything," Oleksy said.

Auschwitz was built during World War I as a barracks for soldiers in the Polish army. After Germany invaded and occupied Poland in September 1939, it was converted into a slave labor camp for Polish political prisoners. The first group of inmates arrived on June 14, 1940.

It was not until February 1942, when the first transport of Jews arrived, that Auschwitz and the adjoining Birkenau camp became instruments of Hitler's "Final Solution."

Although the exact numbers will never be known, it now is believed that about 1 million Jews from all parts of Europe died here.

As postwar Poland fell under Soviet domination, the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau faced an uncertain future. Some thought the site should simply be plowed under and forgotten, perhaps planted with some kind of memorial forest.

Others suggested that the Auschwitz barracks be converted into an asylum for the orphans of Poles killed in the war.

In the end, the site was preserved as a monument to the evils of fascism and the triumph of communism. Official literature inflated the death toll to 4 million, but made no mention of the tragedy suffered by Jews.

A year after Poland's communist government collapsed in 1989, the curators of Auschwitz removed the plaque that had claimed 4 million dead. It took another four years to agree on the wording of a new plaque acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of victims were Jews.

That acknowledgment hasn't been easy for a generation of Poles who were taught that Auschwitz was a place of Polish martyrdom, a place where some 75,000 Poles - mainly intellectuals, priests and members of the resistance - perished. Even today, most visitors to Auschwitz are Polish schoolchildren who come to learn about Polish heroes.

The competing meanings of Auschwitz came into sharp focus in 1989 when Jewish groups objected to the presence of a Catholic convent and a large cross on the grounds of the Auschwitz complex. Many Polish Catholics and their church leaders were perplexed and offended that anyone would be disturbed by the presence of a few nuns.

The convent finally was moved last year on orders from the Vatican, but not before the affair had escalated into an international embarrassment for Poland. …