Jonathan Huener. Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945-1979. Ohio University Press Polish and Polish-American Studies Series. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003. xxvii, 326 pp. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. $44.95, cloth. $24.95, paper.
How was the Auschwitz legacy understood and utilized in communist Poland, and what effect have these interpretations had on the way Auschwitz has been understood since then? Answers to these questions are found in this important and insightful monograph by Jonathan Huener. A "biography of post-liberation Auschwitz" (pp. xiii-xiv), it chronicles interpretations of the concentration/extermination camp as seen at the state museum on the site, the symbol of the Holocaust for much of the world. Much of the world, as Huener demonstrates, for Poles saw the site differently from the very outset. It is this clash of interpretations of Auschwitz that has to a great extent coloured Polish-Jewish relations in more recent years. Those who wish to understand the various controversies will find this book required reading.
The book consists of six chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. The useful introduction contains a careful and up-to-date review of the statistics that concern the camp, its inmates, and victims (pp. 18-19). It also makes clear what Auschwitz actually was: a series of camps, three main and forty auxiliary, which provided inmates and victims with varied experiences and conditions. It was hardly the first, or the deadliest, of camps (one must not forget the existence of extermination camps such as Belzec, Chetmno/Kulmhof, Sobibor, and Treblinka, for which there were but a handful of survivors). That it was "the largest killing center for European Jews," however, lent it a special resonance (p. 15). Enough inmates survived Auschwitz to demonstrate the varied experience of the place, as the writings of Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, and many others demonstrate. Huener rightly emphasizes that there can be no master narrative capable of encompassing the experience of Auschwitz survivors and victims.
Chapters 1 through 6 shed much light on postwar Polish interpretations of the site. Already during the first years after the war, Polish survivors-political prisoners in Auschwitz-helped to set the tone of remembrance. With the support of highly placed former inmates such as Prime Minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz , they helped to make "Polish national sacrifice... the central element of Auschwitz memory, while the fate of Jews at the camp, although never explicitly denied, remained on the margins ..." (p. 35). Infused with the memories of Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz became a lieu de mémoire for the Poles, embodying their experience of World War II, the German occupation and oppression. …