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November, 3, 1996 No 44 (419)

The Warsaw Voice - Society


Zone of Reconciliation

Though the wheels of bureaucracy are grinding as slowly as ever, a new Polish government proposal brings hope for an end to controversy over the area surrounding the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Polish Government's Strategic Auschwitz Program proposes developing a protection zone around the museum of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by 2007. The cost of the project is estimated at zl.245 million and the Polish authorities are appealing for foreign aid.

The aim of the program, passed by the government on Oct. 8, is to honor the memory of the concentration camp victims. The project will be completed in two stages. By 2001, the government is planning to clear up the protection zone surrounding the camp and modernize the transportation system. An International Education Center would be created in the former headquarters of the Carmelite Convent.

"We are planning to prepare a special program for teachers and students who are especially interested in Auschwitz, as well as educational programs for schools," explained Jerzy Wroblewski, director of the Auschwitz National Museum.

In the second stage, the authorities will renovate the Old Town of Oswiecim (the town where the concentration camp lies) and preserve its most valuable monuments. There are also plans to create an international congress and seminar center.

The government initiated the project after Jewish organizations had protested in the spring against the construction of a supermarket in the former camp's direct vicinity.

The program is to be financed mainly from budget reserves, the Ministry of Culture and provincial and local funds. Leszek Miller, head of the Council of Ministers Office (URM), has declared he will be more than happy if foreign governments offer their assistance in financing the program. He is especially counting on the German government's support.

Stephan Steinlein, press attache at the German Embassy in Poland, told the Voice,"I can't make any statements on the German government's stand until we receive an official letter." The German federal government has been co-financing some projects in the Auschwitz memorial museum for a few years now, devoting 10 million Deutschmarks (DM) to the cause last year, an amount matched by the EU. This year, Poland also received financial aid from the Dutch government which provided the museum with DM1 million for the construction of a special fire protection system.

"The money the Polish government is planning to allocate to the project stretches its financial capabilities, but from the museum's point of view, it's still insufficient," thinks Wr¢blewski. For several years the museum management has been looking for additional sources of funding for projects on the former concentration camp territory. "Various institutions and individuals have been very supportive and eager to help us financially," says Wroblewski.

No concrete measures have been taken to push the government project through so far, but a special government representative, an advisory board made up of ministry officials and a Bielsko-Biala province administrator will be appointed next year.

The fate of Maja, the developer of the shopping center planned near the former concentration camp whose construction was halted this spring, will be settled during discussions on what facilities should be included in the protection zone. However, Maja's chairman, Janusz Marszalek, vowed to file for damages to recoup costs of around zl.2.2 million. Miller referred to these claims as a misunderstanding. "I seriously doubt that Maja will win the case," he told reporters during a press conference. "The government won't use taxpayers' money to finance a misguided investment," said Miller.

The construction site was closed down by the senior construction inspector because the project didn't correspond to the urban development plan. Marszalek strongly opposes this decision. "We obtained a legal permit to build the shopping center which was approved by experts," he told the Voice. He called the issue scandalous, referring to Miller's statement as "impudent and not serious."

The problem of crucifixes on the camp's territory still remains unresolved. Miller announced that the government will not intervene in this case as it is not authorized to settle such matters. "The crosses stand on the site of a pit where human ashes were scattered. People put up religious symbols there for humanitarian reasons to preserve the memory of those murdered," he said, reflecting that apart from the crosses, Stars of David can also be found on camp territory.

In July 1996, Eli Wiesel, Jewish writer and Nobel Prize winner, voiced his objection to putting up crosses in the concentration camp. During commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom (42 Jews were murdered in Kielce on July 4, 1946), Wiesel said that "the presence of crosses on the holy ground which covers the countless bodies of Jewish victims in Birkenau has always been and will remain an insult [to the Jewish nation]."

Malgorzata B¥kowska
Urszula Turska
Kuba Spiewak

Cautious Optimism

Four public figures talk to the Voice about the program to tidy up the area around the Auschwitz camp.


Jerzy Wroblewski, director of the State Museum in Auschwitz:

The resources which the government has already granted in order to regulate the transport system will be used to build a road leading to the museum, as well as a parallel road for normal traffic. In the near future, we also want to open an international education center. Apart from that, we are planning to adapt a large building on the site of the camp in which we want to locate storerooms and workshops for conservation purposes.

About 560,000 people visit the museum each year-50 percent of them Poles. The museum should be a place for reflection. We should try to retain this atmosphere, and so most importantly we have to attempt to develop the tourist service buildings in the neighborhood [not in the camp itself]. At present, a restaurant, a bar, a kiosk with souvenirs and a parking lot are all located in the camp, which disturbs the visitors' peace of mind.


Gershon Zohar, Israeli ambassador to Poland:

This is a historic initiative taken by the Polish government, which is not afraid to tackle the painful problems in the history of Polish-Jewish relations.

The problem of the museum at the former Auschwitz camp was covered by us in a memo about scientific and cultural cooperation between Poland and Israel, signed on Oct. 10. However, it is still too early to speak of the details of the venture. I hope that in January 1997 the long-postponed visit of the head of the Polish government to Israel will take place. This wasn't possible when Waldemar Pawlak and J¢zef Oleksy were in office. When Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz comes to Israel, he will have the opportunity to present details of the investment, its costs, and to say what assistance the Polish government will need.


Stanislaw Krajewski, chairman of the Jewish Forum in Poland, joint chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews:

I have a very high assessment of the program for Auschwitz recently approved by the Polish government. After all, it is the central authorities-with their general knowledge of international relations-that are assuming responsibility for the situation on the area of the former extermination camp.

There is still an absence of details concerning its implementation, but it's a good thing that contact has been established with the Jewish community on this issue. A group concerned with implementing the program, fixing a budget, and providing an assessment and commentary on the program has already been established, consisting of the American Jewish Community, the World Jewish Congress, and the Lauder Foundation.

I suppose the Polish government can count on receiving financial support from Jewish circles on matters directly concerning the museum's activities-exhibitions and the use of buildings.

I hope the question of the crosses on the site of the camp will finally be resolved. For various reasons, I believe they should be moved elsewhere. Firstly, in the whole of Birkenau there are no other signs erected by private individuals-the crosses are the exception, and that's wrong. Apart from that, the putting up of crosses gives the place the character of a Christian cemetery, whereas in Auschwitz there are definitely more ashes of Jews than of Christians. But I'm most convinced by the argument that the camp is a unique place, and as such no symbolism is needed there.


Rabbi Michael J. Schudrich, from The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Warsaw:

I haven't yet had a chance to study this program, so I can only speak very generally. But any new program is a starting point for discussion. The fact that the Polish government is taking the preservation and conservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau seriously is very important, and I'm grateful for this.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the worst genocide site in any place in the world and in any time in human history. It wasn't done by the Poles, but it happened in Poland, and therefore there is an unfortunate burden on Poland to preserve this important site as a memory of the killing of one human being by another.

It's a very strange idea to ask Jews to contribute to the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. If anyone, it shouldn't be Jewish or Polish individuals' responsibility to do that. How can you go to the survivors and ask them for help?

But on the moral level it makes a lot of sense that the current German government, which is democratic, pluralistic and working in a very positive direction to build a stronger Europe, should bear significant responsibility for the upkeep of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Germans are the inheritors of this horrible past.



Mixed Signals

Initial Israeli reactions to the Polish government's Auschwitz proposal are positive, but levels of communication with Polish leaders are far from ideal.

"We learned about the Polish government's bill from the Israeli press," said Dana Golshani, who works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem and is concerned with contacts with Poland. "We have not received any official announcement from the Polish side, and as long as we don't hear anything from them, we can't react officially to the Warsaw initiative." The Israeli diplomat added that she was satisfied with the attempt to resolve the problem of the Auschwitz camp. "We hope the Polish government will understand that Jews are very sensitive to everything concerned with this place," she said. "We don't want to become involved in Poland's internal affairs. At present, relations between the two countries are developing very well, and I hope that together we shall be able to resolve the painful and delicate problem of the camp."

Stefan Grajek, president of the World Federation of Polish Jews and a member of the International Auschwitz Museum Commission, was very positive about the Polish government's bill. "I'm in favor of guaranteeing by law that there will be no more problems with supermarkets or places of entertainment," he said. "The point is to extend the protective zone around the camp, so that no one can build anything on their own private initiative or interfere with the affairs of the camp." Grajek was enthusiastic about the initiative to open an education center in Auschwitz: "An education center is necessary," he said. "Similar centers can be found in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and in the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz in Galilee. Young people from all over the world can participate in courses devoted to the camp's history and find out what happened there."

Grajek even suggested extending the range of activities of the foundation responsible for caring for the camp, so it can help to finance the education center. "There is a foundation responsible for safeguarding the treasures and archives in Auschwitz," he said. "One could expand its scope to include care of the education center."

Avner Shalev, chairman of directorate at the Yad Vashem Institute of National Memory in Jerusalem, is much more cautious, believing that before the Polish government's bill can be put into practice, it must be carefully analyzed. "Because of the enormous significance of this place for Poles, Jews and the nations of Europe, we must agree over what we can and cannot build around the camp," he said. "Nevertheless, I was pleased to hear about the initiative, which will finally make it possible to solve the problems which have been affecting the concentration camp from time to time." But he added that he was not entirely happy with the bill itself: "The government's initiative does not provide an answer to other problems which I would rather not mention," he said.

Asked about an ideal solution to the problem of the camp, Shalev emphasized that the most important thing was to protect the museum-particularly Birkenau, which is an integral part of the camp. "Only after guaranteeing proper protection for Auschwitz and Birkenau should we think about creating a protective zone around both parts of the camp," he said. "We must discuss the development of this zone, what will be built there, and how, and what architectural solutions are appropriate."

Shalev does not support the idea of opening an international education center in Auschwitz. "An education center is one thing, but the camp is another," he said. "These should be kept totally separate. The museum is already concerned with questions of education, through its close cooperation with Yad Vashem. We are primarily interested in protecting the camp, which from time to time is the scene of demonstrations and scandals." Shalev also complained about a lack of communication with the Polish government. "I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Cimoszewicz but, to be honest, no channel of communication was created which would enable the government's latest initiative to be discussed," he said. "Usually we have good cooperation with the museum and Polish government ministers. On this occasion, however, this has not occurred."

Jaroslaw Kociszewski, Tel Aviv

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