Poland has long wanted its name not to be used in reference to concentration camps that existed on Polish soil during World War II.
Now Poland has made an official request to change Auschwitz’s name — to mixed reviews.
The Polish government made the request last month to change the name of the site from “Auschwitz Death Camp” to “former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp.” It made the request to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has jurisdiction because the site of the death camp is a U.N. cultural heritage site.
UNESCO is expected to respond by mid-2006.
The debate goes to the heart of the question of how Polish behavior during the Holocaust is remembered.
The camp was set up by the Nazis on the site of a former Polish army barracks on the outskirts of the southern Polish town of Oswiecim — Auschwitz in German.
The name change is intended to stop the description of the camp by the international media, including The New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegel, as a “Polish death camp,” which greatly offends many Poles because the camp was run by Germany.
“In the years after the war, the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was definitively associated with the criminal activities of the national socialist Nazi regime in Germany. However, for the contemporary, younger generations, especially abroad, that association is not universal,” Culture Ministry spokesman Jan Kasprzyk recently told journalists. “The proposed change in the name leaves no doubt as to what the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was.”
Many Jewish groups and individuals, both in Poland and around the world, are backing the call.
The Union of Religious Jewish Communities in Poland, representing the country’s estimated 7,000-10,000 Jews, released a statement in support of the government’s request.
Petr Kadlcik, the group’s chairman, said “institutional and national responsibility for the Third Reich’s policy” is not historically accurate, “but also becomes a present-day necessity” in the wake of constant newspaper referrals to Auschwitz as a Polish death camp.
Several Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, have recently backed the name change.
So have others long involved in Jewish life.
Menachem Rosensaft, the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said in an e-mail that the Polish government’s request is “absolutely legitimate. The death factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1,000,000 Jewish men, women and children were murdered, was a German camp, conceived by the Nazi-German government and operated by Germans.”
Rosensaft, whose parents were inmates at Auschwitz and whose grandparents and brother were gassed there, added that “it makes no sense to obfuscate valid concerns about historical and present-day Polish anti-Semitism by suggesting that Poles rather than Germans bear responsibility for the evil that was Auschwitz.”
Complicating the issue is the feeling among non-Jewish Poles that their own victimization by the Nazis has been ignored as world attention has focused on the Holocaust.
During the war, Poles were both martyrs — the Nazis labeled them “subhumans” — and victimizers, because some of them were involved in anti-Semitic acts before, during and after World War II.
Dr. Maram Stern, deputy secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, accused Poland recently of trying whitewash history with the proposed change.
Stern says that although the death camp was built by Germany, everybody in the region knew about its existence, and workers were recruited from neighboring Polish villages.
This latter claim has been denied by the Polish government, and academics also have challenged it.
An official with the Auschwitz museum strongly criticized Stern’s comments.
“It is a pity that people from the World Jewish Congress [WJC], an organization whose name suggests that it represents the opinion of Jews living all over the world, say something which is totally absurd. The WJC statement testifies to Mr. Maram Stern’s complete ignorance,” said Karoslaw Mensfeld, a spokesman for the State Museum of Auschwitz.
Israel Gutman, Yad Vashem’s chief historian, would go even further with the name revision. He said the name proposed by Warsaw “does not fully convey what really happened in this place.”
“I appeal to the Polish government [that] the phrase ‘site of the mass murder of Jews’ be inserted into the camp’s name. The full historical truth cannot be concealed,” he wrote in a column for Poland’s Dziennik newspaper last Friday.
Gutman’s proposal was immediately attacked by the Polish historian Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz prisoner who favors Poland’s proposal.
Gutman’s suggestions “would demand an additional commentary,” because it is “not completely true,” said Bartoszewski, a former foreign minister who was a member of the anti-Nazi Resistance.
He noted that along with Jews, 22,000 Romani, 15,000 Soviet prisoners and 80,000 Polish Christians were murdered in Auschwitz, a fact no single name could possibly convey.
Meanwhile, Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Jews against the Nazis, said he believes the notion of changing Auschwitz’s official name is “absurd.”
Edelman’s comments came as Jews and the government commemorated the anniversary of the uprising April 19.
“The only thing it does is to cause conflicts and disputes that should not exist,” he said.