Words used to describe Auschwitz stir controversy, 75 years on

Debates over occupied Poland’s role continue amid claims that denying ‘complicity’ is akin to Holocaust revisionism.

Polish Jewish men are seen after the liberation of Nazi German camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland, in this undated picture obtained by Reuters [Courtesy of Yad Vashem Archives/Handout]
Polish Jewish men are seen after the liberation of Nazi German camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland, in this undated picture obtained by Reuters [Courtesy of Yad Vashem Archives/Handout]

Oswiecim, Poland – One tour group jutted up against another on a recent, cold Wednesday at Auschwitz, the German Nazi concentration and death camp complex.

Guides shuffled guests through the crematorium, the torture block, barracks and displays, like human hair shorn from prisoners after their death in gas chambers. 

Now known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, it is about 70 kilometres (43 miles) west of Krakow. In 2019, about 2.3 million visitors came here – a record.

Press Officer Pawel Sawicki says he wants to reach millions more – online, which he does via the official @AuschwitzMuseum Twitter account. 

Sawicki works out of what once was the pharmacy of the German Schutzstaffel, the SS force that guarded the camp. He lifts the blinds and points to the barbed wire in his view. 

Throughout the day, he publishes tweets, usually about the people who died here at Auschwitz.

The Nazis murdered at least 1.1. million people here, mostly Jews, but also non-Jewish Poles, gay men, members of the Roma ethnic group, Soviet prisoners and Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

One exhibit at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum shows shoes that belonged to people deported to the camp complex. The camp complex was liberated on January 27, 1945. [Verónica Zaragovia/Al Jazeera]

Sawicki sometimes contacts other Twitter users publicly if he deems that their tweets, articles, books or films about Auschwitz to be inaccurate.

“We see that this is also respecting [victims’] story – to ask journalists or writers or artists or anyone: Be factual, be correct when we talk about this story,” Sawicki said.

But these corrections at times grow into heated arguments.

Simply put, just like the bomb from Hiroshima wasn't a Japanese bomb, this camp wasn't a Polish camp.

Piotr M. A. Cywinski, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum director

In early December, the memorial tweeted to one user: “Acts of Poles – whether heroic or horrible – within the context of the German occupation of Poland & extermination of Jews, must be researched honestly, fairly & professionally. However, in the case of the history of Auschwitz talking about Polish complicity is simply false.” 

The camp was controlled by the German state and the SS, the memorial’s director, Piotr M. A. Cywinski, told Al Jazeera.

“Simply put, just like the bomb from Hiroshima wasn’t a Japanese bomb, this camp wasn’t a Polish camp.” 

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, which launched World War II.

The Polish military tried to resist Adolf Hitler’s troops, but could not compete against their supplies and machinery. About two weeks later, Joseph Stalin invaded from the east.

As German and Soviet troops controlled Poland by October, borders swiftly shifted.

The Auschwitz complex, which operated from 1940 to 1945, was not in Poland. Pre-war Poland had become occupied.

Still, many on Twitter say even in occupied Poland and across Europe, anti-Semites helped the German Nazis get more victims to their camps, and they want to express this without being confronted by the @AuschwitzMuseum Twitter account.

“My great-grandmother has no grave I can visit. She ended up in an Auschwitz chimney,” one man tweeted, in response to the memorial.

“Today the caretakers of the site where this crime occurred have reached out to me to deny Polish complicity in her murder and to send vile comments from Holocaust revisionists into my feed.”

Great-grandson of Auschwitz victim

This tweet’s author asked Al Jazeera to remain anonymous out of concerns for his safety, after he felt attacked by the memorial and an onslaught of cyberbullying.

Because he wrote: “Polish complicity,” one person tweeted back: “For being Jewish you sure act like a pig.”

He said that Germans ran the camps at Auschwitz and murdered non-Jewish Poles, but, he added, “to ignore the eager and willing collaboration of much of the Polish population in supplying Auschwitz with its victims is nothing short of Holocaust revisionism.”

Sawicki said he welcomes negative feedback.

“It means that we are doing our job right,” he said.

Poland-born Jan T Gross, a retired professor from Princeton University who wrote “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland”, understands the range of reactions that come with writing about Poland during the Holocaust.

In his book, he reconstructs and examines a massacre in July 1941 when Jedwabne’s non-Jewish Poles, and not German Nazis, murdered their Jewish neighbours. They led most of the Jews into a barn and burned them alive. 

“It implies important things about the complicity of just the regular folks who are not Jewish in the persecution of Jews during the war,” Gross said.

After the book’s publication in 2001, Poland’s then-President Aleksander Kwasniewski publicly apologised to the victims. Several examples of Holocaust historiography followed. But so did controversy and efforts by some to debunk Gross’s work.

“During the Second World War in Poland, German occupation was extremely brutal,” Gross said. “It was genocidal as far as Jews are concerned, but it was extremely brutal and murderous vis-a-vis Poles.”

At the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, a display shows suitcases stolen from people deported to the camp complex by the German Nazis [Veronica Zaragovia/Al Jazeera]

Poles suffered extensively under the Germans, but now they had another painful challenge.

“How to be a victim and persecutor at the same time,” Gross said.

In 2012, as these feelings were still raw, former then US President Barack Obama infuriated Poland’s leaders by saying the words “Polish death camp” at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony.

In 2015, conservative candidate Andrzej Duda won the presidential election and within years signed a bill into law that outlaws blaming Poles for Nazi Germany’s crimes.

At first, this carried a potential prison sentence but the government has since backtracked on that. Still, the law strained Poland’s relationship with countries like Israel.

Israel invited Poland to this month’s World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem to commemorate 75 years since Auschwitz’s liberation. While some presidents were asked to speak, Duda was not and he declined the invitation. 

Krakow resident Kamil Kmak, 30, does not believe legislation can solve the “Polish camps” problem.

He said education is a must and that too few people have learned about Poland’s history.

During World War II, Poland’s government went into exile in London.

From there, it supported a resistance movement against the Germans. After the war’s end, Britain and France abandoned Poland.

The Soviet Union, whose army had liberated the Auschwitz camps on January 27, 1945, oppressed Poland under communist rule for nearly 45 years.

Aside from his full-time job, Kmak also works to bring attention to the history of both non-Jewish Poles and Jews to the foreground. Kmak joined the efforts of the Popiela Family Foundation of Polish Olympian Dariusz Popiela to restore or appropriately commemorate Jewish cemeteries.

Kmak, who is not Jewish, spent 10 years researching the names of more than 1,700 Jews of a Polish town called Grybow. The Nazis killed Jews in Grybow inside the town’s Jewish ghetto, although they murdered most in the gas chambers at Belzec.

Last November, Kmak joined many others to unveil a memorial with the names of Grybow’s Jewish victims, who had never been memorialised before.

Grybow is where he grew up, decades later.

“We’re trying to reconstruct the world that was torn apart.”

About 2.3 million people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2019. This year marks 75 years since the Soviet Army liberated the camp complex in 1945 [Verónica Zaragovia/Al Jazeera]

Proper reconstruction, he said, depends on the words – a point made by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, a Nobel laureate in literature.

Tokarczuk has received criticism, even death threats, for criticising Poland’s past, including anti-Semitic incidents.

“The world is made of words,” Tokarczuk wrote in her Nobel speech in December 2019.

“How we think about the world and, perhaps even more importantly, how we narrate it have a massive significance, therefore.

“A thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes. This is a fact well known to not only historians but also … to every stripe of politician and tyrant. He who has and weaves the story is in charge.” 

Source : Al Jazeera

More from Features
Most Read