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Poland Wants Name Change for Auschwitz

DW staff (jb)April 13, 2006

Poland has stirred controversy by requesting that UNESCO change the name of Auschwitz concentration camp to better reflect its Nazi German -- not Polish -- origin.

Poland wants the world to remember that Auschwitz was German not PolishImage: AP

It began after a German magazine referred to Auschwitz concentration camp as a "Polish" death camp.

What is in a name? Quite a lot, according to Poland.

The Polish government wants UNESCO to clearly describe the former Auschwitz death camp as "Nazi" and "German" in the UN culture organization's list of world heritage sites. They say it shopuld be officially designated as the "former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp."

At the moment the UN culture organization lists the site as the "Auschwitz Concentration Camp," but says in its accompanying description that the "fortified walls, barbed wire, platforms, barracks, gallows, gas chambers and cremation ovens show the conditions within which the Nazi genocide took place in the former concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest in the Third Reich."

"We cannot continue to ignore repeated publications that defame Poland," Jan Kasprzyk, a culture ministry official told Reuters. "The new name is completely accurate. By stating who was the perpetrator of a war that ended more than 60 years ago, honest mistakes could be avoided."

More than a million died

Germany occupied Poland from 1939 to 1945. In 1940, the Nazis built the camp on the site of former Polish army barracks on the outskirts of the southern town of Oswiecim -- Auschwitz in German. It was one of six extermination camps in Poland.

Freies Bildformat: Befreiung des Konzentrationslagers Auschwitz
More than 1 million people died in Auschwitz, mostly JewishImage: APTN

The camp was expanded later to the nearby village of Birkenau. At least 1.1 million men, women and children, mostly Jews, perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II.

The Auschwitz concentration camp was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. Since then, international media have repeatedly referred to the camp as Polish due to its location. Polish officials have long complained to journalists to no avail, they said.

Redefining history?

The World Jewish Congress has voiced opposition to the Polish request, saying that the country wants to redefine history with the name change.

"Although the camp had been built and run by Nazi Germany, everybody in the area had known about its existence and workers were recruited from the Polish population in the neighboring village," WJC officials told German news agency DPA in a statement.

But Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, the head of the International Auschwitz Council and a former camp prisoner disagreed, telling the news agency that "none of the local residents worked at Auschwitz."

Controversial timing

The issue has attracted attention just one month before a visit by German-born Pope Benedict XVI to Auschwitz in his first journey to his predecessor's homeland since assuming the his position. It also follows a stern warning from the Vatican to Poland's hard-line Catholic Radio Maryja after the fundamentalist radio station -- which claims to have an audience of around three million -- aired anti-Semitic statements by commentator Stanislaw Michalkiewicz.

Papst Benedict XVI gedenkt seines Vorgängers
Pope Benedict XVI has reached out to Jews in his first year as popeImage: AP

Michalkiewicz accused Jews of "humiliating Poland internationally by demanding money" for goods and property expropriated during World War II.

"We look after democratic issues in Ukraine and Belarus, while in our own backyard, 'kikes' sneak up behind us to try to oblige our government to pay them money on the pretext of these demands," he said.

Some conservatives say the Vatican issued the warnings because the pope is German.

In a comment broadcast on Radio Maryja and published in its sister publication, Nasz Dziennik, Boguslaw Wolniewicz, an academic, said: "I have a sneaking suspicion that those who were behind the latest attack (on Radio Maryja) are trying to exploit the fact that the new pope is German and would be ill-placed to defend someone whom the media and some in his entourage have accused of anti-Semitism. No one on earth is more scared of being labeled an anti-Semite than a German. And with good reason, because they know what they did."