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Posted Thursday, September 10, 1998


The Washington Post,
September 8, 1998

An End to Symbols at Auschwitz

By Walter Reich

Tuesday, September 8, 1998; Page A15

AT STAKE in the escalating battle about crosses and churches at Auschwitz is the future of memory. The outcome will determine what coming generations think they know not only about Auschwitz but about the Holocaust itself. In this battle, only truth, as best we can determine it, must be allowed to prevail.

A well-meaning Aug. 31 editorial in The Post illustrates how old fictions about Auschwitz have been accepted as facts -- fictions that have been used repeatedly to distort the camp's history.

The Post identified Auschwitz-Birkenau as the death camp "where 3 million Jews and millions of others were murdered by the Nazis." Recent scholarship by a Polish historian has put the number of deaths there conservatively at about 1.1 million, with other estimates ranging to about 1.5 million. Approximately 90 percent of the dead were Jews.

The Post's numbers may have been derived in part from the inflated estimate -- originally of Soviet origin and endorsed by Polish authorities after the war -- of about 4 million dead. This number, and other numbers of similar magnitude, were repeated so often that they came to be accepted by many as true, even though historians in Poland and elsewhere have revised this number down considerably.

For some in Poland, the larger numbers were embraced because they emphasized Polish suffering in Auschwitz during the German occupation: The larger the total number of victims, the larger the number who must have been Catholic Poles. Scholarship in recent years has put the number of Polish dead in Auschwitz at less than 100,000 -- many fewer than were originally said to have died there but by any standard a tragically large number, eternally marking Auschwitz as a place of Polish national loss.

As a memorial site, however, the central problem that has plagued Auschwitz is that the expression of one group's mourning has from time to time collided with the sensitivities of another group. Over the decades, the history presented there has tended to obscure the fact that the Jews were the overwhelming majority of the camp's victims. The use of Christian religious symbols and structures has disturbed Jews whose relatives were systematically killed during the Holocaust, at Auschwitz and elsewhere, simply because they were Jews.

Small wonder that Jews who have been focused on the memory of their dead have reacted strongly to what they see as the Christianization of Auschwitz. When, in the 1980s, a convent was established at Auschwitz I, Jews protested its presence.


  Lately, Jews protested, as they had before, the presence of a large cross at Auschwitz I, and particularly a church installed in the former SS headquarters at nearby Birkenau (Auschwitz II), the massive killing center of the Auschwitz complex, with a cross atop it and a very large one in front of it. About 95 percent of the victims at Birkenau were Jews.

The latest protests were provoked by news that an agreement was about to be signed in July with the Polish government by Jewish and other organizations that would forbid the introduction of new religious symbols at Auschwitz but permit the presence of the large crosses and churches already there. Polish nationalists immediately erected more than 100 additional crosses at Auschwitz.

On Aug. 11, six members of the U.S. Congress wrote to the Polish prime minister protesting the crosses at Auschwitz I, both the new ones and the old, as well as the church in Birkenau. Such religious symbols and structures are, they wrote, "inappropriate at this location and are in violation of the UNESCO agreement which Poland signed in the late 1970s." They wrote that while they respect crosses and churches as places and symbols of holiness, "we believe they do not belong at a place such as Auschwitz-Birkenau."

Why so much protest about churches and crosses? What harm can come, after all, from religious symbols and structures?

The first harm is to historical accuracy, no less than the harm caused by the use of the inflated figures for victims cited by The Post. The use of religious symbols, like the use of inflated figures, distorts perception of the past. There seems little doubt that decades from now, visitors to Auschwitz, seeing the Christian symbols and places of worship, will assume that they symbolize accurately those who were killed and will fail to understand history as it really was. For some Jews, moreover, this would rip from the Jewish people the tragedy of their history and impose on the Jewish dead symbols and structures that misrepresent who the victims were and why they died.

Let there be no religious symbols or structures at Auschwitz -- no crosses, no churches, no Stars of David, no synagogues. To be representationally accurate, for every cross built there would have to be 10 stars built, and for every church, 10 synagogues -- and there would be no end to the tragic competition of victims and victimization. Let visitors be told, in clear language, as they stand amid the mute ashes of the dead, who was murdered in Auschwitz, in what numbers and why. Let there be only words of accurate history in that kingdom of boundless evil.

The writer was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Our opinion
  A WELL WRITTEN and thought-provoking piece.

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