Located on Auschwitz site,
Polish town, history clash
By Beata Pasek, Associated Press, 6/9/2002
OSWIECIM, Poland - Andrzej Czarnik was surprised, but hardly
shocked, to learn that his home stood on the site of the first gas
chamber Nazis used to kill Jews at Auschwitz.
''In this town,'' he said, ''there are human ashes
A year ago, Czarnik agreed to an offer to take another house so
the Auschwitz museum could demolish his and erect a memorial.
''What can you do about it?'' he said, sitting on a bench
outside his new two-story home. ''You can't just plant grass
It's a familiar refrain among the 43,000 residents of Oswiecim,
a poor industrial town in southern Poland, where remnants of the
Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp seem to be everywhere.
Auschwitz, the German name for Oswiecim, is a highly sensitive
symbol of the Nazi Holocaust of 6 million Jews, and international
Jewish groups are pressing for more sites to be protected. The
Auschwitz museum has given the city a list of 21.
Frustrated townspeople say that the preserved remains of the
camp are symbol enough and that uncertainty over other so-called
martyrdom sites hampers investment.
The town is hurting from layoffs that began in 1997 when the
communist-era Dwory chemicals plant, the major employer, began
''There is nothing here,'' said Czarnik, 40, who works seasonal
jobs in Austria. ''Tourists are coming in great numbers, but the
town gets nothing from them. Nobody wants to risk opening a
business here, even a hamburger stand.''
Museum officials regarded Czarnik's property, across the street
from a camp perimeter fence, as especially important. They say the
Nazis expelled Czarnik's ancestors from a red-brick house and made
it into a temporary gas chamber while awaiting completion of
larger ones at Birkenau.
Tens of thousands of prisoners are believed to have perished in
the ''Red House'' before it was razed. The Czarniks returned and
rebuilt in the early 1950s.
The museum managed to settle amicably with Czarnik last year by
offering him a new house, paid for by a $100,000 donation from a
Polish-born French Jew.
Elsewhere, however, Jewish appeals to preserve off-camp sites
have collided with private property rights and local fears that
Oswiecim could become one big cemetery.
''The case of the Red House is an exception,'' said the
museum's spokesman, Jaroslaw Mensfelt. ''We don't have money to
buy out other sites.''
Not all of more than 1 million Jews who died at Auschwitz
during Germany's occupation of Poland in World War II died in gas
chambers. Some were worked to death in a tannery about a mile from
the camp or in a nearby gravel pit. There were executions and
grisly medical experiments at other sites.
The issue exploded into headlines two years ago when officials
allowed a disco to open at the privately owned tannery site. It
was closed after the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish
They are raising similar objections to a commercial visitors
center being built near the Auschwitz museum, with shops and
restaurants, saying it denigrates the memory of Holocaust victims.
Developers counter that more services are needed for the
half-million people a year who visit Auschwitz. They spend almost
nothing in Oswiecim, arriving on day trips from Krakow 45 miles
Another dispute is brewing over an old ammunition factory where
Auschwitz inmates were forced to toil. Italian investors propose a
shopping center that could provide 300 jobs, but the Krakow
provincial supervisor of historic preservation has delayed permits
because it is on the museum's list.
Other sites include a weed-choked rail siding where Nazi
doctors once decided which camp arrivals should work and which
should die in gas chambers.
''The museum cannot do anything. It's all up to the town,''
Mensfelt said. ''Even if we took over the loading platform from
the state railway company, we would have no money to maintain
Jewish groups dispute contentions that the presence of the
Auschwitz camp and related sites are hurting business.
''I think it's just the contrary,'' said Stanislaw Krajewski, a
board member of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. ''There
is more investment in Oswiecim than in other small towns, just
because of the camp. And the city is profiting from it, but
somehow cannot appreciate it.''
This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe
2002 Globe Newspaper Company.