[Joy Dudley]

Polish communities still felt the effects of the Second World War long after its end. Nazi Germany was the perpetrator of this war as an ambitious attempt to conquer Eastern Europe for the purpose of Lebensraum (living space) for the German population. Its policies destroyed the notion of civilized modernity that European nations had sought to build carefully for many generations. The Nazi policies destroyed lives, homes, and cultures. They caused the destruction of communities and local populations (Piper, 1). Their policies laid the foundation of ethnic disputes that still exist today. Auschwitz became the focal point of the drama surrounding the Second World War. It was the result of Nazi genocidal policies (Piper, 1).

“Arbeit Macht Frei.”(‘Work Sets You Free’) were the words located above the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a killing center of over one million people. Auschwitz is regarded as the culmination of Nazi ideology put into action. The concentration camp at capacityhad about 140,000 people with thousands more passing through the gas chambers and crematorium. Auschwitz is both a symbol of an infamous historical event in history and a symbol that arouses several different perspectives on memory. The victims of Auschwitz came from a variety of backgrounds. Although there were many more victims than survivors, there was a significant survivor population after liberation. There was also material evidence that suggested industrialized mass murder. Because of all of these factors, Auschwitz represents more than the “largest mass grave in the world”, but it also stands as a symbol of the ultimate evils of xenophobia, racism, and aggression (Piper, 2). It is more than historical fact, but the culmination of a great moral problem that continues to shock generation after generation. Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi describes it in two different approaches. The first is a static approach that locates a “non-negotiable self in an unyielding place whose sign is Auschwitz” (Ezrahi). The second approach is more dynamic and “approaches the representation of memory of that place as a construction of strategies for an ongoing regeneration of that historical reality” (Erzrahi). Historian Jonathan Heuner charts the  conflicted nature of collective memory, of how Auschwitz is maintained and commemorated. He claims that the experience of one individual who passed through the gates of Auschwitz was not the same for millions of others. He stated that his use of the term “memory” did not always refer to an individual.

The town of Oswiecim was annexed to Germany and renamed Auschwitz shortly after the German occupation of Poland in 1939.  The town had a population of about 12,000 residents before the war, 40 percent of whom were Jewish. Ironically, the town was the perfect example of Jewish-Polish coexistence (Heuner, 4). The Nazis located the camp on the outskirts of the town, and the original camp was intended for Polish POWs to prevent further overcrowding in Polish prisons. Heinrich Himmler, the mastermind of the “Final Solution,” appointed Rudolf Hoess as commandant of Auschwitz in May 1940. The Nazis sent a small band of SS soldiers to staff the camp, and in June of that year almost 800 Polish prisoners were imprisoned in the camp for the first time. Some of these Polish political leaders included intellectual, spiritual, and cultural elites (Heuner, 4). The intelligentsia in interwar Poland also included many Polish Jews from urban centers. They were considered to be fully assimilated into society, and regarded themselves as Gentiles. However, when Germany occupied Poland, they made a clear distinction between a Pole and a Polish Jew. The Polish Jew was no longer considered to be a part of the Gentile population. The reality of ethnic identity was a lot more complicated than

 simply dividing the Polish population between Jew and non-Jew. The divisions along Nazi racial ideological lines were artificial. Auschwitz grew at a steady pace and the Germans evicted many from the surrounding area to establish a “place of interest” around the camp (Heuner, 5). As the  camp grew, its purpose shifted from housing political prisoners to the wholesale destruction of both European Jewry and others deemed by the Nazis to be unworthy for life.  .

Anti-Semitism was the fundamental racial foundation of Nazi ideology. They used it to help explain Germany’s defeat during World War I, and also as a cause of Germany’s economic collapse under the Weimar Republic. Hitler’s hatred of Jews has always been clear even before his established dictatorship. The Nazis saw Jews living in Germany as poisoning the racial purity of German society. They felt that the only way to be “liberated” from this disease was the exclusion of Jews from all aspects of German society. The question of exclusion evolved from resettlement to extermination. It was not until Germany had plans to expand eastward into the Soviet Union that the physical extermination of Jews became clearly defined in the context of extermination camps (Piper, 58). The Einsatzgruppen were mobile killing units that represented one of the early stages of this destruction. They were charged with maintaining order, while at the same time exterminating large populations by firing squads. Due to the emotional and physical toll of this job, the Germans had to find more “humane” ways of killing large populations. They then began to use mobile vans to achieve this task. The victims were usually herded onto large vans. These vans were kept running and the victims died from the carbon monoxide exhaust that was fed back into the vans. Afterwards, the bodies were unloaded from the vans  into mass graves. Zyklon B was first introduced to the gas chambers as a means of extermination. The construction of gas chambers meant that large numbers of people were murdered in the space of minutes. For three years Auschwitz literally became the center of industrialized death.

The Red Army liberated the camp in January 1945. Some prisoners discussed the prospect of preserving Auschwitz as a museum to commemorate those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis. The conditions of the camp were too chaotic to warrant such an endeavor right away. The Soviet Union introduced a new historical narrative into the site when they interned Volksdeutsche and German POWs in the camps months after liberation (Heuner, 60). These new prisoners were in charge of dismantling the barracks, exhuming corpses, and clearing the grounds (Heuner, 60). They even participated in early efforts at preservation. Their presence in the camp required military supervision, which also protected the camp from potential looters. Ironically, the first legislative attempt to preserve Auschwitz as a memorial did not come from a Jewish prisoner. A Polish prisoner from Birkenau, named Alfred Fiderkiewicz, made this recommendation. He wanted the camp to memorialize Polish martyrdom (Heuner, 61). The Provisional Government of Poland upheld his recommendation and named Tadeusz Wasowicz as director of the site. Conservation became one of the most difficult tasks to achieve for the site workers. Soon after liberation, many of Auschwitz’s original structures were still intact. However, looters roamed  the camp looking for riches (Heuner, 62). The Polish press looked down upon this practice, and there were several arrests (Heuner, 62). However, the restoration process between 1945 and 1947 presented interesting problems for the historical memory of the site. The notion of Polish martyrdom contributed to the marginalization of Jewish suffering (Heuner, 78).

Auschwitz historical memory is not fixed. In the Polish context, it has been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to promote various political agendas. It was not only a site for the millions of Jews that perished, but also the commemoration of Polish martyrdom. Auschwitz’s commemoration was internationalized, contributing more to the complex historical narrative that characterizes the site. These tensions reached a peak during the Carmelite convent controversy. This controversy was a manifestation of an underlying tension between Jewish and Polish historical memory of Auschwitz. In the early 1980s Pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz and held a mass for over 500,000 people. They erected a cross near the site for the purpose of mass, and took it down shortly after the event. In 1984 Carmelite nuns opened a convent near Auschwitz I. Due to the protest that ensued, the Catholic Church ordered the nuns to move. However, they left a cross in their wake. This led to protests from the Jewish population who said that most of the victims of Auschwitz were Jewish. They demanded that religious symbols be kept from the site to honor the Jewish memory. However, some Catholics insisted that the majority of the victims were Catholic Poles. When John Paul II visited the site he opened the meaning of the site up to debate.

There came a convergence of two historical narratives: one was the resurgence of “an emboldened Catholicism and a national-insurrectionary spirit,” while the other was the resurgence of the Jewish memory of the Shoah (Heuner, 238). These two narratives’ convergence shook the foundation of Polish historical memory (Heuner, 238). This controversy was not just the result of Jewish-Catholic conflict, or even conflict between Poles and Jews. It was an example of the many conflicting historical narratives that provide the framework of Auschwitz’s collective memory (Heuner, 238). The commemorative history of Auschwitz will always be a topic of controversy. “The future of Auschwitz will reflect a variety of narratives, and in setting their agenda for the site, the stewards of memory will undoubtedly reflect upon its biography” (Heuner, 2


Works Cited/Consulted

  • Heuner, Jonathan . Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commeration 1945-1979. Athens: (University Press, 2003).
  • Piper, Franciszek. Auschwitz as a Historical and Moral Fact. Auschwitz 1940-1945. Edited by Waclow Dlugoborski, Franciszek Piper .( Oswiecim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2000.)
  •  Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi .Representing Auschwitz.  History and Memory , Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall -Winter, 1995), pp. 121-154 .Published by: Indiana University Press
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