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At the most potent symbol of Nazi terror, the caretakers of Auschwitz-Birkenau have a new job: defending history.
The museum at the former German death camp in southern Poland said it’s fighting off a rapidly escalating number of false claims. In a country where a nationalist agenda has come to dominate politics, some newspapers and reports on social media have suggested the guardians of the site ignore the wartime suffering of Poles.
There was an accusation that singing the Polish national anthem is banned. “The museum only requests that silence is maintained in the courtyard of Block 11, the place of executions,” it responded. The curators rebuffed another one that only the Israeli flag was allowed to fly.
Another was particularly poignant. The museum, which displays the victims’ cut hair, eye glasses, suitcases and clothes, corrected the assertion that Poles weren’t invited to the 73rd anniversary of the camp’s liberation on January 27.
“There have been more false reports over the past several weeks than at any other time,” said Bartosz Bartyzel, a historian and museum spokesman who grew up in Oswiecim, the town next to Auschwitz, and started out as a guide at the camp about 20 years ago. “Our only instrument in this battle is education — teaching and re-teaching our history.”
But these are different times in Poland. Emotions are on edge as a law came into force this week that criminalises implications that the nation was in any way responsible for the mass murder of Jews during World War II. The legislation introduced by the Law & Justice government triggered outrage in Israel and alarm among other allies.
While the leadership in Warsaw says it won’t tolerate any signs of racial hatred and seeks to maintain good relations with Israel, decades of Polish-Jewish reconciliation have crumbled within weeks and a number of Holocaust-linked groups have warned about rising antisemitism.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has vowed to protect the nation’s honour and halt a rising tide of “anti-Polonism” that he says is turning Poles from Nazi victims into collaborators through the lens of history. The Nazis systematically murdered 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, at the former German camp located some 70 km west of the city of Krakow.
On a sunny winter day this week when the temperature dropped to minus 10 Celsius, groups of visitors huddled together before going through the Auschwitz I camp’s gate with the infamous proclamation “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Will Set You Free.”
Three kilometres down the road stands the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau complex where the Nazis managed to destroy more evidence of the Holocaust. There were 50 German camps in this region, Bartyzel said.
Once inside the camp, which remains surrounded by barbed wire, visitors walk quickly through a maze of barracks. Some visitors stop by the gallows, where prisoners caught trying to escape or suspected of planning to were hanged during daily roll calls.
Other groups, some speaking Hebrew and others Spanish, spent quiet minutes standing outside a building which once stored the gas chamber and still has the ovens used as a crematorium. On a clearing several metres behind the death block, stands a wooden scaffolding with a rusty metal hook where Rudolf Hoess, the Nazi camp commander, was hanged on April 18, 1947.
Last month, a government-appointed curator for Auschwitz said that only Polish nationals should be licensed to guide visitors around the death camp because otherwise Jews will learn its history with an anti-Polish bias. The Education Ministry shot down the idea.
“As a museum, we don’t want to get involved in politics, and we’d also like politicians to stay clear from us,” said Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. “It’s deeply unethical to argue like this over a mass grave.”
During the commemoration of the 73rd anniversary of liberation, a woman holding a flag was asked to move back because it was put up in a section reserved for former prisoners and blocked their views, according to the museum. She responded by saying the inmates weren’t “true Poles,” it said.
The incident was reported as organisers preventing the woman from displaying her Polish flag, the museum said.
False accusations about Auschwitz used to be “isolated incidents,” either accidentally or deliberately aimed at heating up the atmosphere around the memorial, said Cywinski. “This phenomenon has now spilled over. And it will probably take a long time to calm things again.”