60 Years after Auschwitz Oswiecim, City of the Dead

Oswiecim, known as Auschwitz in Germany, is fighting for normalcy. The small southern Polish city wants to climb out from beneath the shadow of the concentration camp. In a strange twist, the city's fathers are asking for German help.

By in Oswiecim, Poland

Oswiecim -- This Thursday, the salespeople at the home improvement store Twoj Dom ("Your House") will finish their work early. The street between Oswiecim and Brzezinka will be closed and their usual customers will be absent. Instead, 29 heads of state and government will be driving through on their way to participate in the ceremonies surrounding the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Russia's Red Army on Jan. 27, 1945.

For years prior to the liberation, the only passers by were columns of emaciated figures shuffling past the location where the store now sells lawn mowers, wood chippers and tiling. SS officers beat the starved prisoners, demanded that they hurry and shot those who stumbled. The two-kilometer long stretch from the main camp at Auschwitz 1 to the extermination camp at Auschwitz II in Birkenau was the last trail for hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, Russian prisoners and other victims of the Nazis. And residents here have been painfully reminded ever since.

"What are we supposed to do? We live here in Oswiecim and Brzezinka," one worker says. Often descendents of the victims or even survivors come back to the camp's abyss. "Sometimes people even wave, but they've never gotten upset." Sometimes the construction workers come by, too, the ones who help keep the buildings at the camp standing. They buy plaster, paint, cement and screws. "We give them good prices," he says.

Today, Oswiecim is a typical small southern Polish city with 42,000 residents. The buildings on the market square have been renovated. There are cafes, cash machines and even a toy store. One storefront proudly displays in its window an oil painting of Marshall Joseph Pilsudki, who helped establish Poland's independence in 1918 after 150 years of division. Turkish fast food stands have become fashionable in Poland and the smell of doner kebabs fills the air. A chemical company -- with production facilities eerily located on the old IG Farben grounds where the chemicals were made to gas Auschwitz's millions of victims -- is now the city's biggest employer, with about 3,000 workers. The second biggest is the concentration camp's museum, with almost 400 employees.

"Miss Auschwitz"

Only a few of the 500,000 people who visit the concentration camp each year actually find their way into the city. The camp itself is located on the other side of the Sola River, in the middle of a derelict industrial area where prisoners once served as forced laborers. A few hundred people live here directly next to the watch towers. But nobody wants to talk about it. "Leave us alone, we didn't build the camp," the rebuff usually goes.

"We want to finally be able to lead normal lives," says Agnieszka Lobodzinska of the cultural center in Oswiecim. Her long legs and brunette hair helped her to win the "Miss Oswiecim District" pageant. Indeed, she's the most beautiful woman in a city in which the Germans left behind the ugliest of all scars. The Oswiecimers are prowd of beautiful Agnieszka. Young men even pull out their mobile phones with cameras when she enters into cafes. Like so many others, the 17-year-old also wants to get out of the camp's shadows -- she says she wants to go to Warsaw or Krakow. Next year she'll finish high school and she's thinking about studying international relations or marketing.

In the meantime, she's trying to earn a few zlotys with the odd modelling job. But her runway ambitions haven't been working out quite as well as she'd like. She's already participated in national beauty competitions, and in even came in as the runner-up in the "Miss Little Poland" competition. But there's a glass ceiling in the beauty business for young women from Oswiecim. There's the problem of that pesky name -- neither politicians nor sponsors want to associate themselves with it.

"Whenever I go anywhere, the people always give me strange looks." "Miss Auschwitz," they say, shaking their heads. "There are many Poles who have no idea anybody lives here -- they think everything here is dead."

It's actually a violation of Polish law to use the name "Auschwitz" for the city. Officially there's the city of Oswiecim and the village of Brzezinka, and then there's the Museum Concentration Camp Auschwitz Birkenau, which is comprised of the Main Camp I and the Extermination Camp II.

Too often, visitors forget that Oswiecim has a history that precedes the Nazi horrors by centuries. "How can you live here? We get that question here often," says Father Manfred Deselaers. "Or even worse: How could you have built your city here?" But how do you answer that question in a city that is 850 years old? Father Manfred is likely the only German who was bold enough to settle in Oswiecim after the war. The clergyman has made spiritual reconciliation in the wake of the heinous Nazi crimes his life's work. Indeed, his doctoral thesis was about former camp head Rudolf Hoess and carried the title "God, Evil and the Commander of Auschwitz." At his Center of Dialogue and Prayer, Father Manfred brings together young people from Poland and Germany -- most just after they have visited the erstwhile barracks and gas chambers at Auschwitz.

"The visitors see the city through the lens of the camp," Father Manfred acknowledges. And often Oswiecim residents feel like they are the targets of the anger the Holocaust tourists feel after visiting the site. "They feel like they've been made accomplices to the crime," he says. "Auschwitz is the cemetery of the Jewish world, but through no fault of the people here."

A disco in the death zone

True indeed. The Nazis didn't just terrorize the Jews and leave the rest of the people in peace. They deported hundreds of Catholics from the town, arrested the political leadership, lawyers, and teachers -- some were even shot in the open streets. Priests from Oswiecim fought to survive in Auschwitz. It's a difficult history for everyone and the open wounds can be felt everywhere.

Jarek Mensfelt is the spokesman for the Auschwitz museum and his office is located next to one of the former gas chambers. Sometimes, after work, he goes for a beer, but he doesn't at all like what he occasionally hears at the local bar. "The foreigners have too much power here -- our lives are determined in Warsaw, Moscow, New York and Tel Aviv," he's heard bar regulars murmer.

A few years ago, a nightclub was opened at a site in the city where the Nazis once shot prisoners and slave laborers. Legally, there was nothing that could be done to stop the pleasure temple, but victims' groups applied such intense pressure that the guests avoided the club and it eventually closed. It wasn't an isolated case -- it has happened over and over again.

At 17 percent, the unemployment rate in the city is average for Poland. Still, young people want to flee the area to go to the bigger cities of Warsaw or Krakow like the youth in other small cities in the area. Even though Oswiecim is statistically similar to many other Polish cities, the people here believe Auschwitz is ruining the area's opportunities for growth. Many have made Nazi victims and their organizations scapegoats for the town's ongoing economic misery.

"What Hitler did isn't our fault"

The frequent disputes with international organizations have complicated life here. "Some residents are uncertain, they don't know what is allowed in Oswiecim and what isn't," Mensfelt says. Legally, there is only a 10 to 100 meter-wide protective zone that separates the city from Auschwitz. "In theory, people could open a bordello or a McDonalds next to it," he explains. For that reason, victims' associations and the International Auschwitz Council are calling for the creation of a "Zone of Silence" around the camp. But local mayor Janusz Marszalek has said he would oppose the request. Marszalek is a controversial character; a few years ago, when he was still a simple businessman, he started to build a supermarket across from the former main camp. International pressure halted the project, but Marszalek refused to give up, took his case to court and won.

Today, there's a small shopping center there. Parking costs two zlotys (about 50 euro cents) per hour and there's free coffee according to a poster. A restaurant, called "Art Deco", serves traditional Polish cooking with a view of the concentration camp. Next door, at "Art Burger," you can hear the sizzle of oil as hamburgers and French fries are prepared. Marszalek's unwavering stance helped him land in the city hall -- voters were happy to elect a man who stood up to foreign influence in the city.

"I want this city to develop like every other," he says. "It's not our fault that that madman Hitler and his henchmen perpetrated their crimes here."

But over time, he's grown savvier in dealing with the incongruities of contemporary Oswiecim and the barbaric crimes that were perpetrated here 60 years ago. At the peak of his battle over the shopping center, he called former Polish foreign minister and Auschwitz survivor Wladayslaw Bartoszewski an agent of the international Jewish community. But today he has Israeli and German flags standing next to each other on his shelf. Maszalek talks about the college that is supposed to come to Oswiecim. And he talks about the European Peace Park that will be built and the old castle that will be refurbished with money supplied by Brussels. Does he want foreign investors from Germany? "I'm looking for them," he says.

Rediscovering Jewish history

German tourists are welcome in Oswiecim, too, it seems, even at Halina Koziol's place. The small, chubby woman fiddles with the colorful plastic necklace she's wearing. She frequently smiles when she shows guests the sculptures and paintings in her "Pro Arte" gallery. "The people -- whether Jews or Germans -- always seem to be relieved when they encounter art in Oswiecim," she explains. Halina says she wants to open a youth center soon where children can learn to paint. "I want to transform the evil energy in this place into creativity."

Four years ago, Koziol's gallery had been located above the old synagogue, but when a New York foundation paid for the building's renovation and established a Jewish cultural center, she had to move. Today, men with long curly sidelocks are again praying in the synagogue and a part of the city's history has been restored -- but there are no more Jews living in Oswiecim. The people who come here to pray are guests.

It's a far cry from the time before the Nazis came, when more than 7,000 people of Jewish faith lived here harmoniously with Catholic Poles. Only a few survived the Holocaust. After the war, 180 Jews tried to resettle here, but the community slowly died out with many leaving the country when the Communists began an anti-Semitic hate campaign at the end of the 1960s.

Szymon Kluger endured, and until his death in the winter of 2000, he was considered Oswiecim's last Jew. Sadly, he died just a few weeks before the synagogue reopened a few doors down from his home. Nor did he experience how Catholic Poles began taking an interest in their former Jewish neighbors.

"We're addressing the city's Jewish history before Auschwitz," explains Tomasz Kuncewicz, director of the affiliated Jewish cultural center. "There's tremendous resonance, and I didn't expect it." Of course there are, just like everywhere else, traces of xenophobic attitudes, but Kuncewicz says he has never encountered any form of anti-Semitism in Oswiecim. "People have become more sensitive," he says. "Anti-Semitic slogans have slowly disappeared in past years from the political stage -- not just here," Kuncewicz has observed.

The Poles interpretation of history has also undergone a radical transformation. For decades, the official Communist history of Auschwitz considered the camp primarily one where Poles were victimized -- the martyrdom of Jews was played down. For many Poles, their historic image of Auschwitz first changed after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Interest in the country's Jewish traditions has also been reawakened, Father Manfred says.

"Oswiecim must find its way back to normalcy," he says. "Hitler can't have the last word."

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