Auschwitz commemorative events in Poland focus on Holocaust education


Statesmen from some 40 countries gather at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz next week to mark the 60th anniversary of its liberation. Among them will be the German, Russian, Israeli, French and Polish presidents.

Set up in 1940 as a labour camp for Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz gradually expanded into the biggest Nazi death camp. Over one million men, women and children, most of them Jews from 20 European countries, perished there in horrific circumstances. On liberation day sixty years ago, there were seven thousand half-starved inmates in Auschwitz.

The central message of the anniversary gathering is to be addressed to young Europeans, many of whom do not know the ideological origins of the Holocaust. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski:

"The commemorative events are first and foremost an opportunity to convey to the world the knowledge about the Auschwitz crime, about the concentration camps and the Holocaust."

The Auschwitz camp has been visited by almost thirty million people since the opening of the museum there in the early 1950's. Dan Mariashin from the United States describes the site as a lesson for future generations.

"The experience was overwhelming. It was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is important that more people visit Auschwitz - that Poles, and Jews and others from around the world, come to see this monument to the ability of man to inflict such pain and suffering on other men and women. And we should be learning from this experience. This is not just a memorial to the past; it is a memorial that teaches us lessons for the future."

The commemorative events on January 27th include the inauguration of the European Educational Programme on Holocaust Lessons for Teachers in the town of Osvetim, close to the camp site. Tomasz Kuncewicz of the Auschwitz Jewish Centre:

"Auschwitz is a place that is very crucial in teaching about hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. And I think there's no need to try to explain why it is important to learn about these prejudices. And I think it seems that Auschwitz could serve as a perfect place for this kind of education as a symbol of hatred, anti-Semitism and xenophobia which ended up in a mass scale of massacres".

The Auschwitz anniversary is marked in many countries. BBC TV runs a six-part series entitled The Nazis; the Final Solution produced by Laurence Rees on the basis of his own book of the same title. According to a BBC survey, almost fifty percent of British people don't know what the word 'Auschwitz' means. I asked Laurence Rees if the broad publicity given to the anniversary of the camp's liberation is likely to change this state of affairs:

"It is extremely important that the people know what happened at Auschwitz. It's shocking that so many people in this country don't and that all of these events, as they are coming forward, can only help. But crucially I think it's not just enough to know the word, and that it was a place of murder.

"It's extremely important to understand its evolution because that shows, first of all, there was an incremental movement of the Nazis towards creating these factories of murder so young people understand that it isn't about a group of insane people coming down one day and deciding to do something out of nowhere. These are, for the most part, the same people from a cultured country working forward in a series of incremental steps that you could see through Auschwitz".

The Auschwitz anniversary will also be marked by many outside Poland, including groups such as the UN General Assembly and the European Parliament.