AN international committee of 23 scholars and Holocaust survivors is hard at work on plans to renovate and reorganize the memorial museum at the former Aushchwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to make it a more meaningful monument to the millions of victims of Nazi atrocities. ``The idea is to represent realities better, but also to express the symbolic significance of Auschwitz,'' says Stanislaw Krajewski, the Polish representative of the American Jewish Congress and a member of the international committee, which held its first meeting at Auschwitz in late June. Committee members include experts from Poland, Israel, the United States, Britain, France, Belgium, Austria, and West Berlin.
``For younger and younger people, Auschwitz is more and more abstract. What happened there is something like ancient history for them,'' Mr. Krajewski said.
For more than 45 years Auschwitz, the Nazis' biggest death camp, has been synonymous with the Holocaust which wiped out 6 million European Jews. Sprawling across acres of flat farmland outside the small southern Polish town of Oswiecem, the concentration camp was turned into a memorial museum after the war. It has been visited by millions from all over the world.
About 3 million of Poland's 3.5 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, and at least 3,000 individual Jewish communities were wiped off the map. Today only about 200 synagogues remain, and only a few are still houses of worship.
At Auschwitz, brick barracks have been turned into exhibition halls displaying documentation of mass slaughter. At nearby Birkenau, the camp has been left as it was: a vast expanse of ruined barracks crematoria, and a monument to the victims.
The international Jewish community has long wanted changes at the museum, but only since the collapse of the Communist government has it become possible to begin planning renovations. The main problem is that the Auschwitz museum, established in 1947 as ``a Monument of the Martyrdom of the Polish Nation and of Other Nations,'' was set up under the communist regime and strongly reflects Soviet ideology vis-`a-vis the Holocaust and World War II.
The fact that over 90 percent of Auschwitz victims - now believed to be about 1.6 million - were Jews is treated almost as a side issue. The introductory film shown at the museum, put together 40 years ago mentions Jews only as one of a long list of ``nationalities'' who died at Auschwitz. Jews were allotted one of the 14 ``national pavilions'' in which governments of countries whose citizens died in Auschwitz set up exhibits detailing suffering under the Nazis.
``The aim of the changes is to better represent the Jewish aspect of Auschwitz and the fact that the great majority of victims there were Jews,'' said Krajewski.``Also, we want to modify the national pavilions which are inappropriate,'' he said. ``Conservation is a problem too. The buildings and exhibits ... need very serious and expensive restoration or conservation.
Krajewski said the international committee is ``proposing to the Polish authorities the designation of the museum be changed from a commemoration of nationalities to a commemoration of the martyrdom of ```Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and others.'''
Krajewski said a list of detailed proposals drawn up in May by a group of Jewish intellectuals could serve as guidelines for a renovated museum. These stress that respect for the memory of all victims of Auschwitz ``should guide all aspects of the organization of the museum.''
They also suggest that no unilateral changes be introduced in the physical organization of the museum unless approved by museum authorities. This suggestion was aimed at avoiding a repeat of the tense situation around the establishment of a Carmelite convent on the grounds of the camp. Agreement has now been reached that the nuns will move to an ecumenical center off the Auschwitz grounds. Krajewski says the work is progressing well and ``should be finished by next year.''