Dispute at Auschwitz Shows Fight Against Intolerance Still Not Won
OSWIECIM, POLAND — THE surrounding countryside is windswept, bleak, and uninviting this time of year. Within the barbed-wire confines the atmosphere can bring emotions that run from revulsion to anger.
Such is Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death complex where up to 1.5 million people -- about 90 percent of them Jewish -- were killed during World War II.
The name Auschwitz now recalls the worst traits humans have expressed: hate, intolerance, and a murderous impulse.
Since the end of the war, those peoples who suffered so grievously here, especially Jews, have sought to keep their memories of the war alive in order to prevent genocide from recurring. But the horror of Auschwitz has not been enough to consign the term ''genocide'' to oblivion.
Last week's 50th anniversary commemoration of the camp's liberation by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945, drew attention to a divide between Jews and Poles about Auschwitz's legacy.
The memory of Auschwitz ''hasn't created any mechanism to prevent history from repeating itself,'' said Stanislaw Kapralski, a Polish sociologist at Central European University in Prague.
All the participants in the commemoration -- in particular Jewish and Polish dignitaries -- spoke out for greater tolerance, respect for human rights, and the need to resist totalitarianism. But differences over defining the war's legacy have helped keep words from turning into action.
Most historians agree that a proven way to prevent totalitarianism from imposing its will on the unwilling is for opposition forces to be determined and united -- such as was ultimately the case of the Allies against Nazi Germany and the West against Soviet Communism.
That two peoples, Jews and Poles, now remain bitterly antagonistic even though both suffered so much under totalitarian rule helps explain why contemporary atrocities have been committed in Bosnia and Rwanda.
''It's important to show that aggravated hatred [between Jews and Poles] can change,'' said Mr. Kapralski. ''It would serve as a good example to counter what is now going on in Bosnia.''
Perhaps the starkest example of Auschwitz's ineffective legacy showed up in the ''Appeal to the People of the World,'' produced by participants in the 50th anniversary events.
The appeal's text ended with the words: ''Never again to fanaticism and violence. Never again to war and killing.'' Yet one of the participating states was the so-called Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- the Serb-dominated entity that is trying to create a greater Serbia by practicing ''ethnic cleansing'' of Croats and Muslims. Muslims and Croats also have been charged with similar abuses, although on a lesser scale.
That a group can make such progress in establishing a state based on ethnic identity, without invoking serious retribution, testifies not so much to their strength as to disunity among opponents of totalitarianism.
The bitterness between Jews and Poles shows how divisions divert the energies of peoples who could otherwise join forces to oppose subjugation anywhere in the world.
Many Jews today view Auschwitz as symbolic of the unique suffering that the Nazis inflicted upon European Jewry.
''This was a war against Jews,'' said Jean Kahn, head of the European Jewish Congress, during a memorial at Birkenau. ''The 'Final Solution' was the war aim of the Nazis,'' he said, referring to the Nazis' attempted extermination of all Jews.
Poles, meanwhile, say many groups -- not just Jews, but Poles, Gypsies, and others -- were persecuted at Auschwitz and other death camps. They also tend to treat Polish suffering as being equal to that which the Jews suffered under Hitler.
An estimated 6 million people in Poland, half of them Jewish, died during the Nazi occupation. About 6 million Jews in all are estimated to have died in the Holocaust.
The different views of Auschwitz perpetuate the antagonism. Jewish leaders, such as Mr. Kahn, openly express concern that the Polish interpretation attempts to ''Christianize the Shoah,'' or Holocaust.
Poles, meanwhile, become riled by what they perceive as Jewish attempts to diminish Poland's suffering during the war.
Both groups, for now at least, are unlikely to cooperate in working against a resurgence of horrors like those they suffered.
There are signs, however, that relations between Jews and Poles are slowly changing for the better. According to Jerzy Holzer, a Polish historian, the nature of Polish anti-Semitism has changed since World War II.
Part of the reason, he says, is that there are hardly any Jews left in Poland. Most estimates put the figure at less than 10,000 people. More important, he adds, nationalistic and religious elements of Polish anti-Semitism have largely disappeared, and the antagonism now rests on an economic foundation that should erode as Polish living standards rise.
''It's related to the frustration of people [during the economic transition],'' Mr. Holzer said. ''They are trying to answer their questions with resentment.''
A recent opinion survey conducted for the New York-based American Jewish Committee indicated that Polish anti-Semitism is still widespread, but at the same time, it contained some positive signs. For example, 85 percent of Poles said they favored keeping alive ''the remembrance of the extermination of Jews.''
''The survey results provide a foundation to be built upon,'' said David Singer, a Jewish community leader in New York who presented the survey's findings.
He said Poles and Jews may never reach full reconciliation, but that it was important to reach some kind of understanding.
''With the collapse of communism and the reunification of Germany, there is a lot of revision of historical memory taking place,'' he said.