Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Oświęcim or Auschwitz?

Oswiecim castle

Earlier this month, I attended a conference in Poland on the Jagiellonians, a favourite national dynasty representing a lost golden age. The conference, jointly organised by the Universities of Warsaw and Katowice, was held in the medium-sized, southern town of Oświęcim – in the 15th century, the capital of a small Upper Silesian duchy on the tempestuous border between the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary.

The conference took place in Oświęcim because the event was generously sponsored and hosted by the town council and mayor. It took place in the newly opened Oświęcim Museum, housed in a fine little castle above a river. The local authorities greeted this gathering of historians enthusiastically. The conference is part of their wider endeavour to reshape the image of their town, because Oświęcim is better known across by the world by its German name, Auschwitz.

Coming from the UK, with its strong tradition of national Holocaust education, the very idea of softening the image of a place called Auschwitz can sit very uncomfortably indeed: this network of camps, one of them right outside my hotel, is arguably the defining traumatic memory of the modern west. This is a place which can seem irredeemably bleak, historically radioactive, drowning out everything else around it for miles and miles; with its genocidal past, quite simply the darkest spot in all of Europe.

Town square
People who live in the town, most of whom were born long after the war, perhaps in order to be able to live here at all, have a different perspective. Oświęcim is simply their town: it has medieval churches, shops, schools, Italian restaurants, bars. They wish visitors would come not just to the camp, but also get a flavour of local history by visiting the castle museum, or perhaps the town synagogue mueum. The camp itself has simply become a fact of life: the town archives, for example, are housed in one of the blocks in Auschwitz 1.

Oświęcim’s attempt to rebrand itself, with EU funding for its new museum, will seem heretical and deeply disrespectful to many outside Poland, an implied minimisation of the Holocaust. For local Poles, for the energetic mayor, it’s an attempt to ask the world to see this 21C community on its own terms, in a broader context. It comes down to one question – to whom does Oświęcim- Auschwitz belong? To the world, to the 1,100,000 people who were murdered in this small place, or to the Polish population who call this pretty but scarred town their home? Is it, and should it always be, 1944 in this pocket of Europe? Are the locals allowed to move on, or is the existence of normal life here some kind of affront in itself? As a British citizen from the Polish diaspora, I can hear what is said in both languages and narratives, and I can hear that they are not hearing each other at all. And that is why there is no agreement - in guidebooks, on maps - on what to even call this place, (Polish) Oświęcim or (German) Auschwitz.

Town sign: two identities, Oswiecim castle & Auschwitz camp