MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Auschwitz is perhaps the best-known name out of the network of concentration and death camps run by Nazi Germany 60 years ago. More than a million people, mostly Jewish people, were killed there. The Nazis built the camp on Polish territory. And now Poland wants to change the camp's official name to highlight the fact that Poland was not to blame.
NPR's Emily Harris reports.
EMILY HARRIS: What's in a name? When it's Auschwitz - a lot. Under the patter of rain on a recent day at the former camp, a tour guide started the story.
Unidentified Woman#1: The town of Oswiecim, with surrounding areas...
HARRIS: Germany invaded and occupied Poland in 1939. Nazis gave the local town, Oswiecim, a new German name, Auschwitz.
Unidentified Woman#1: The Nazi authorities decided to establish a concentration camp in Auschwitz for Polish political prisoners.
HARRIS: Another guide describes the first gas chamber built at Auschwitz.
Unidentified Woman#2: When the last person entered the gas chamber, the door was closed, light was turned off, holes in the ceiling opened, Zyklon B dropped in and the engine of the motorcycle standing by the gas chamber started to make a noise, to drown down the screaming of those who were dying in the gas chamber.
HARRIS: More and bigger gas chambers were built later at a neighboring camp, Birkenau. The vast majority killed were Jewish people rounded up from all over Europe. Poland maintains this place as a museum, and 30 years ago, the Auschwitz concentration camp became the only Nazi concentration camp officially recognized as a site of world heritage by the U.N. cultural organization, UNESCO. Now, Poland wants to change the camp's official name.
Poland's deputy minister of culture, Tomasz Merta, says just because Germany built Auschwitz on Polish soil, too many news reports have used terms that make Poles seem like the perpetrators.
Mr. TOMASZ MERTA (Poland's Deputy Minister of Culture): Such as Polish concentration camp or Polish holocaust. And then, in the Polish foreign office, they tried to count how many of these terms were present in newspapers all over the world. And it wasn't 10 or 12, but it was two or three hundreds. So a lot, and you cannot think that it's nothing and it was just, you know, it's a simple mistake.
HARRIS: Poland has proposed this name: the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz museum director Piotr Cywinski says it's important to spell out the responsibility, so people don't forget that the Nazis were real representatives of a real government elected by real people in Germany.
Mr. PIOTR CYWINSKI (Director, Auschwitz Museum): (Through translator) If we remove the responsibility from a democratically chosen government of a very concrete country, then we put it on an organization of Nazis without making clear how and where they came from. We abandon our civic duty. That scares me.
HARRIS: Poland requested the name change last year, but UNESCO referred the matter to a panel of experts. A UNESCO committee will vote on the new name at this year's annual meeting, which starts this weekend in New Zealand. It's not clear that it will pass.
Professor MICHAEL TURNER (Chairman, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization): I don't think one starts with the name. One has to start with the meaning.
HARRIS: Israeli architecture Professor Michael Turner sits on the committee considering the change. But he says before Poland changes the official name of the camp, the significance of the site needs to be clearly defined. That must come first, he says.
Prof. TURNER: Turning the chapter of history is something - a very, very serious matter. A name implies that you've made a statement about the meaning of the site. Is it a museum? Is it a memorial? Is it a place of genocide? Is it a place of anti-Semitism?
HARRIS: Poland's national narrative of World War II focuses on the heroic resistance of the German occupation, including the nearly 6,000 Poles who risked their lives to hide or help Jews. Max Polonovski is France's chief curator of Jewish heritage and was on the expert panel that reviewed Poland's proposal. He says Poland's memory of the Auschwitz camp still colors relations with Germany today.
Mr. MAX POLONOVSKI (Chief Curator, Ministry of Culture, France): The people in the villages and the town are very angry about the fact that many people lost their own property because the Germans took the property to create the camp and that they are still requesting some compensation. And so this is a difficult situation.
HARRIS: He would not include German in the camp's official name because he says Germans now are not responsible for their predecessors' evil. But Gissela Grishow(ph), a German visiting Auschwitz for the first time, says leave Nazi out, keep German.
Ms. GISSELA GRISHOW (Tourist): You know, Nazi German - that means somebody else. So I think it's so important to keep that without the Nazis because then it's, you know, this is like telling Hitler was insane. So that makes it so easy because he was insane. We don't have to think about our own feelings, guilts, whatever.
HARRIS: UNESCO's determination of the next stage of Auschwitz' history is due this coming week.
Emily Harris, NPR News, Auschwitz.
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