Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Saturday, 31 July 2010 11:24 UK

Emerging from the shadow of Auschwitz

Oswiecim town centre

By Chris Bowlby
BBC News

The small Polish town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz in German) has long felt that it suffered from association with the horror of the nearby Nazi death camp, but some residents hope the town can begin to be seen in a more positive light.

"You want a map of the town, not just the museum?"

The tourist information officer looked sceptical at first, then delighted.

She rummaged in a drawer - clearly one she did not open that often - and pulled out a brochure.

There were, she ruefully admitted, very few visitors to this place interested in anything beyond the Auschwitz museum.


It is hard growing up somewhere the rest of the world sees as the symbol of evil

After I had made my own visit, I headed away from the crowds into the elegant old town centre.

A modest cafe or two were open, old men sat in the tree-lined square feeding the birds, shoppers ambled around in a scene you would find in any small Polish town.

No signs in any foreign language, nowhere selling souvenirs.

While more than a million people arrive up the road at the museum every year, in the town centre there is no hint of it being a tourist destination.

Resentment

And this bizarre divide has caused considerable tension.

Although the museum provides some jobs for locals, others complain about costs incurred in providing, say, parking space for visitors who bring the town little in return.

Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945
Auschwitz was set up to provide slave labour but soon became a death camp

There have been rows when planning permission for the museum's expansion has been rejected by local authorities.

And resentment goes deeper than that.

Some people feel tainted by the terrible history looming over this place.

It is hard growing up somewhere the rest of the world sees as the symbol of evil.

Some visitors to Auschwitz make a point of shunning the town, not wishing to linger. They cannot understand, they say, how anyone could still live here.

Jewish past

The reaction from many local people has been to turn their backs on history.

All this was encouraged by Polish Communist rule, keen to suppress Jewish history in particular.

Synagogue in Oswiecim
The Jewish Centre presents local Jewish history since the 16th Century

Oswiecim's former synagogue was used in Communist times as a carpet warehouse, until a British academic, Jonathan Webber, discovered it in the 1980s.

As Judaism was then so taboo, he recalls, he had to pretend he was looking for an Armenian church.

He paid the warehouse workers a few dollars to carry away the stacks of carpets and reveal Hebrew inscriptions on the walls.

That former synagogue is now a Jewish centre.

On the staff is Artur Szyndler, who grew up in Oswiecim under Communism.

He told me that all the time he was at school, a mile or two from the Auschwitz site, he never once heard the word Holocaust.

But after the end of Communist rule, he studied Jewish history at university, as a growing number of young Poles now do.

Pointing to old maps on the walls of the centre, he explained how Oswiecim had had a Jewish majority before the war.

With its location at a well-connected meeting point of countries and peoples, it was known as a place of unusually good relations between faiths, and for tolerance of refugees.

But that location became a curse during Nazi rule, and Oswiecim was chosen as the final destination and place of murder for over a million Jews and many others too, who were deported from all over Europe.

Reconciliation

Oswiecim's own Jewish residents were among the victims.

There are no Jews living here today, but the centre in the former synagogue has regular visits from Holocaust survivors who were born in the town.

Father Manfred Deselaers
It's important... that Hitler does not have the last word about this place
Father Manfred Deselaers

It wants to draw visitors from the Auschwitz concentration camp site into Oswiecim to explore the history of the rich society the Nazis destroyed.

And the Jewish centre is just one of several places in the town exploring the nature of genocide, and the possibility of reconciliation.

At the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, I came across a man who plays a remarkable symbolic role as the only German living in Oswiecim today.

Manfred Deselaers is a Catholic priest with a ready smile but a deeply serious mission.

After German reunification in 1990 and much talk of Germany moving on from its past, he decided to settle permanently here.

He immersed himself first in its darkest history, studying the claims made by the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, that he was a Christian believer.

Today Father Deselaers runs courses bringing former Auschwitz prisoners - Catholic and Jewish - together with young Poles and Germans.

Sometimes even the descendants of Germans who worked at the death camp are there.

Given this kind of encounter, he tells me, Oswiecim-Auschwitz can be a place with a "remarkable positive power, which is strange but it's here".

"It's important that people are not simply overwhelmed, but see something good," he says. "That Hitler does not have the last word about this place".

It will never be straightforward for Oswiecim to emerge from the shadow of Auschwitz.

The reconciliation work is a start, drawing on memories of the town's brighter history before the Nazis arrived.

It is seen as offering a kind of map - like the map I found buried in the tourist information office - showing a way towards a more positive future for a town still trapped in the most terrible of pasts.

Chris Bowlby will also present Repairing Auschwitz on Wednesday 4 August at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. It will be available for seven days after that on the BBC iPlayer.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website



SEE ALSO
Country profile: Poland
15 Apr 12 |  Country profiles

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