Auschwitz toll slips as Communist figures on non-Jewish deaths are refuted

April 02, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

OSWIECIM, Poland -- Beyond the Death Wall and the prisoners' barracks, past the ruined gas chambers and crematoriums, at the edge of the Auschwitz death camp, is a row of 19 concrete memorials.

The memorials are dedicated to the victims of the Nazi killing machine that operated here with such horrific efficiency. But gone now from the memorials are the 19 inscriptions that said in 19 languages that 4 million people died here.

The memorials are blank because they were wrong.

Jewish and Polish scholars of the Holocaust now agree that the Auschwitz death toll was less than half the 4 million cited here for four decades. The actual number was probably between 1.1 million and 1.5 million -- and at least 90 percent of the victims were Jews.

The claim that more than 1 million non-Jews died here was a myth created by Poland's Communist leaders.

It was only after the fall of the Communist government in 1989 that Polish historians were finally allowed to say what Franciszek Piper, manager of the historical department at Auschwitz, says he had known for five years. Jewish scholars say they knew the truth for at least 10 years.

But Mr. Piper, an ex-Communist Pole, and Jewish historians have different explanations of why the truth took so long to come out.

Sitting in his drab little Auschwitz office, filled with books on the transport of prisoners and the operation of crematoriums, Mr. Piper said that years of research were needed to get to the truth and that then, "the people in charge of publishing" in Communist Poland "didn't believe" the number.

However, Jewish Holocaust specialists said they suspected other motives.

"The numbers that we dealt with before were numbers that were politically motivated," said Miles Lerman, of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington.

The Communists tried to "de-Judaize" Auschwitz to emphasize that other nationalities, particularly Poles, died at the hands of the Nazis, said Mr. Lerman, who is also a member of the International Council of the State Museum of Auschwitz.

He said the downward revision was first made at the museum, which is run by the Polish government, after it was personally approved by Poland's first post-Communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

"We are not looking for enormous numbers," Mr. Lerman said. "We are looking for historical veracity. The old inscriptions were removed because they presented a politically slanted picture."

Aaron Breitbart, research director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said that the Communists tried not only here but also in the former Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe to de-emphasize the suffering of the Jews.

"The Communists looked at the war against Nazism not as a human issue but as one ideology fighting another, so they tended to misappropriate the Holocaust," he said.

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