Peace dawns at last in the battle over the legacy of Auschwitz

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The Independent Online
What do you do if you grow up with a view of the Auschwitz watchtowers from your bedroom window? As a child, Andrzej Ozarnik's response was to shudder - then to call his mates to see if they wanted to come and play football in the nearby fields leading up to the death camp gates.

"We are all acutely aware that there was a terrible crime committed here, but we can't spend our whole lives dwelling on that," said Mr Ozarnik, now in his forties. "In the end, we just want to be normal people."

And yet, nothing much in this small chemical-producing Polish town of just 50,000 inhabitants has ever really been normal, following its selection by the Nazis to be the largest killing site of the Holocaust.

The desire of locals to get on with normal lives in the town which the world still knows as Auschwitz has been a constant irritation to international Jewish groups, who accuse them of disrespect to the memory of the some 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, who perished here.

In recent years, there have been several controversies over the Auschwitz legacy. There was fury when a group of Car-melite nuns tried to set up a convent within the actual site of Auschwitz. Tensions erupted again last year, when a local developer announced plans to build a shopping complex just across the road from the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei slogan at the gateway to the camp. Worldwide protests prompted the Polish government to step in and block the development.

In an attempt to ensure nothing like that happens again, the government and international Jewish groups have now agreed a $40m (pounds 25m) scheme to improve conservation work at the camp while helping the adjacent town of Oswiecim to develop.

"We are trying to lay the groundwork for the physical, geographical and spiritual integrity of this unique site in a way that will preserve it for generations and avoid the periodic controversies which end up dividing us all," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, after the signing ceremony in Warsaw last week.

Jerzy Wroblewski, director of the Auschwitz museum, said. "This agreement can only ease frictions and enable the town and museum to co-exist," he said. "A lot of people have been consulted. The last thing we Poles want is to be accused of doing it all wrong again."

The agreed plan envisages extensive preservation work at the twin sites of Auschwitz and neighbouring Birkenau (where the gas chambers were located) and the construction of a common entrance to the two which will be reachable via a new ring road, aimed at diverting traffic away from the centre of town. The plan also foresees a stricter implementation of a Unesco-decreed protection zone, under which no commercial development will be possible within 500 metres of the two main sites. There is talk of constructing a new conference and discussion centre in Oswiecim.

After decades of criticism about alleged attempts to Christianise and commercialise the Auschwitz legacy, the government wants the initiative to be seen as marking a fresh start.

But in Oswiecim itself, where locals resent suggestions that they were complicit in the horrors on their door- step, the plan has met a sceptical response.

Andrzej Telka, the mayor, reflects ruefully on the fact that he and his colleagues had drawn up a more extensive programme under which his run-down town would have received a much-needed facelift.

And one local businesswoman, Miroslawa Nykiel, said: "No amount of money can ever solve our problem. For all of us in Oswiecim, the presence of the camps is like living with a permanent illness."

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