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July 9, 2011

Danny Ghitis in Poland: Stealing From Auschwitz

A young boy climbs the barrier between the “Muzeum” apartment complex and the Auschwitz concentration camp museum.

Every so often, Auschwitz appears in headlines around the world. Since the symbol is so evocative it ascribes meaning to events that would normally slip under the radar. For the third time this year, thefts became elevated to international news as tourists made away with artifacts from the death camp museum. And rightfully so. In Poland, stealing culturally important items is punishable by ten years in prison. The people caught last week were released with a hefty fine and a suspended sentence.

We know little about the tourists’ motivation for stealing from such a place, but what I find interesting is the psychological impact of an old stolen spoon or a screw. A mundane object is transformed into a symbol of suffering and oppression when it becomes an “Auschwitz spoon.”

Thousands of confiscated suitcases of Auschwitz prisoners are on display at the museum behind panes of glass.

Several years ago a controversy arose over a disco built in the town Oswiecim within a mile of the memorial site at a former tannery where prisoners worked. The disco eventually closed, and now an open field remains. Starting last summer, the town has held a “Life Festival” at the soccer stadium adjacent to that field, where thousands of people listen to loud rock music. For some reason, the headlines were quiet. Only a few spoke about the message of peace sung by Reggae star and religious Jew Matisyahu at this year’s concert. Why the discrepancy? It seems news outlets are more concerned with capitalizing on sensational opportunities that evoke pain rather than steps toward reconciliation.

Glenn Beck himself will be visiting Auschwitz later this year and broadcasting from Osweicim. I’d rather not speculate on how he will approach the subject, but it’s a juicy move for publicity. The man whose words have been called “bigoted ignorance” by Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman will get plenty of media attention by inserting himself into an Auschwitz conversation.

Firemen convene in a parking lot near Birkenau before a memorial service for thousands of murdered Russian POWs. The service took place as an act of reconciliation after Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s plane crashed on Russian soil.

Citizens of Oswiecim live with an odd duality every day. On the surface the town is a very bland place; almost too bland. But in one lifetime, the arc of history has spanned prewar peaceful coexistence with Jews, the horror of Nazi occupation, the drab Soviet era, on into contemporary democratic Poland. The weight hangs heavy on their collective memory.

–Danny Ghitis


Please see previous post on Ordinary Life In Auschwitz

About the Photographer


  • Anonymous

    Beautiful photos of ugly realities.

  • anonymous


  • Ryszmarek

    I remember the controversy 22 years ago over a Carmelite convent being too near the Auschwitz compound and the protest over the “shadow of the convent’s crucifix falling on the grounds” of the former camp to the extent that the Carmelite nuns were forced to move by papal order from John Paul II in order to appease American Jews who have forgotten that many a Polish nun throughout German-occupied Poland saved the life of a Jewish child, or perished in the attempt.

    • Danny Ghitis

      That is a common response by many Polish, and non-Polish, people trying to reconcile the non-Jewish victims at Auschwitz. The reason the Carmelite site and cross were relocated was because the Auschwitz memorial is not a place for religious symbols. It is a memorial for humanity to remember where evil can take us if left uncontested, which applies to religions and cultures across the board. The cross hovered above the landscape of the camp creating a clear symbol of martyrdom for a particular group. (Despite that more than 90% of the victims at Auschwitz were Jewish there are no Jewish symbols installed at the memorial). Moreover, it took many years for correct historical information to emerge about Auschwitz because of the communist government’s attempt to shape perception of what took place there. As Jewish people were no longer a part of Polish society, the government sought to embellish the victimhood of Polish nationals at Auschwitz and conceal facts about who the Nazis targeted primarily. It is clearly documented/memorialzed and often repeated by Holocaust museums, both in the US and Israel, that there are more Polish “righteous gentiles” that saved Jewish lives than in any other country. Their memory is not forgotten. 

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