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Europe: Auschwitz Legacy Weighs on Residents Of Nearby Town -- Especially Its Youth

For people around the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of some of the worst horrors in human history. But Auschwitz itself is the German name for Oswiecim, the small Polish town whose misfortune is to be located just kilometers from Adolf Hitler's most infamous Nazi death camp. Today, as global leaders gather here to mark the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation by Soviet troops, locals are looking on with both respect and fatigue at living with Oswiecim's notorious legacy.

Oswiecim, Poland; 27 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Oswiecim lies tucked behind the railway station where visitors arrive to see the museum at the former Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Most visitors, in fact, don't even notice the town of about 40,000 people.

Nevertheless, Oswiecim -- or Auschwitz in German -- is synonymous around the world with genocide and the Holocaust. Up to 1.5 million people perished in the camps, mostly Jews from throughout Europe.

Residents say it's a terrible legacy to live with. And some, especially the youth, say they are tired of it and want a "normal life."

Marta Boroczyk, 25, is a clerk in a clothing shop on the town's quaint main street, which is marked by large Catholic churches on both ends.

Boroczyk said it is impossible to grow up here and not feel the burden of the town's legacy and reverence for victims of the worst mass murder in modern history.

But she said that sometimes she wishes life were "normal" -- especially this week, as the world focuses on the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation by Soviet troops.

"Maybe things will return to normal after this visit," Boroczyk said. "Here, we only hear 'Auschwitz-Birkenau, Auschwitz-Birkenau.' Not Oswiecim. Only 'Auschwitz-Birkenau.'"

Boroczyk complained that local youth are unable to lead the same kinds of lives as their peers in other places.

She said a popular disco not far from the camps had to be closed down recently because it was seen as offensive.

Dariusz Lakomy agreed. A 25-year-old computer technician and guitarist in a rock band, Lakomy bemoaned the fate of local youth.

Tugging on his braided goatee, Lakomy describes what he sees as the best option for the youth of Oswiecim: "Get out fast."

He also recalled the disco incident, but said problems are deeper: Young people lack not only entertainment, but jobs as well.
"Here, we only hear 'Auschwitz-Birkenau, Auschwitz-Birkenau.' Not Oswiecim. Only 'Auschwitz-Birkenau.'"

He said the legacy of Auschwitz, and the need to maintain the area as a solemn memorial, mean local authorities frown on things that could employ Oswiecim's youth -- such as building shopping malls, or developing businesses.

"The people who think of it as a museum -- 'don't build anything, don't change anything' -- they would like to leave it as it is," Lakomy said. "It's sad."

Lakomy noted authorities have not allowed the building of shops, restaurants or hotels to service visitors near the train station. In fact, about the only thing a visitor can get near the station is a room in a grim communist-era hotel down the street or a candy bar or roll in a kiosk.

For his part, Lakomy said he tries to forget the fact that the camps were here.

But while that sentiment appears common, it doesn't appear to be the rule.

Aleksandra Socha, 25, is a receptionist in an Oswiecim hotel. She said that kids growing up in the town are steeped in Holocaust history in school -- and that locals understand the need to respect that legacy.

"I was born in Oswiecim, so it's the city of my childhood," Socha said. "And I like my work and living here, but I know about the history of the city. I will always remember about what happened in the camp."

Ivona Wojas shares a similar viewpoint. She and her brother own a pastry shop on the main square across from the town's city hall.

Wojas pointed out that an old synagogue was recently reopened in Oswiecim. And she said that Auschwitz is something no Pole can ever forget.

"I live in Krakow [but] I work here. So for me, every day [the fact that there is a concentration camp here] is a big [deal]," Wojas said. "And I think for everyone who lives in Poland, Oswiecim is a very big deal."

As it is for the town's residents -- for better or for worse.

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Auschwitz: 60 Years After Liberation
Auschwitz Survivors, Liberators Honored