Row Over Barrack Raises Tensions Between Leading Holocaust Museums

Negotiations over the return of barrack from Birkenau death camp have dragged on for the last two years.

WARSAW - A dispute over a barrack loaned by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is troubling relations between these two important Holocaust memorial institutions, and also stirring tension between American Jews and Polish officials.

More than 20 years ago, the American museum, located in Washington D.C., asked to be loaned parts of a barrack that had been located in Birkenau, a Nazi death camp. Yet as the due date on the loan approached, the Holocaust Memorial Museum's directors were reluctant to return the hut to its lawful owners.

Negotiations over the return have dragged on for the last two years. Recently, an official at the American museum indicated that the institution never really intended to remove the barrack from its display: "There are a number of similar facilities at Birkenau," the official said.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, director of the international council of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, claimed recently in an interview with a Warsaw daily that "the Americans have robbed Auschwitz."

Bartoszewski said in the interview that he is trying to work out an agreement with the American museum without resorting to litigation, but his letters to Washington are not being answered. Bartoszewski, 90, added that his hopes of returning the barrack to Birkenau via negotiations were raised when Sarah Jane Bloomfield, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, joined the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum's international council. Ronald Lauder, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, is also slated to join this council.

The controversy over the return of the barrack has taken on increased significance recently, because the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum has begun a major restoration project that is focused on rebuilding the facilities at Birkenau. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, comprised of delegates from 18 countries, has so far raised 97 million euros of the 120 million euros needed for the restoration work.