Published July 12, 2006
VILNIUS, Lithuania – UNESCO has postponed a decision on a Polish request to change the official name of the Auschwitz concentration camp after members of the World Heritage Committee could not agree on the issue, U.N. officials said Wednesday.
The Polish government wants to change the official name of the notorious death camp where an estimated 1.5 million people were killed during World War II from "Auschwitz Concentration Camp" to the "Former Nazi German Concentration Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau."
The Poles say the change is necessary to show future generations that Poland had no role in establishing or running the camp.
Members of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee discussed the request Wednesday but could not reach a unanimous decision, UNESCO spokesman Roni Amelan said.
The 21-member committee asked the Polish government to hold talks with countries that objected to the name change so that the issue could be taken up at next year's meeting, he said.
"It seemed a good idea to discuss this with other state parties that had reservations," Amelan said.
One of those with reservations was Israel's committee member, Michael Turner, who called for consultations with historians and other experts before any name change is approved.
"We have to give it a lot more thought," Turner said. "There was enormous pressure by a lot of people to 'let's just change the name.' It's not a PR job."
Turner added that the current name was "serving its purpose."
Nevertheless, Poland's government portrayed Wednesday's decision as a step forward, and was optimistic that its proposal would be accepted at next year's meeting of the World Heritage Committee in New Zealand.
"It's a procedural question, however the real issue is that today's decision means that formally in a year the name will be able to be written in agreement with the Polish government's proposal," said Jan Kasprzyk, spokesman Poland's Ministry of Culture.
Foreign media sometimes refer to Auschwitz as a "Polish concentration camp." Such phrasing deeply wounds sensitivities in Poland, which was subjected to a brutal occupation by Adolf Hitler's forces.
The death camp at Auschwitz was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
"Everybody understands how important this is for Poland," said committee chairwoman Ina Marciulionyte. "But this issue is more complicated than we had initially understood. The committee has asked the Polish government to conduct further international consultations together with UNESCO's World Heritage Center before re-examining the proposed name change next year."
The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization committee was meeting in Vilnius for its 30th session. The weeklong conference ends Sunday.