What happened to Russian exhibition in Auschwitz?

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya) - A new scandal has broken out in Russian-Polish relations. Kommersant, a Russian business daily, has reported that the Russian exhibition in the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz has been closed.

The story raises many questions. Is it another political demarche by Poland, one of the many that have taken place recently, especially when it comes to reconsidering history? Or is it ordinary negligence, common for both Poles and Russians?

Piotr Setkiewicz, head of the museum archive, told Kommersant that the Russians had exaggerated the number of Soviet prisoners in the camp and had not provided accurate information about their origin. People from the "occupied territories" (i.e. West Ukraine and part of Belarus, which became part of the Soviet Union in 1939 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) should be listed as citizens of Poland and not of the Soviet Union, the museum's administration believe. The exhibition will open if Russia meets the requirements sent to the Russian Culture Ministry, Setkiewicz said. However, Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, which is part of the Culture Ministry, said he had not received any letters from the Auschwitz Museum.

Alexander Yegorov, Russia's Consul General in Krakow, confirmed for RIA Novosti that "the Russian part of the exhibition had been closed several months ago for temporary reorganization." Proposals on reorganization were submitted to the consulate several days ago, he said. Russian diplomats in Krakow warned against politicizing the incident.

The question is who and when received complaints from the Polish museum. If the exhibition was closed a long time ago, why did its creators learn about it - and about complaints - from a newspaper publication?

In her interview with RIA Novosti, Yelena Yurina, director of the Center for the Preservation of Monuments and Soldier Burials Abroad, said, "I can comment on the situation only using the facts in the Kommersant article; I do not have any other information."

Her center, which is part of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, was charged with preparing the Russian exhibition a few years ago. Yurina said she was very surprised by the Polish statements quoted by Kommersant.

Krystyna Oleksy, the museum's deputy director, said the exhibition was closed because "the Russian organizers have not completed the exhibition modernization work."

Yurina, however, said it was not true. The exhibition "was opened in January 2005, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz prisoners by the Red Army," she said. "Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the exhibition with other heads of state. And we did not receive any complaints about it then."

Yurina said she was also shocked by the statement made by Malgorzata Szniak, cultural attache at the Polish Embassy in Moscow, who said that "the new exhibition prepared by Russian specialists was not coordinated with the museum's staff. Its content contradicts other countries' exhibitions at Auschwitz."

"If we had not coordinated our exhibition, it would not have opened," Yurina said. When preparing the exhibition, the Center's employees sent all materials to the museum by e-mail, she said. "We waited for Poland's endorsement; the most important issues were decided by the International Committee of Auschwitz Prisoners. After that we prepared sketch boards showing the plan of our exhibition, which contained pictures, figures and text. All that was also sent to the museum for approval."

She did acknowledge, however, that there were disputes between the Russian and Polish parties when working on the exhibition. They were both about statistics and names of towns and villages. "Our statistics were based on the data of the Russian Academy of Sciences (as of the year 2000), but Poles have their own sources and their own position on the nationality of Auschwitz prisoners," she said. "As to geographic names, we used both academic works and the archive of Irina Kharina, president of the Association of Former Nazi Prisoners, which she has collected over many years, using testimonials of Auschwitz prisoners who told her their stories. The museum agreed to accept this information, although there is no documentary proof in some cases." Yurina insists that a compromise was eventually found on each disputed issue. The Center is now looking for the documents related to exhibition preparations in their archives and waiting for the opportunity to address the Polish complaints.

The Russian foundation Holocaust would also like to see them. Its employees helped the Center to prepare the part of the exhibition related to the concentration camp's Jewish prisoners.

"We would like to know what it is all about," said the foundation's co-chairman, historian Ilya Altman. He believes that if a territory belonged to the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, prisoners from this territory should be considered Soviet citizens. At least, this is how the foundation compiles statistics on Jews who died in the Soviet Union during the war.

In any case, the question is not whether the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was fair or not. The memory of those who died in Auschwitz, regardless of their nationality, should be sacred. This memory demands that all disputed issues be resolved with dignity.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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