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Steve Fidel, Deseret Morning News
Visitors walk through barracks at Birkenau. Bunks have been removed to show the structure's original configuration as a horse stable.

OSWIECIM, Poland — Marcin Szalko was in his first year as a tour director at the Auschwitz concentration camp when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a "myth" wrongly used to justify Israel's existence.

But the Iranian isn't the first to make that claim. With recent history as a guide, he won't be the last. Szalko just shrugs when asked if he thinks Ahmadinejad's attack has any traction.

Not many of the 2,000 daily visitors to the memorial at Auschwitz and Auschwitz II at Birkenau come from the Middle East, but those who do haven't brought Ahmadinejad's claim with them.

"I had visitors from Iran just a few weeks ago," Szalko said. "They do not believe their president. They did not question that the Holocaust happened."

Szalko acknowledges there are people who believe the wood, brick, concrete and barbed-wire remains of the expansive Auschwitz complex are purely a work of propaganda. But they either don't visit the memorial at Auschwitz or else they keep their opinions to themselves. "I have never had anybody say this was not real. I do not know of anybody (other guides) who has."

Ahmadinejad's assault was in the context of an ongoing argument about the legitimacy of the Jewish state in Israel. Ahmadinejad calls the Israeli state the foundation for a holocaust against Palestinians. Reaction continued in the United Nations, where the General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the denial of the Holocaust. Only Iran rejected the resolution, calling it a "hypocritical political exercise."

A group of Jewish students visiting Auschwitz the week I was there filed past haunting exhibits in the camp's barracks along with many other visitors. None wanted to vocalize to an outsider their feelings about the camp or those who deny what happened there.

Szalko knows the history of Auschwitz and Birkenau very well and can answer almost any question without hesitation. One that did make him pause was an inquiry about his decision to work there as a tour guide.

His hesitation did not appear to be for lack of an answer, rather lack of a rehearsed way of condensing three generations of family history that preceded his job as a guide.

Szalko was born in the village of Oswiecim, which encompasses Auschwitz and is adjacent to Auschwitz II at Birkenau. His parents were also born there. So were his grandparents. He spent two years in Arizona going to school then returned home, continuing his education in Krakow just 18 miles from Auschwitz. He said he sought the job guiding tours through the concentration camps because he feels an obligation to help keep the history alive.

Ahmadinejad's world-announced "propaganda" points out that need, he said.

Szalko's tour information is passionate but does not get personal until he makes his closing remarks inside one of the wooden barracks at Birkenau that housed male prisoners. "We have to remember what happened in this place," he says.

He points several hundred yards away to the west end of the camp, marked by a row of birch trees, and relates a story his grandmother told him. At the peak of its deadly activity, crematoria at Birkenau weren't keeping up with the number of bodies other prisoners were forced to pull from its gas chambers, so many bodies were sandwiched between layers of fuel wood and destroyed in a pyre.

The Nazis tried to camouflage the killings to keep information in the surrounding communities from spreading to the outside world. His grandmother said the smell of smoke from the pyre and the ongoing crematoria smoke told all. "Everyone here knew what was going on," Szalko said.

The stench was its worst, his grandmother told him, when bodies in an unstable mass grave were exhumed, after they had significantly decomposed, and burned on a hot summer day.

The number of prisoners the Nazis killed at Auschwitz and Birkenau varies depending on the source. That variance also provides fodder for Holocaust detractors. The U.S. Holocaust Museum tallies deaths at both camps at 1,110,000. That is an average of 787 people killed each day between the time the Nazis started using cyanide pellets to gas prisoners in September 1941 and when Soviet liberators arrived in January 1945.

Or, if compared to the visitor activity today, it would take the tour buses that fill the memorial's parking lots each day 18 months without a break to deliver the same number of people that took a one-way trip to the camps by crowded rail car during World War II.


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