Seventy years after WWII, Poland honours victims in cyber space
The project aims to bring to light the names of victims were never registered, as well as to gather death records dispersed across Poland, Germany, Ukraine and Israel in one place accessible to all.Warsaw -- Seventy years after the eruption of World War II, Poland is paying homage to Polish victims of the 1939-1945 Nazi occupation by posting their names on a vast historical list in cyberspace.
The project aims to bring to light the names of victims -- both those who perished and those who were persecuted but survived -- who were never registered, as well as to gather death records dispersed across Poland, Germany, Ukraine, and Israel in one place accessible to all.
"How many forms do I have to fill out if I'm the only survivor in my family of five?" Maria Gnietczyk, 82, a onetime detainee in the Auschwitz Nazi German death camp, asks personnel responsible for the website in Warsaw.
She is told to fill out five, for her late relatives and herself as an Auschwitz survivor.
Questionnaires can be filled out either online or, more traditionally, on paper.
"In the space of two weeks, more than 1,500 questionnaires were submitted over the Internet," says Ewa Tazbierska of a group called the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation, a foundation created by both governments, now in charge of the website at: http://www.straty.pl.
People killed during military offensives, in combat, by execution and those who perished in death camps and ghettos can be registered with the site. Historians check each name to avoid any duplications.
"It's very meticulous work and a gigantic operation due both to its size and degree of complexity," says historian Andrzej Kunert.
Launched in 2006, the project until May was run by Karta, a Polish non-governmental organisation, and gathered 1.5 million names over three years.
According to Tazbierska, this figure could double over the next three years.
"The response has been huge. In two weeks, we received more than 50,000 hits on the site and 360,000 searches for names," she said.
"It is precisely to give names to the victims. Our victims are anonymous -- we're talking about several million people, but we don't know who they were," Tazbierska said.
Establishing the true death toll of Poles during World War II is also a major of objective of the project, a delicate task in a country devastated in that fighting. And in the 50 years of communism that followed, the truth about the war was often obscured by state propaganda.
"In 1946, the communist authorities fixed the number of victims at 6,028,000", says Kunert.
"This number was invented on the basis of estimates and was published in history text books for decades. This was the only official number, almost sacred, even though it raised doubts among historians," he said.
"No country in Europe was able to account for its victims with such precision after the war. The estimates were made in millions or hundreds of thousands. In Poland, the communists added 28,000 onto their total to make it seem more realistic," Kunert explains.
Historians generally accept that six million Polish citizens died during the World War II, half of them Polish Jews.
The results of the project could bring surprises, Kunert says.
"The total could turn out to be lower, closer to the 4.5 million total which some historians believe to be true. Or on the contrary, it can reach seven or eight million as some demographers maintain," he said.
"Aside from its academic significance, the project also aims to involve younger generations," says Tomasz Merta, Poland's Deputy Minister of Culture. The initiative is co-financed by the ministry and Poland's Institute for National Remembrance (IPN), responsible for prosecuting Nazi and communist-era crimes.
"Even if it's late, it must be done. The Germans must know everything black on white," says Maria Bromowska 73, who visited the project's headquarters in Warsaw to register her father and five members of her husband's family killed during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising of Polish Home Army partisans against the Nazis.
"I owe it to the memory of my father. He was killed by a German soldier in the street, in a suburb of Warsaw. He was not a member of the resistance, just a civilian," says Bromowska who saw her father die, a memory that still brings tears to her eyes.