WARSAW — Polish and U.S. officials are engaged in intense talks to determine the fate of a sensitive object: a barrack that once housed doomed prisoners at the Nazis' Auschwitz death camp and is now on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Poland is demanding the return of the artifact, which has been on loan to the Washington museum for more than 20 years and is an important object in its permanent exhibition. But the U.S. museum is resisting the demand, saying the valuable object shouldn't be moved partly because it is too fragile.
The issue has arisen because of a Polish law aimed at safeguarding a cultural heritage ravaged by wars, particularly World War II. Under the law, passed in 2003, any historic object on loan abroad must return to Poland every five years for inspection. While Poland appears open to renewing the loan, it says the barracks must return — at least temporarily.
Because of the rule, the U.S. museum in recent years has already returned thousands of objects, including suitcases, shoes and prosthetic limbs, often in exchange for new, temporary loans of similar or identical items.
The barracks on view in Washington are half of a wooden building where prisoners slept in cramped, filthy and often freezing conditions as they awaited extermination, often in gas chambers. The remaining half still stands at Birkenau, a part of the vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.
The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, Piotr Cywinski, accuses the U.S. institution of violating the terms of a 20-year loan on the barracks, saying the loan expired in 2009.
"We have indicated many times that this half of the barracks must return, that there is no other solution in accordance with the law," Cywinski said.