- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2012

WARSAW Polish and American 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 that is now on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Poland is demanding the return of the barrack, which has been on loan to the Washington museum for more than 20 years and is an important part of its permanent exhibition.

But the American museum is resisting the demand, saying the valuable object shouldn’t be moved partly because it is too fragile.

“Due to the barrack’s size and the complexity of its installation, removing and transporting it to Poland presents special difficulties, including potentially damaging the artifact,” the Holocaust museum said in a statement to the Associated Press.

“Both the Museum and our Polish partners have been actively discussing various proposals, and we remain committed to continue working with them to resolve this matter.”

The issue has arisen because of a Polish law aimed at safeguarding a cultural heritage ravaged by past 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 barrack must return - at least temporarily.

Because of the rule, the U.S. museum in recent years has returned thousands of objects dating to the Holocaust, including suitcases, shoes and prosthetic limbs, often in exchange for new loans of similar or identical items.

The barrack on view in Washington is, in fact, just 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 two camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau, are about two miles apart but were part of the same machinery of death during the war and the complex is typically referred to simply as Auschwitz.

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 barrack, saying the loan expired in 2009.

“We have indicated many times that this half of the barrack must return, that there is no other solution in accordance with the law,” Mr. Cywinski said.

“It’s a very important object, not just for Washington but for the integrity of Birkenau, the last authentic site of Holocaust remembrance among all the major death camps.”

The U.S. Holocaust museum confirms that the 20-year loan on the barrack began in 1989, but says that it was a renewable loan - and notes that Polish law was changed since then.

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