Lest We Forget: The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, is both a museum and a memorial on the site of two parts of the former concentration and extermination camp.

Devoted to the memory of those murdered in both camps during WWII, the museum performs research into the Holocaust.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State MuseumIts director is the historian, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński (shown left). He spoke to Blooloop of his role and of the museum’s unique function and responsibility.

Born in Warsaw in 1972, Cywiński, active participant and often initiator in the Polish-Jewish and Christian-Jewish dialogue, is an ecumenist devoted to reconciling the various denominations among the cultures of the borderlands.

From The Middle Ages to the 20th Century

He spent his early childhood in Warsaw before spending time in both Switzerland and France as a result of his father’s (Bohdan Cywiński) political exile.

Cywiński graduated in 1993 from the University of Humanities in Strasbourg as a Mediaeval historian and from the Catholic University of Lublin in1995, obtaining his PhD from the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences in 2001.

“As a historian, I was interested in the early middle ages. It is a great period in terms of the methodology of historic research, due to the paucity of sources and the need to use multiple methods of supporting sciences, ” says Cywiński.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum camp

“Then, at some point, former prisoners of Auschwitz, especially those involved in upholding this memory, invited me to cooperate with the International Auschwitz Council.  For me, it was a very brutal return to the 20th century and, in addition, to its most tenebrous side.”

Portrait of an unknown Auschwitz Birkenau prisonerIn June 2006, Cywiński was nominated for the position of director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, a position he assumed on the 1st of September of that year, replacing Jerzy Wróblewski, who had been the Museum’s director for many years.

“I just couldn’t say no to them, ” admits Cywiński. “So, in 2006, at the relatively young age of 34, I became the fourth director of the Auschwitz Memorial since the war.”

Conservation and education

He cites conservation and education as two of his most significant challenges.

“Conservation involves securing the authenticity of the biggest of all Nazi German concentration and extermination camps. We are talking about 200 hectares of over 150 buildings, 300 ruins and tens of thousands of objects and archive materials. It goes far beyond the capacity of one museum institution of culture.

main gate at auschwitz birkenau

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation

“That is why, six years ago, we established the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation which, thanks to the support of 36 states (so far) and many wonderful private donors, has already collected most of the planned endowment fund of 120 million Euros.

“This endowment, as a unique financing tool of international origin is meant to enable planning and execution of conservation works on an unprecedented scale in the world, which is planned for decades. All this is intended so that the entire generations can for a long time – through the power of authenticity – explore the significance of the history of Auschwitz.”

Auschwitz-Birkenau wall of photographs

Education is, however, the museum’s clear priority.

“Irrespective of whether it is realised within a 3-4 hour visit, or in the course of an in-depth, multi-day study or seminar visit, our moral obligation, the raison d’etre of this place, is to warn man of himself.”

It is, he says, about making people accept the responsibility we all share in shaping our world.

Prisoners at Auschwitz Birkenau

The need to raise difficult questions

Auschwitz-Birkenau, he says, “… cannot remain indifferent, it must raise difficult, or even very difficult questions about what we want to or must do with this tragic luggage, with this awareness.

“Auschwitz was a German concentration camp and extermination centre. It is obvious that this memory is most alive among the descendants of people who lived through the hell of it – many Jewish families, but also Polish and Romani.”

Julian Debiec The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

“Today, however, the significance of Auschwitz, without losing any of its historicity, in a symbolic sense goes far beyond the geography of victims. Auschwitz has become a pars pro toto symbol of the entire criminal system of the Third Reich, and in fact any inhuman, racist, anti-Semitic, humiliating, hateful or totalitarian approach to a fellow man.”

Family of Slovak Jewess Lili Jacob BirkenauWhile this presents a unique opportunity to reach out to the world’s collective conscience, it also creates legitimate concerns and difficulties.

“Auschwitz, as a place of unimaginable crime, cannot be subjected to evolving trends in social dialogues, changing political trends or correctness, ” he says.

Approaching change with sensitivity

“This place must be a clear stimulus for a difficult and profound self-reflection and prism in reading the signs of the time of our world. Otherwise, it would mean the confiscation of the suffering of the victims for temporary goals. Nobody has the moral right to it.

“The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is a place in which you need to listen carefully, not to impose your personal narrative.”

Nevertheless, necessary changes have been brought about during his tenure.

“First of all, after several years of hard work we are close to solving the problem of funding the gigantic conservation works.

“Secondly, we have developed several educational paths. This would not have been possible without extensive work with the media, policy makers and – through social media – with public opinion in many countries.

Auschwitz Birkenau prison uniform“I think the legibility of the Memorial and its uniqueness in the world has increased in the last decade. Several research works have been published.

New exhibit in development

“We have begun a very important work on a new main exhibition, the scenario and design of which has already been developed, and currently we are about to commence work on specific technical projects.”

Describing the new exhibit, Cywiński says:

“It is a very telling, intentionally minimalistic exhibition, which is by nature phenomenologically strong, ” says Cywiński.

“It is an exhibition which does not only tell, but above all portrays; an exhibition which will allow the visitor to better understand the overtone and significance of the entire gigantic and authentic former camp of the Memorial Site.”

maria mandel SS femal guard auschwitz

Attendance has increased fourfold in 15 years

Furthermore, work is being done to expand the museum’s educational infrastructure in a number of ways, including the creation of a new Education Centre, as well as the provision of online content.

“Today, one of the key issues is development of access, since attendance in the last 15 years has practically increased fourfold, ” says Cywiński.

This is due in part to the growing role the Memorial is playing in schools programmes around the world.

sovier POW cemetery auschwitz

Learning from the past

“Increasingly, democratic nations are beginning to realize that they cannot bring young people to become fully mature citizens without the difficult confrontation of their consciousness with what lay at the root of our post-war world, and the recent choices of the human race.

“I think that the last ten years was in many respects a period of great change and evolution in the structure of the museum, in terms of defining our priorities, and in dialogue with the outside world.”

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum SHOAH

Although the majority of visitors are on school and educational visits, Cywiński says many individuals come, too.

“Remembrance in any case is a long-term issue, several trends are being manifested recently and only in the perspective of lasting change can they be subjected to real analysis.”

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, he emphasises, “… is meant to pose questions and arouse the conscience.”

“We must clearly state that it is difficult to fully understand the challenges and threats of today’s world, its complexity and the responsibility that rests on us all, without understanding the fundamental experience of the Holocaust in the history of mankind.”

Auschwitz photograph Czeslawa Kwaka

A lesson for the future

None of the remaining great Holocaust centres have retained as much authenticity and thus immediacy as Auschwitz-Birkenau, described in the accounts of so many victims and witnesses.

Last year saw the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. As the number of remaining survivors dwindles, the function, responsibility and significance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum had had to be re-assessed.

“The survivors have done a great work: have provided us with knowledge of their horrible fate. They told us about their traumatic experience. They have embedded in us teachings about the Holocaust, concentration camps, policies of the Third Reich in the education system and the entire debate on culture and history.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau liberation 70th anniversary

“Today we, our generation, must prove to be mature enough to carry that burden further – to the new generations, as a warning, to reinforce their decisions on the protection of our world, of mutual relations, the axis of dialogue and respect. Memory is not given once and for all, but memory itself has the power to save, if taken seriously.”

The Memorial site offers the visitor a number of perspectives, says Cywiński, depending on their sensitivity, preparation before the visit, ability to express empathy and ability of conscientious self-reflection.

70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

“It is a place that can be very depressing, but can also be a very strong point of reference for actions and decisions of each individual human being. For many people one visit in their lifetime is enough to understand the fundamental importance of human rights in shaping our societies.”

The expectations of modern visitors to museums tend to change with evolving technology, and with the trend towards interactive and immersive content. At the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, it is different. The museum is a tangible testament to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Dutch prisoner

Truth above technology

“Technology old and new is irrelevant to the brutality of the content referred to here. You need to reach the heart, the mind, the consciousness. Contrary to a widespread belief, you reach them not by tools but the manifestation of the truth about man.

“Hence – among other things – our special attention to authenticity. It is not the knowledge of man that should be broadened. It is his ability to express empathy and feeling of responsibility for the fate of other people. Otherwise, such a visit to Auschwitz will merely be a fruitless voyeurism.”

Children on the day Auschwitz was liberated

Cywiński admits that the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum can be a difficult place to work.

“Those who come in for a few hours emerge often unable to put the complexity of their emotions into words. We are here nearly every day of the year. And we carry this responsibility as best as we can, because it has a great, unfathomable meaning that transcends generations.

“Passage through this site is not a visit as in the classical museum sense, ” says Cywiński. “It is a sort of ‘rite of passage’.

“And, any person crossing the threshold of Auschwitz shall never come out the same.”

Auschwitz-Birkenau main gate

All images by kind permission of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.