‘The biggest task is to combat indifference’: Auschwitz Museum turns visitors’ eyes to current events

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP</span>
Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

Piotr Cywiński has spent a lot of time pondering a question that has exercised historians, philosophers and politicians ever since the end of the second world war. What lessons should we draw from one of the darkest pages in human history, the organised mass killing at Auschwitz?

A 49-year-old Polish historian, Cywiński has been director of the Auschwitz Museum since 2006. His office is housed in a former hospital and pharmacy built for the camp’s SS guards, and his windows look out over a crematorium and gas chamber.

“The biggest task for remembrance today is to combat indifference,” he said in an interview ahead of the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is also Holocaust Memorial Day, and is marked on Thursday.

“You can massacre tens of thousands of Rohingya, you can put 1.5 million Uyghurs in camps, in Yemen people are suffering because they do not have anything to eat, and we don’t feel concerned in our world,” he said.

Nazi Germany deported about 1.3 million people to Auschwitz and 1.1 million of them died there, 90% of them Jewish. The museum, on the edge of the Polish town of Oświęcim, is housed in the preserved original buildings of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the ruins of the neighbouring Birkenau extermination camp.

Cywiński said that while the events of the Holocaust could not be compared to the present day, “the silence of bystanders” is a topic he wants visitors to the museum to think about and apply to their own lives.

As well as combatting a world in which indifference and ignorance about the Holocaust are rising, Cywiński also has to contend with the current Polish government, which has made a nationalist narrative emphasising Polish martyrdom and suffering a major part of its political message.

The government funds the Auschwitz museum and appoints its director, and Cywiński’s tenure is up for renewal at the end of this year. Many fear he may be replaced by a more ideological pro-government figure, as has happened at some other Polish museums. The Polish culture ministry said it was “premature” to discuss whether he would be reappointed later this year.

The Auschwitz Museum contains some of the most shocking and disturbing exhibits on display anywhere in the world. Once seen, they remain etched into the minds of many visitors for the rest of their lives: the two tonnes of human hair, the tens of thousands of shoes and the piles of suitcases with names scrawled on the sides, symbols of the false hope with which many arrived at the camp.

Cywiński wants to retain these gruesome artefacts, aware of the dark power that radiates from their authenticity, but also to add a new part of the exhibition, that will focus on the SS and the Nazi camp administration.

“We have to show that this was not an isolated place that suddenly appeared but it was a project that was created, built and grew during that time,” he said.

At the ceremony to mark 75 years of liberation in 2020, Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski told the assembled dignitaries that “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky”. He warned of the dangers of discriminating against any minority. “Democracy hinges on the rights of minorities being protected,” he said.

While the museum will remain firmly focused on the terrible events that happened there, Cywiński is this week launching the Auschwitz Pledge Foundation, which will distribute grants to groups across the world fighting indifference to hatred.

The foundation’s general director, Jacek Kastelaniec, said projects that tackled antisemitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and discrimination against migrants and refugees would all be eligible for funding.

This is where things get tricky for Cywiński, given that he serves at the pleasure of a government that has frequently demonised refugees, and recently ran a presidential campaign based almost entirely around anti-LGBT rhetoric.

In a 2017 speech at Auschwitz, the then prime minister, Beata Szydło, said the history of the camp showed that “everything must be done to defend the safety and the lives of citizens”. The remarks were widely interpreted as a defence of the government’s anti-migration policy.

Last year, the government put Szydło on to the board of a council that oversees the Auschwitz Museum’s activities, leading three of its members to resign.

“The basic idea of the historical policy the government represents is to whitewash anything that is seen as a problem in Polish history at that time … I was afraid that they would try to impose those attitudes,” said Stanisław Krajewski, a philosopher and Jewish community leader, who was one of those who resigned in protest at Szydło’s appointment.

Cywiński said he did not have a problem with politicians being involved in the council, but said they should not have input into the narrative of the museum. He evaded a direct question about whether the inclusion of Szydło on the council has led to any changes or pressure.

“Personally I try every time to keep this place far from politics. It’s a moral place, it’s not a place that should change every four or five years with elections,” he said.

In written responses to questions, the Polish culture ministry said the appointment of Szydło “substantially strengthens the council and raises its importance” and that those who resigned had “no substantive justification” for doing so.

It also noted part of a new exhibition at the Auschwitz museum, which will culminate in a list of more than 1,200 Poles who assisted prisoners at Auschwitz.

More than 70,000 non-Jewish Poles also died at Auschwitz, and many in Poland feel that the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust has obscured the enormous Polish losses during the years of occupation and war. Inside the country, the government has focused overwhelmingly on Polish suffering, a narrative that means more Polish people now associate Auschwitz with “Polish martyrdom” than with “the destruction of the Jews”.

Jan Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian historian, said Cywiński had gone too far in his cooperation with government-linked figures and institutions pushing this distorted version of history. “Auschwitz has become part and parcel of Polish history policy, in other words, transforming Auschwitz into part of the Polish feelgood narrative,” he said.

Jan Grabowski.
Jan Grabowski. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Last year, Grabowski was forced to stand trial along with fellow historian Barbara Engelking over a book they co-authored that detailed instances of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes against Jews. (The appeals court overturned an initial ruling against them.) The government has tried to focus attention on cases of Poles who were killed for helping Jews.

Cywiński said he did not see a problem with marking these heroes, but said: “We have to remember that others were supportive of the Nazi regime.”

He criticised the increasing use of history by politicians, but took care to say it was a global problem and not just a Polish one. “When I turn on the television and I hear people speaking about history, 90% of the time it’s not a historian, it’s a politician. It was not like this 20 years ago,” he said.

Cywiński would rather focus on how to get visitors to take lessons away from Auschwitz they can apply to their own lives. Many of the museum guides – of which there are currently 340 who work in 21 different languages – say that the best time to make visitors think about their own moral choices is when, overcome with the visceral horror of the museum exhibits, they ask why the world did not do more to stop the Holocaust from taking place.

This is the perfect time to speak about “the silence of bystanders”, said Cywiński.

“I cannot say to people, ‘Now you have to help Yemen’; ‘Now you should help the Uyghurs’. It is not my role to tell them what to do. But it is our role to help them ask the question, ‘What can I do in this world? Why is it a problem if I stay indifferent?’”

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