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Auschwitz Museum director Piotr Cywińsk (Jaroslaw Praszkiewicz)
Auschwitz Museum director Piotr Cywińsk (Jaroslaw Praszkiewicz)
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Director of Auschwitz Museum slams holding of World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem

Piotr Cywinski accuses organizers of trying to replace annual ceremony in Poland; fumes that ‘it’s simply so provocative and immature that I do not find the words to comment on it’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has offered scathing criticism of the organizers of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, which is taking place this week in Jerusalem, arguing that the main event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation should take place in Poland and not in Israel.

In a far-ranging exclusive interview conducted a few days before some 50 world leaders and top dignitaries were set to gather in the capital for a commemoration unprecedented in scope, Piotr Cywinski appeared to attack mainly the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, one of the event’s three co-organizers, accusing it of seeking to replace the yearly event held at Auschwitz.

“For years, the organizer of this Forum has been making attempts to create it as an alternative commemorative event for the memorial site. Five years ago, he tried to invite heads of states to Theresienstadt at the same time,” Cywinski said.

“It is simply so provocative and immature that I do not find the words to comment on it.”

Many different events across the globe mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is held annually on January 27 — the day the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Nazi concentration camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)

Berlin has a memorial concert and the United Nations is holding a special ceremony, Cywinski said, by way of example.

“And all these events are not presented as alternatives for the commemoration in Auschwitz,” he said.

However, he lamented, the World Holocaust Forum “constitutes an exception as it once again makes attempts to act on the contrary. For me, the entire row is just pathetic and immature.”

This week’s event is co-organized by the office of President Reuven Rivlin, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center and the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, which was founded by Moscow-born philanthropist and Jewish activist Moshe Kantor.

Moshe Kantor in Jerusalem, January 6, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Kantor, who is said to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, serves as president of the European Jewish Congress.

Cywinski, a Warsaw native who has directed the Auschwitz Museum in Oswiecim since 2006, backed Polish President Andrzej Duda’s decision to boycott this week’s commemoration in Jerusalem.

Duda, who assumed “honorary patronage” over the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said part of the reason for his decision to skip the Israeli ceremony was the fact that the actual site of the former death camp was the only fitting venue for such an event.

“Deep within my soul I believe that this is the appropriate place, the best one,” the president told Jewish leaders in Warsaw earlier this month. “I believe that one must not deprive this place of its remembrance by transferring it somewhere else and by stressing somewhere else what happened more than 75 years ago and what took place over that period.”

Duda was also unhappy about the fact that he was not allowed to speak at the main ceremony at Yad Vashem, unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is scheduled to address Thursday’s gathering.

Polish president Andrzej Duda speaks during a ceremony in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marks annual Holocaust Memorial Day, on April 12, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Warsaw and Moscow are currently engaged in an increasingly bitter controversy over the onset of World War II, with Putin accusing Poland of having collaborated with the Nazis, and Polish leaders in response highlighting the Soviet Union’s 1939 Treaty of Non-Aggression with Germany.

“I think that I would behave in exactly the same way, if I were in his situation,” Cywinski said about Duda’s decision to stay away from the Jerusalem event.

“Three million Polish Jews perished in the Shoah; the Forum takes place close to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is the biggest Jewish cemetery, but also the biggest Polish cemetery,” he said.

Many people who don’t understand why another massive event needs to be held in Jerusalem “point to the actual sponsor and organizer of the Forum,” he said, presumably referring to Kantor. “I only feel sorry for my friends from Yad Vashem, as it seems to me, that they will be the main victims of this political dispute,” he added.

Never enough events to memorialize the Holocaust

A spokesperson for the World Holocaust Forum Foundation told The Times of Israel in response that the Jerusalem event focuses on the formation of a “global alliance” to fight growing anti-Semitism.

“We fundamentally believe that there cannot be enough events to memorialize the Holocaust and we welcome all of those committed to this essential cause. We wish every success to the Auschwitz Museum as they hold what we are certain will be an impactful and meaningful event on January 27,” the spokesperson said.

“We do regret these unfounded and baseless attacks on the World Holocaust Forum because they merely produce a distraction from the focus on Holocaust memory and fighting anti-Semitism, causes which we hope unite us all.”

More than a dozen world leaders are attending the January 27 event at Auschwitz, including Rivlin himself. Nearly 50 are expected in Jerusalem this week.

‘The bomb on Hiroshima was not Japanese only because it hit there’

In the interview, which was conducted via email, Cywinski also addressed the ongoing diplomatic spat between Warsaw and Jerusalem over the Polish nation’s role in the Holocaust.

“There were examples of Jews being denounced, robbed or even killed by Poles, but there were also individuals or even organizations that were very active in rescuing Jewish people,” he said. Such matters should be analyzed by historians and not by politicians, he added.

Cywinski also addressed the subject of people referring to Auschwitz as a “Polish death camp,” calling it a “historical distortion” that needs to be challenged, among all other efforts to warp facts. “This could be calling Auschwitz a ‘Polish camp’ or concealing the fact that 90 percent of victims were Jewish or, for example, manipulating the data, facts, number of victims,” he said.

“Accepting such an attitude allows revisionism, which is the fastest way to denial. I do not adopt a political perspective here, but my position is strictly historical. The bomb thrown on Hiroshima was not Japanese only because it hit there.”

Getting up every morning to work at the world’s largest cemetery, naturally, is a “burden to some extent,” the 48-year-old historian said. “It is not that one can get used to it. Such experience changes a human, and I think it does it deeply.” His work at Auschwitz is a “sacrifice,” but one that “makes sense,” he added.

The railway tracks from where hundreds of thousands of people were directed to the gas chambers to be murdered, inside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau or Auschwitz II, in Oswiecim, Poland, December 7, 2019. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

While the Auschwitz Museum is considered a state institution, there has not been any attempt by government officials to interfere with its exhibition or its educational programs. Any such effort would result in a “a very serious and resounding crisis,” he vowed.

His institution’s main contribution to fighting the current upswing in anti-Semitism is to show the world where hateful ideologies could lead, he said.

“It seems to me that our ability to react in the face of evil weakened,” Cywinski mused, noting that the world does not seem to be fazed by genocides occurring before our very eyes. “It is very distressing, and such evolution forces us to rethink the shape of our memory and its relationship towards our modern responsibility.”

Below is a full transcript of our interview, lightly edited for clarity:

The Times of Israel: 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the last people who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust are dying out. What role does Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim play in preserving the memory of the Shoah?

Piotr Cywinski: This year we expect over 200 survivors to take part in the events commemorating the anniversary. They will be the most important guests and are our main speakers. So please, do not talk about them in the past tense too early.

What will remain for the future after their long lives are words: written down, published, recorded, filmed. There are dozens of thousands of accounts. And these words include the extraordinary authenticity of experiences, trauma, memory.

Holocaust survivor Saul Oren, shows his arm with the Auschwitz prison number 125421, during a photo session at his home in Jerusalem in December 2, 2019. Born in Poland in 1929, he was chosen by a Nazi doctor to undergo medical experiments and was transferred from Auschwitz to a concentration camp in Germany, to be freed in 1945. After the war he found his brother who had been with him at Auschwitz, and emigrated to Israel. – Ahead of events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, AFP has been speaking to the last survivors of the death camp. Originally from Europe, they spent part of their childhood in the notorious extermination camp before moving after World War II to Israel. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The second manifestation of authenticity is within the post-camp space, which we are trying to preserve fully and appropriately. Somewhere within the relationship of these two manifestations of authenticity, the answer concerning narration about Auschwitz and the Shoah is included.

However, apart from the visits themselves, it is of major importance to develop education — not only from the quantitative but also qualitative perspective. For memory not to constitute exclusively a somber look back, but to motivate to responsibility in the modern world, to set requirements for tomorrow.

Today anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide. What role, if any, can your institution play in fighting this phenomenon?

Within the Auschwitz space, we show what hateful ideologies, including anti-Semitism, can lead to. I think that this is our major role. When we experience the growth of populism, demagogy and hate speech nowadays, we can be afraid of the future. In too many places all over the world anti-Semitism is again crossing the line between an ideological declaration and personal attacks or physical aggression.

Anti-Semitism is not the only disquieting syndrome of our times. It seems to me that our ability to react in the face of evil weakened. Regular genocide took place in Myanmar two years ago — our world did not worry about it nearly at all. It is very distressing, and such evolution forces us to rethink the shape of our memory and its relationship towards our modern responsibility.

You have been the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum since 2006. What changes in visitors’ attitudes have you observed over the years? Are people showing less reverence to the site, or are reports to that effect exaggerated?

On the contrary. I do not consider the situation negative. In the 1990s, a lot of teachers from different countries used to bring their classes while visiting Auschwitz for the first time themselves. They were unable to prepare their students well, as they were discovering this memorial site together with them.

Today’s teachers have already been to Auschwitz as students, and they learned the importance of preparing their class in advance. Furthermore, in history textbooks from many countries, the Shoah has found its appropriate place as a separate part of curriculums. I do not think that, generally speaking, the current generation has a worse attitude towards the memorial site.

Auschwitz Museum director Piotr Cywińsk addressing former inmates at the death camp (Jaroslaw Praszkiewicz)

Cases [of irreverence to the site] reported in the media are definitely a minority. Moreover, sometimes the behavior of young people is in fact assessed from the point of view of adults, resulting in a methodological error. For example, there are many who are outraged by selfies, while each politician coming on an official visit brings their personal photographer. This is not so far from a selfie indeed.

How does the rise of social media, especially of Twitter, influenced your institution? How do you maintain a meaningful and civilized online presence in the age of trolling?

Nowadays, public discourse has moved to the digital world. It is necessary to take part in it, if one does not want to leave such an important topic to other people, who are not always responsible enough.

Moreover, a long and expensive journey [to Poland] is not possible for everybody. These are the people we would like to reach as well. Therefore we treat social media as the space where it is a good idea to suggest the exercise of memory together with the reflection on our condition because of this memory.

This way, already over 1.4 million people, including almost a million on Twitter, are able to maintain contact with this topic after a visit or for other reasons.

Many Polish people get really upset when someone refers to Auschwitz as a “Polish concentration camp.” No one denies that it were German Nazis who built and operated it on the territory of occupied Poland. To what extent are you personally bothered by what some may dismiss as rhetorical pedantry?

Each expression of historical distortion makes it necessary to react. This could be calling Auschwitz a “Polish camp” or concealing the fact that 90 percent of victims were Jewish or, for example, manipulating the data, facts, number of victims.

Accepting such an attitude allows revisionism, which is the fastest way to denial. I do not adopt a political perspective here, but my position is strictly historical. The bomb thrown on Hiroshima was not Japanese only because it hit there.

You get up every morning to work in a place of unspeakable tragedy. In 1967, Elie Wiesel wrote that Auschwitz was “another planet.” How does it feel, on a personal level, to spend so much time every day in the world’s largest cemetery, a place that like no other has come to symbolize pure evil?

It is, of course, a burden to some extent. It is not that one can get used to it. Such experience changes a human, and I think it does it deeply. It opens much larger and deeper perspective, which is not necessarily easy or pleasant.

The crematorium near gas chamber one at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz I in Oswiecim, Poland, December 8, 2019. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

On the other hand, I feel that this work, this sacrifice, makes sense. And it is very motivating. I think that visiting is harder, as it is, in fact, done for the visitor themselves, while I work for the other.

For many young Israelis, a visit to the Nazi death camps in Poland has become some sort of rite of passage. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

Not only for young Israelis. We want it to be like this for everybody. “Rite of passage” is a notion from sociology or religious anthropology, where it refers to maturing to a new stage through some experience.

For this reason, for me, this notion seems to match a visit to the Auschwitz Memorial. We all believe that the person who devotes some time to confronting their thoughts with the post-camp reality will leave this experience more mature.

A woman wrapped in an Israeli flag at the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, April 11, 2018 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

What do you make of Polish President Duda’s decision to boycott this week’s World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, because he was not allowed to speak at the event?

I think that I would behave in exactly the same way, if I were in his situation. Three million Polish Jews perished in the Shoah, the Forum takes place close to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is the biggest Jewish cemetery, but also the biggest Polish cemetery.

A lot of people do not understand such a decision, or, in other words, they point to the actual sponsor and organizer of the Forum. I only feel sorry for my friends from Yad Vashem, as it seems to me, that they will be the main victims of this political dispute.

Holocaust survivor Edward Mossberg (left) with Polish president Andrzej Duda (center) and Israeli president Reuven Rivlin (right) at a ceremony in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marked annual Holocaust Memorial Day, on April 12, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

President Duda also argued, in a meeting with local Jewish leaders, that Jerusalem was not the right place for an event to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. The Israeli authorities felt that, in addition to next week’s event in Oswiecim, a ceremony in the Jewish state was appropriate as well. Where do you stand on this question?

For years, the organizer of this Forum has been making attempts to create it as an alternative commemorative event for the memorial site. Five years ago, he tried to invite heads of states to Theresienstadt at the same time.

It is simply so provocative and immature that I do not find the words to comment on it. A lot of events take place on the occasion of the World Holocaust Remembrance Day. Events within the United Nations, the concert in Berlin, different events in Paris and other cities of the world.

‘There were examples of Jews being denounced, robbed or even killed by Poles, but there were also individuals or even organizations that were very active in rescuing Jewish people’

In some places, the broadcast from Auschwitz will be watched by entire communities, which is for me a great source of satisfaction, as it will make it possible to participate together [with] those survivors who are unable to make such a long journey due to their health condition. And all these events are not presented as alternatives for the commemoration in Auschwitz.

The Forum constitutes an exception as it once again makes attempts to act on the contrary. For me, the entire row is just pathetic and immature. Inadequate in the context of this very important day and the memory of the victims themselves.

Tensions between Jerusalem and Warsaw were tense even before President Rivlin announced the World Holocaust Forum. Prime Minister Morawiecki canceled a planned visit to Israel after Foreign Minister Katz said that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” How does this unresolved spat influence your work at the Auschwitz Museum?

We try to stay away from current political issues. And we ask politicians not to get involved in the space of the memory of Auschwitz either. Nowadays, it is common that it is not historians, but politicians who speak about history in public. That is not a positive phenomenon, as politicians aim to be effective and not necessarily stick to historical facts.

Consolidating any group of electorate based on insults and distortions is always very shortsighted.

The core of the argument is the extent of the Polish people’s complicity in the Holocaust. Yad Vashem harshly criticized the joint statement Jerusalem and Warsaw issued in June 2018 on the matter, asserting that “Poles’ involvement in persecuting Jews was in no way marginal.” According to Yad Vashem, “at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Polish Jews perished during the war due to actions of their Polish neighbors.” Do you agree or disagree with your colleagues’ assessment? How would you generally describe your cooperation with Yad Vashem?

I have always considered our cooperation with Yad Vashem very good, which does not mean that we have to agree on every matter. The assessment of the behavior of some Poles is a different story from Katz’s disgusting and offensive words.

There were examples of Jews being denounced, robbed or even killed by Poles, but there were also individuals or even organizations that were very active in rescuing Jewish people. This is again an example of history that should be analyzed by historians and not politicians.

The dispute over the role of ordinary Poles during the Holocaust started two years ago with the Polish government making changes to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. Critics say that even the further-revised version of this law stifles free speech and hinders open and objective research on the subject. How do you respond to such charges?

I have claimed from the very beginning that this legal act was not thought out carefully enough, that it was a mistake. And that when it comes to people speaking about Auschwitz being a “Polish camp,” the law will not be in any way effective. I did not change my mind.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim is officially considered a “state cultural institution.” To what extent does the government in Warsaw interfere in exhibitions or educational programs?

As director of this institution, I have already had four ministers of culture as my supervisors. I cannot quote a single example when attempts were made to interfere with any exhibition or educational program. It should be clear that a very serious and resounding crisis would emerge.

Cultural institutions, and in particular remembrance institutions constituting sacred cemeteries, need to be autonomous in the programs of their activities, act as politically neutral non-profit institutions, following historical truth irrespective of whether it is comfortable for a given politician or party or not.

This does not apply exclusively to politicians. I cannot imagine a situation where an affluent sponsor came to us, and any exhibition, conference, or international forum would be organized according to their orders.

And to what extent does the museum, and you personally, have any input regarding government policy on Holocaust issues?

Sometimes different institutions consult me in relation to some issues. But it is not any formalized influence. To maintain a healthy situation, the line between the memorial site and the world of politics should really be very clearly emphasized and both parties should respect it.

This photograph taken on December 15, 2019, in Oswiecim, Poland, shows an aerial view of the railway entrance to former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz II – Birkenau with its SS guards tower. (Pablo GONZALEZ / AFP)

What’s your annual budget? Are you satisfied with the financial support you are receiving from the state?

The annual budget depends on investment projects we conduct. We are currently conducting at least several big projects. In 2019, the museum’s budget reached nearly 27 million Euro, with nearly 6 million from the ministry of culture, 3 million from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation and 2.3 million from European sources.

So the budget is stable, but to be honest, I need to admit that staff payments constitute a constant worry within cultural institutions.

Looking ahead, how do you imagine the role of your institution in another 50 years?

No one knows what will happen in the decade to come, in a world with a growing atmosphere of exclusion, demagogy and populism. So, I do not want to guess what will happen when my children are approaching their retirement age.

To be honest, as long as the voice of Auschwitz is based on facts and not on ideology, on authenticity and not a narration removed from survivors’ message, I am sure that this voice will be needed and audible. Civilization may evolve, culture may change, but it is impossible to change a human so quickly.

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