Piotr Cywiński has spent a lot of time thinking about a question that has mobilized historians, philosophers and politicians since the end of the Second World War. What lessons should we draw from one of the darkest pages in human history, the mass murder organized 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 its windows overlook a crematorium and a gas chamber.
“The greatest task of remembrance today is to fight indifference,” he said in an interview ahead of the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is also Holocaust Remembrance Day. and is marked Thursday.
“You can slaughter tens of thousands of Rohingyas, you can put 1.5 million Uyghurs in camps, in Yemen people are suffering because they have nothing to eat and we don’t care in our world” , did he declare.
Nazi Germany deported about 1.3 million people to Auschwitz and 1.1 million of them died there, 90% of them Jews. The museum, on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oświęcim, is housed in the preserved original buildings of the Auschwitz concentration camp and in the ruins of the nearby Birkenau extermination camp.
Cywiński said that while the events of the Holocaust cannot be compared to the present day, “the silence of the spectators” is something he wants museum visitors to think about and apply to their own lives.
In addition to fighting a world in which indifference and ignorance about the Holocaust is growing, Cywiński also has to deal with the current Polish government, which has made a nationalist narrative emphasizing Polish martyrdom and suffering from suffering. much of its political message.
The government funds the Auschwitz museum and appoints its director, and Cywiński’s term is up for renewal at the end of this year. Many fear that he will be replaced by a more ideological pro-government figure, as has happened in other Polish museums. Poland’s culture ministry said it was “premature” to discuss its renewal 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 in the minds of many visitors for the rest of their lives: the two tons of human hair, the tens of thousands of shoes and the stacks of suitcases with names scrawled on the sides, symbols of the fake hope with which many arrived at the camp.
Cywiński wants to keep these macabre artifacts, aware of the dark power that emanates from their authenticity, but also to add a new part of the exhibition, which will focus on the SS and the administration of the Nazi camp.
“We have to show that it was not an isolated place that suddenly appeared, but it was a project that was created, built and grew during this time,” he said.
At the ceremony marking 75 years since the 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 discrimination against any minority. “Democracy is based on protecting the rights of minorities,” he said.
While the museum will remain firmly focused on the terrible events that took place there, Cywiński is launching the Auschwitz Pledge Foundation this week, which will distribute grants to groups around the world fighting the indifference to hate.
The foundation’s chief executive, Jacek Kastelaniec, said projects that tackle anti-Semitism, 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 will in a government that has frequently demonized refugees, and recently ran a presidential campaign based almost entirely on anti-LGBT rhetoric.
In a speech at Auschwitz in 2017, then-Prime Minister Beata Szydło said the camp’s history showed that “everything must be done to defend the safety and lives of citizens”. These remarks were widely interpreted as a defense of the government’s anti-migration policy.
Last year the government appointed Szydło to the board of a council that oversees the activities of the Auschwitz museum, leading three of its members to resign.
“The basic idea of the historical policy that the government represents is to whitewash everything that is considered a problem in Polish history at that time… I was afraid that they would try to impose these attitudes” , said Stanisław Krajewski, philosopher and Jewish community. leader, who was one of those who resigned in protest against Szydło’s appointment.
Cywiński said he had no problem with involving politicians in the council, but said they shouldn’t have a say in the museum’s narrative. He dodged a direct question about whether Szydło’s inclusion on the board resulted in change or pressure.
“Personally, I always try to keep this place away 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 Szydło’s appointment “significantly strengthens the council and increases its importance” and that those who resigned had “no substantial justification” for doing so.
He also noted part of a new exhibit at the Auschwitz Museum, which will culminate in a list of more than 1,200 Poles who helped prisoners at Auschwitz.
More than 70,000 non-Jewish Poles also died at Auschwitz, and many in Poland believe that the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust 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 signifies more and more Poles now associate Auschwitz with “Polish martyrdom” than with “the destruction of the Jews”.
Jan Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian historian, said Cywiński went too far in his cooperation with government-related figures and institutions to promote this distorted version of history. “Auschwitz has become part of Polish historical politics, in other words, turning Auschwitz into part of the Polish feel-good narrative,” he said.
Last year, Grabowski was forced to stand trial with fellow historian Barbara Engelking over a book they co-wrote that details instances of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes against Jews. (The appeals court overturned an initial ruling against them.) The government has tried to draw attention to cases of Poles who were killed for helping Jews.
Cywiński said he saw no problem in tagging these heroes, but said, “We have to remember that others supported the Nazi regime.”
He criticized the increasing use of history by politicians, but was careful to say that it was a global problem and not just a Polish one. “When I turn on the television and hear people talking about history, 90% of the time it’s not a historian, it’s a politician. It wasn’t like this 20 years ago,” he said.
Cywiński prefers to focus on how to inspire visitors to learn lessons from Auschwitz that they can apply to their own lives. Many of the museum’s guides – currently numbering 340, working in 21 different languages – say the best time to get visitors to reflect on their own moral choices is when, overwhelmed by the visceral horror of the museum’s exhibits, they ask why the world didn’t do more to prevent the Holocaust from happening.
This is the perfect time to talk about the “silence of passers-by”, Cywiński said.
“I can’t tell people, ‘Now you have to help Yemen’; “Now you should help the Uyghurs”. It’s not my job to tell them what to do. But it is our role to help them ask themselves the question: “What can I do in this world? Why is it a problem if I remain indifferent? »