This will be a unique anniversary

  Interview with Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is approaching. What is the significance and the meaning of this day?

The 70th anniversary will not be the same as previous big anniversaries. We have to say it clearly: it is the last big anniversary that we can commemorate with a numerous group of Survivors. Until now, it has been them who taught us how to look at the tragedy of the victims of the Third Reich and the total destruction of the world of European Jews. Their voices became the most important warning against the human capacity for extreme humiliation, contempt and genocide. However, soon it will not be the witnesses of those years, but us, the post-war generations, who will pass this horrible knowledge and the crushing conclusions that result from it.

On this day, we must understand that the Survivors, the former prisoners, did everything they could to make us realise that the road to the most terrible tragedies is surprisingly simple. All you need is social frustration, a bit of demagoguery, an imaginary enemy, a moment of madness... Peace is a very fragile construct and you can never assume that any acquis communautaire is truly obtained for good. It may be clearly observed in at least several regions of the world, which makes it even more alarming. The future of our civilisation is in our own hands and we must take responsibility for the shape of that future. And a wise vision of future must be rooted in memory.

Ten years ago, the day of Auschwitz liberation was designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Doesn’t that help?

It is an important political signal, as the General Assembly unites representatives of all member states. When I speak of remembrance, however, what I mean is not its institutionalised form. It is also necessary, but not as much as it is important for a sense of awareness of the meaning behind the extermination of European Jews and the whole tragedy of concentration camps to take root in our whole culture, politics and education system. Without internalising and understanding the reality of this atrocity, we will be unable to recognise today’s challenges for what they really are. We will not be even able to understand the post-war efforts to create emergency mechanisms, to build a common Europe or to teach attitudes of empathy, mutuality and respect.

But don’t you have the feeling that today, in the second decade of the 21st century, while the history of Auschwitz becomes more and more distant, similar horrible images reappear in other places, in different ways and contexts?

They do. And it clearly shows that teaching about Auschwitz and the Shoah is not just telling a story which had its beginning and its end, relating an isolated set of facts drifting away in time. It is also a lesson on human nature, society, the power of the media, on the politics. If today, when we see what is happening in some parts of the world, we are reminded of the Second World War, even of Auschwitz, it is because deep inside we feel that, regardless of various factors, we are facing the same pathological passions: hatred, contempt, anti-Semitism, racism, nationalisms... There are still many important steps to be taken in education before teaching about Auschwitz and the Shoah is soundly established in social and civic education or even in teaching about the most recent history.

I sincerely hope that commemoration of this day will take place all over the world, in every place inhabited by people aware of our obligation. We encourage everyone to express this memory everywhere in the world. I have to admit that what alarms me most is the still-present overwhelming passivity in the face of organised evil.

Main commemoration of the 70th anniversary will take place in a tent in front of the Gate of Death of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. It means that one of the most recognisable visual symbols of Auschwitz will become a symbol of the ceremony. What is the reason behind this choice?

Man is capable of crossing almost every boundary. For those who crossed – most frequently in cattle wagons – the gate of Birkenau, there was no way back. Nowadays, almost one and a half a million people cross the same gate every year in an attempt to face the meaning of Auschwitz. The visit starts in the former Auschwitz I Stammlager camp, where all the educational and exhibition-related aids are located. They introduce visitors to the history. Then, visitors go to Birkenau, where the immensity of the post-camp space, kilometres of barbed wire, rows of barracks, remains of gas chambers and crematoria make them fully realise the size of that tragedy and its undeniable realness. In some way, just like the gate stands today in the middle, all of us are in the middle of something as well. We know the facts, we know what happened, but the most important part still lies ahead: realising the significance of those facts, of the Shoah and of the whole genocidal policy of the Third Reich. Without this awareness we cannot hope for more responsibility.

Why is this immensity of Birkenau so significant?

Because it is authentic. Even if most wooden barracks no longer exist, even if SS officers blew up gas chambers, even if grass has reappeared where it had grown before the war, the presence of the Shoah is still evident. There are almost no museographic installations that would obscure the view. To walk along the unloading ramp, to go inside a brick barracks, to silently look at the undressing room next to the gas chambers – this is much more than any exhibition in the world or the most elaborate memorial. Provided, of course, that one has previous knowledge of history.

Which is why, for the past five years, we have focused on providing this Memorial Site with long-term ways of financing comprehensive preservation works. Thirty countries signed up to contribute to the created Perpetual Fund of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. We hope that thanks to the support of our exceptional private donators, the “Pillars of Remembrance”, we will complete the Fund by January 2015. At that time, the future of the Memorial Site and the significance of its authenticity will be much more secure. For generations.

The majority of visitors are young people. Why are they so interested in Auschwitz?

Three fourths of the visitors are young people. Their coming here is a part of developed educational programmes. Many of today’s teachers first came to Auschwitz as students themselves, so they know how such an experience can change one’s view of the world and oneself. In many countries decision-makers came to the conclusion that such visits should be planned and financed as a part of special governmental or regional programmes. People who are about to graduate from school or university and begin their adult lives should look deep into the heart of evil which Auschwitz was. It is a rite de passage for a person coming of age nowadays.

The most important guests of the commemoration will be the Survivors, the witnesses. However, the several thousand people attending will include also state delegations: politicians, people who transform the contemporary world. Can Auschwitz be a lesson for them as well?

Auschwitz is a lesson for anyone willing to learn. You might think that the scope of responsibility of a normal, average person is normal and average as well. And that a politician or a decision-maker bears far greater responsibility. That’s not entirely true. A vast majority of the Righteous Among the Nations are normal people, average, you could say, if not for their enormous sacrifice. Nevertheless, in a substantive way they saved the face of humanity. Of course, the influence of a decision a politician makes is disproportionally larger. But it cannot exempt any of us from taking our own responsibility.

Do you see any universal message coming from this place?

The message comes from the Survivors, from their memoirs, books, recordings. The message comes also from the silence of the murdered ones. I would like to recall the voice of a person who did not survive, a prisoner of the Sonderkommando, one of the leaders of the revolt in crematorium IV – the voice of a Polish Jew, Załmen Gradowski. In his notes, which he hid in the ground near the building of the crematorium, he wrote: “We have a dark premonition, because we know”. At that time he meant the fate of his friends taken into an unknown direction. But I would not want to narrow down the meaning of these unsettling words just to that. We today also now, we know perfectly well. Nothing is given forever. We must always be able to sense growing dangers and great challenges of the future. And in place of inactivity and passivity, we must develop a sense of responsibility. Remembering is not only about past itself, but rather about connecting it to the future.