“Memory, awareness, responsibility”—these are principles guiding the Polish historian Piotr M. A. Cywiński in his work as the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The museum is built on the location of the largest industrialized extermination camp of the Third Reich, a place which has become a tragic symbol of the entirety of Nazi barbarism.
As he explained in his book Non c’è una fine (“There is no end,” Bollati Boringhieri, 148 pages, €15), “when we are in Auschwitz, we judge much more than one particular generation, we judge mankind. Therefore, we judge ourselves.” Because of this, the meaning of this remembrance radically challenges the present as well as the future. It challenges today’s atrocities, met with popular indifference, and the role and responsibilities of “civilized” Europe, which, at Auschwitz, lost its innocence forever. So many questions that are still echoing on each Remembrance Day.
You have been at the head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum since 2006. What were the most important challenges that you had to face?
Such a vast site poses many different types of challenges to those who are charged with managing it. It requires both a sort of constant attention to the technical aspects, and a level of delicate emotional involvement. All this while trying to keep to an honest approach, from both a historical and a moral point of view.
On the practical level, our major responsibility was certainly that of elaborating and ensuring the practical implementation of a mechanism for funding the conservation work, which is essential for the future. Similarly, we needed to put effort into maintaining the authenticity of the site—I mean that which makes it a sacred place, and which “speaks” to the visitors. This is because the millions of people who come each year to Auschwitz [50 million to date] do not do it with the same spirit as people who are visiting some random museum. They are hoping to accomplish their own rite of passage, to get as close as possible to understanding the truth about human beings, with all the consequences that this entails.
You have written that this place should never stop “screaming,” that it cannot be normalized or made ordinary in any way. Is there such a risk in practice?
Yes, without a doubt. In the long term, the risk is obvious. Today, the torture instruments of the Middle Ages are being exhibited in county fairs to arouse the curiosity of children. It is a decidedly macabre evolution.
Therefore, the biggest challenge is to make everyone understand that Auschwitz is not just an event among many others along the wide temporal expanse of European history. Auschwitz is a point of no return. The enormous efforts made after the Second World War with a view to creating a more humane world, from a juridical, political, cultural, economic and religious point of view, represent unprecedented steps taken in our culture, and it is precisely the understanding of what Auschwitz was that is the key to fully understanding the value and significance of these changes. It is genuinely impossible to understand what happened after 1945 without seeing in the Shoah a radical turning point for European civilization.
In your book, you underline that the voice of the survivors and the Memorial are the two pillars of telling the Auschwitz story. With the gradual end of the “age of the witnesses,” as survivors pass away, what role will have to be played by what you rightly call “the Place”?
The Place makes the stories of the survivors more credible, just like these testimonies make the Place more comprehensible. It’s a completely different experience to visit Auschwitz after reading Primo Levi, Shlomo Venezia and Elie Wiesel. And reading those pages becomes something different when you are walking on the same ramp they are talking about, when you enter one of the barracks that they describe, or when you pass under the sign which reads “Arbeit macht frei.” Therefore, as everyone realizes, Auschwitz must, and will have to, continue to work also in the future, in some way, in unison with the voices of the survivors. This is why we continue to collect and publish their testimonies.
Your office is located near the point where the “field visit” usually ends. Millions of people, especially young people, are taking part in commemoration trips, one of the ways in which many in recent years have come face-to-face with what happened in Auschwitz, and, more generally, during the Shoah. What do you see in their faces as they are leaving the site, and what do you believe they will take with them from this experience?
The people I see every day at Auschwitz are very different. These young people come from different societies, countries and continents. And, of course, they have different frames of reference. What is really important to me is that after this experience, when they imagine their own future and the role they want to play in it, they will cross the threshold of remembrance, and manage to acquire, thanks to what they saw and heard here, a vision of their own individual responsibility. And, for that to happen, I believe real educational work needs to be done, both before and—especially—after the visit. History alone is not enough; it should be tied to ethics and civic education. We have a duty toward the new generations: to offer them all the tools so they can become adults with full awareness.
Elie Wiesel, who died last year, described Auschwitz as the “place of truth,” and explained that remembering is not enough; rather, the fact must be understood and passed on that the Shoah took place because of the actions, and the indifference, of many, so that memory is put in the service of gaining awareness. Don’t you believe that’s a lesson that should be useful for us today, now that new forms of discrimination and indifference have come up regarding the fate of migrants in Europe and the lives of so many victims of war before our very gates?
That’s why it’s not enough to enclose the Holocaust within the field of history. The cry of the victims is not only a cry that comes to us from the depths of history. It is a cry that is moral, ethical and civic. And if anyone thinks that just showing that “an event” took place is enough, they are sorely mistaken. Reflecting on the meaning, the significance of that event—that is what is truly crucial, from my point of view, for our situation today, if we want to arrive at a new understanding of the responsibility that weighs on each of us. Our indifference today is accusing us, even more than people’s indifference during the Second World War. On the one hand, now we know all too well the price of this indifference, and on the other, the means for action available to us are on a completely different level compared to those of the past.
And there is something that makes our situation even more problematic: we live in societies that have known peace for a long time. It’s easy to say you are sorry about a world that did not do enough during the Second World War. But this sentiment can only be considered sincere if it is coming from those who are striving to do everything they can right now. In the future, there will be museums dedicated to the current wave of refugees, and to the tragedy of the Rohingya in Burma. Then, it will be all of us who will be held responsible for what happened.
In our societies nowadays, we hear people speaking again about “defending the white race,” and they are denouncing the presence of Muslims as a “foreign body,” echoing the watchwords of the fascists and anti-Semitic slogans, as is also happening in Poland. If, as you wrote, Auschwitz is where Europe lost itself, how can we start again from this realization to fight this new rising barbarism?
Everywhere in our societies, we are witnessing a resurgence of extremism and xenophobia. This phenomenon is beyond disturbing, and it requires us to redouble our efforts and our engagement in the public and educational sphere. With a view to this, we are developing our work online, for instance through the means of an international journal, and we have just launched a large-scale traveling exhibition on Auschwitz, which will be shown in the coming years both in the Old World and in the U.S.