Renovation plans

Interview with Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Musuem

With the public call in January 2017 for donations of materials related to SS men employed at the camp, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum continues to develop renovations of the main exhibition. Days after the call for donations, a database of almost 10,000 names was published for SS men known to have served at the camp, based on three decades of research led by the historian Aleksander Lasik.

The interview that follows with Director Piotr Cywiński is restricted to aspects of the ambitious exhibition-renovation project, including plans for the newly curated Polish national pavilion in Auschwitz I. Director Cywiński also touches on Auschwitz in historical memory of the Holocaust worldwide, and on representations of the camp in artistic productions including recent films and performing arts.

The interview was conducted shortly before the memorial museum held its first seminar for foreign correspondents, and Director Cywiński’s translation was fluently handled by Paweł Sawicki of the memorial museum’s press department. A subsequent article on this site will describe the four-day, in-depth seminar at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where attendance exceeded two million visitors for the first time in 2016, where pioneering renovations have begun on Birkenau’s original brick barracks, and where annual commemorations of the camp’s liberation were held for the 72nd time on 27 January, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum (aut. Pawel Sawicki; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Alan Lockwood: In addition to undertaking long-term renovations of the main exhibition, there have been developments of national pavilions in specific Auschwitz blocks over recent years. A key development was in 2013, with the opening of the Yad Vashem „Shoah” exhibition in Block 27.

The Hungarian national exhibition in Block 18 had seemed very strong when I first visited, in 2008. Yet I recall how baffling the Polish curation seemed – as if the full history of Poland’s occupation was hung there, along with the Holocaust, within which an outside visitor could easily feel lost. Re-curating that imporant pavilion must be a thorny process, politically and historically, in order to present a comprehensible Polish story of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Piotr Cywiński: First of all, I am not a big enthusiast of the national pavilions at all.

AL: You’re not?

PC: Definitely not – though there are those which have far more right in terms of being here. I think about the Jewish one and the Romani one, because they’re talking about specific categories of victims.

AL: By the Jewish one, you’re referring to Yad Vashem’s?

PC: Yad Vashem put a lot of effort into not making an Israeli exhibition, but a Jewish exhibition. Probably for a similar reason, if we didn’t have all those national exhibitions, we should have to create a general exhibition about Soviet prisoners of war as a category of prisoner. And one about political prisoners, and the majority of political prisoners were Poles. Which would need to be a historical exhibition, not an exhibition about political will.

But these exhibitions were developed over many decades, and we live with this reality.  Of course, these are different exhibitions and some are worse, some are better. Meanwhile, everyone has their own opinion about which are worse and which are better. Even when you ask our educators and guides, they would have differing opinions about different exhibitions, and they work regularly with them, using them for education.

We’ve managed to close or initiate changes with the worst of those exhibitions.

Entrance to the camp Auschwitz I
(aut. Pimke; CC BY 2.5 pl)

AL: For example?

PC: The Yugoslavian exhibition, which had been only about Tito. There was no relational link with Auschwitz history. The old Soviet one, which was very communistic in style. The Italian exhibition, which was rather an artistic exhibition that didn’t teach anyone anything. The old Jewish exhibition, which from a content point of view was okay but it simply had become old, from a technical and physical point of view.

The Austrian one is being changed now – from the point of view of ideas, it was completely inadequate to today’s terms. And now the Polish one, which is the oldest one and an inadequate one. It will be closed soon for the change. Because of problems with the buildings, there are also technical issues, as those exhibitions are installed inside original historical buildings. Technical and construction analyses must be done.

AL.: Once the Polish exhibition is closed, then, the first step will be to look at the building and see what work needs to be done there?

PC: This has been done already. And we have already started work on the scenario of the new exhibition. But there appears to be no rush, because we are aware that the construction analysis, followed by preparing conservation programs after the technical analysis, this takes time with these buildings.

So there’s no rush in terms of creating the scenario and developing content for the exhibition. With some of these exhibitions, construction work took two or three years, and before that you need to have the analyses, permissions, plans and so on.

Replanning the Polish pavilion

AL: Work has begun on developing the scenario for the new Polish exhibition?

PC: It’s been ongoing for some time. There have already been alternative scenarios and ideas, and we’re still at work on that.

It seems that the exhibition should have two parts. On one floor of the barrack, we want to present the story of Polish victims of Auschwitz. This means showing the history both of Polish political prisoners and of Polish Jews. And then the second floor should have an exhibition that would present Auschwitz in the context of local environment, local geography.

AL: When you say local, does this include the extensive subcamp network?

Crematorium at the camp Auschwitz I
(aut. Marcin Białek; CC BY-SA 3.0)

PC: Not only. Subcamps is one topic, but there are many other topics we need to take into consideration.

For example, the expulsion of Polish people from eight villages around Oświęcim in spring 1941. We need to remember about plans the Germans had for a complete change of the urbanistic structure of the city named Auschwitz, and also social changes in the structure of the city. We need to also analyze the relations of some local people living outside the camp and the camp. So we have topics of the resistance movement, topics of providing help, topics of circulation of illegal information between the camp and the outside world. Helping with escapes – without the outside environment, escapes would not be possible. And then we have tensions between Poles who lived here and German colonization, German settlers who were filled with Nazi ideology – they, for example, made the activity of Poles here much more difficult.

As you can see, there’s a whole complex, a range of different topics. Which can allow people to look at the history of the camp from a much broader perspective. No other national exhbition can tell this topic except the Polish one.

AL: And can help non-Poles who are visiting to comprehend the national exhibitions – each of which likely provides an important focus for visitors arriving from the respective nations.

PC: My hopes are not so high. I understand that when people come here, they usually come for between three and six hours. They want to see the main exhibition. But first of all they want to see the sites of both Auschwitz and Birkenau.

I don’t think that increasing the time of visiting other exhibitions at the same time – it will not function as you could imagine. Here, a good example could be some temporary exhibitions that are created here then visited by a very small number of visitors. Because people don’t want to – I’m sorry to use the expression ”waste time,” it’s not wasting time, but they don’t want to lose time they could dedicate to visiting the authentic site.

So our exhibitions are somehow different from exhibitions you will find in historical museums or even in museums dedicated to the topic of the Holocaust. When you go to Yad Vashem, when you go to the Washington museum, there is nothing else except the exhibition to visit.

And no one comes here to see the exhibitions. They come here to see the site. So the exhibition is the preface, the beginning of visiting of the site – it shouldn’t replace the visit. This is again my point against some of the national exhibitions: that they are narrative historical exhibitions, while our main exhibition will not be a narrative one.

This is a phenomenological exhibition that doesn’t tell the story, it presents the story. The only exhibition today which has the same approach is the Jewish exhibition in Block 27. Which shows, rather than telling a narrative story.

The Container of poisonous gas Zyklon B
(aut. Michael Hanke; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Phasing in the main exhibition

AL: What are some parameters of the main exhibition project, in ongoing development for the coming decade? Is it spread over a such a period in order to develop the realization methodically?

PC: Right now, nine more years; it’s an eleven-year project undertaken two years ago. A gigantic museological project, at a cost of approximately 25 million euro. This money comes from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

This was a difficult project to initiate, for a few reasons. Preparing the scenario lasted years. First of all, today we have an exhibition that is a symbol. Changing something in a symbol is very, very difficult. People got used to the symbol. In many Holocaust museums or exhibitions around the world, even subconsciously, some elements of this exhibition are recreated, as a kind of ersatz or replacement. For example, when you go to museums in Sydney or Los Angeles, of course they have their own narration. But for the main focal point, the main sacred point of the exhbition, you have a shoe, a suitcase.

Why the shoes and suitcases, and not coats and umbrellas? Because those objects became the symbols of extermination. So while changing, we didn’t want to do something to destroy these links joining all those later exhibitions to the exhibition here.

The second difficulty is that historical exhibitions today want to be narrative exhibitions. Here the difficulty would be that people would arrive, they would see the whole exhibition from beginning to the ending with the liberation and the closing of the camp. Then they would walk out and have the whole area – and in a way, this would either overshadow or diminish the meaning of the authentic site.

Today you can see this drive towards technology, towards multimedia, towards interactiveness when visitors search for something in a way in which exhibitions become kinds of toys that people play. It’s a little bit crazy.

Barrack in Auschwitz II (aut. Pimke; CC BY 2.5 pl)

AL: Or very crazy. With elaborate screens where people could spend a quarter hour exploring a sub-topic, it’s so excessively detailed.

PC: First of all, we don’t have a situation here where a visitor will play a game and will have this kind of entertaining visit. You can witness this in different museums: this curiosity for these technical games overshadows the topic itself. Second, something that brings people here is the experience of authenticity, not using screens or buttons. The third thing is that most visitors here visit this memorial in guided groups. This rejects and excludes any kinds of individual paths or patterns.

Fourth, you need to remember that usually a museum is linked with a region and operates with the language of that region. Sometimes we find the language of the region plus English as the international language. It seems that in the most important museums – the Vatican Museum, for example – you can receive an audio guide in maybe five languages. Right now, we guide in seventeen languages. There’s no other museum like that in the world. Of course, we couldn’t create an exhibition that would have seventeen descriptions, then maybe in the future twenty-five descriptions, as we don’t know what the situation may be like later.

The last big problem is the technical condition of the buildings. We could close the memorial for three years, install the exhibition, then reopen the memorial.

AL: And make a lot of people very, very angry.

PC: Yes. The world wouldn’t accept that. For example, we would lose an entire three years of high school students – a generation of the school system.

Of course, we can not do this. We need to create this exhibition in a way that throughout the process of construction each topic we want to tell should remain present. So before we close for example Blocks 4 and 5, which are dedicated to extermination, we need to have the new part about extermination ready to be opened. In some cases, our construction work inside some buildings can start only when we’ve finished the corresponding part of the exhibition.

Here’s the difference: normally you can build a building, put in an exhibition and announce the grand opening. But here, we’re at work on the living body of the museum. Then of course there are other technical problems that are much easier to solve. We’re aware that some objects can not be presented in display cases that were designed decades ago. Those objects that are made of leather, like shoes and suitcases, should be in oxygen-free display cases – this is the safest way that we can protect them from microorganisms and fungus. This is just one example; there are many more technical details.

There is also the whole content of the exhibition, because from the phenomenological point of view there are some areas of the history of Auschwitz that are not presented in the exhibition today. One example is the SS men. Today in the exhibition you can find them in some places. But they are presented only in some activities, and they are presented only from the victims’ perspective.

AL: Does the photographic evidence in the Karl Hoecker Album – is it in some way either indicative of or included within this thinking of presenting the SS men and their women colleagues in a fuller way?

Death Wall in Auschwitz (aut. Diabetes; CC BY 3.0)

PC: Some aspects of the Hoecker Album, yes. But this album still is not objective.

The problem with the exhibition today is that it was created in the early 1950s, by people who ten years before had been prisoners of this camp. First of all, they didn’t really want to look at the faces of those SS men. And they didn’t really need to explain anything to other people, because visitors remembered what had happened just a few years ago.

Today, we have here generations of kids whose grandparents were born after the war. In this exhibition, there’s nothing about the intentionality of the construction of the camp. That it was planned as an institution, and you can say that it was planned with a highly positivistic aim, from the perpetrators’ point of view.

AL: In terms of its broader engineering?

PC: It wasn’t Treblinka, built in some forest that was chosen because there were rail lines running next to the forest. Here you see construction work that many German companies were involved in. There were companies that used the slave labor of prisoners, companies that were working outside the camp. So from a single camp that was started here in 1940, the camp grew into a huge machine, a huge complex. That’s why the first part of the renovated exhibition, which paradoxically will be opened at the very end, will try to show this complex project that Auschwitz was. And, within this, to talk about the perpetrators.

AL: SS staff on duty and off duty, the directorial planning and business leadership – these topics were fictionalized in The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell a decade ago, and are revealing. What’s also revealing is rejection from many quarters of the perpetrators’ perspectives, though these necessarily expose very real practical, ideological and business interests, and stratigraphies of internal competition in camp policy and surrounding industries.

Auschwitz in Holocaust awareness

AL: There are several more brief topics I’d like to address. Broad attention in the international media focuses on Auschwitz-Birkenau, from 70th anniversary commemorations of the liberation, in 2015, to the pope’s visit this autumn – even with the theft of the gateway arch sign in 2009. At the same time, in contemporary historiography, historians with significant platforms contend that concentrating popular historical memory on Auschwitz is problematic. That society needs to better recognize broader realities of the Holocaust – for example, improvisational engineering as the Shoah developed across Poland and to the east. Timothy Snyder is one example, in his Holocaust reassessment Black Earth from 2015.

As director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum, what is your view of prior history, the need for awareness today of Operation Reinhard camps, of nearly two million Jews shot before gas was widely utilized for extermination?

The ruins of Crematorium demolished by retreating Germans in 1945
(aut. Sharx; CC BY-SA 2.5)

PC: The world grows difficult in faster and faster ways. This acceleration of many disturbing events in the world – universally, locally – is something that is very difficult to understand. For example, later today the United States is going to vote in a way that years ago would’ve been unimaginable. We can look at the Middle East, and see very different problems in the world there today. Anxiety around the world about the abrupt militarization of Russia.

In a time of great change, people need clear focal points they can relate to. Those can be optimistic bright points, and also dark, negative points. But they must be very clear focal points. This is why I think interest in the history of Auschwitz is rising. This is both on an individual level and on national levels, with many countries deciding to co-fund visits by students of their countries to Auschwitz, because they hope that by visiting this site they in the future will become better citizens.

Of course, Auschwitz has in a way accepted being this part-of-a-whole symbol. But this comes from history. First of all, it was the biggest concentration camp and the biggest extermination center. Second, it was the only one among the big extermination centers that was also a huge concentration camp. Because of how history developed, there were many survivors – and of course many survivors from this last period of the existence of Auschwitz, its extermination period, who took the knowledge about Auschwitz outside.

From Bełżec, we don’t even have one full testimony. From Kulmhof [Chełmno], two or three people who escaped. From Treblinka, a bit more because there was a revolt, but anyway there are just a few, five or seven testimonials, that are general views of the story there.

AL: From Sobibór, fewer than sixty escaped after the revolt then survived the war.

PC: Yes. When you think of Ponary [outside Vilnius] or any other of the execution sites to the east, you will find either no testimonies, or now the French priest Patrick Desbois tries to document the last witnesses.

Yet these are more reflections from the outside than testimonies from within. When you consider Auschwitz, we have thousands of postwar testimonies. Just next to the extermination center at Birkenau, there was a huge concentration camp. This was the only place where regular selections from the Jewish transports took place.

AL: Sonderkommando writings were buried or hidden in hopes they would bear witness.

PC: Not only: there are legal documents the resistance sent outside the camp, that were created within the camp. Witold Pilecki’s report is not the only one. There are many reports that were written down, because when a prisoner escaped who was somehow involved in resistance activities, then obviously he wrote a report after his escape.

So the sources we have are a far larger than any of the other extermination centers, and larger than any other concentration camp. Then there is the choice, since the late 1940s, of preserving the authenticity of the site. When you consider Treblinka, you have a world-class memorial monument on the site – but this monument is standing in a clearing in the forest.

The barracks rebuilt in Birkenau
(aut. Sharx; CC BY-SA 2.5)

Auschwitz in artistic representations

AL: A final question, regarding your views on the presence of Auschwitz in popular entertainment. For example, feature films: Denial is now released in the States and will be distributed in Europe, and Son of Saul was awarded the Oscar for best foreign film for 2015. The opera The Passenger, from the writing of Zofia Posmysz who was imprisoned for years in Birkenau, plays the world’s stages including Russia. In a smaller production, Teatr Trans-Atlantyk in Warsaw bases a theater piece on the SS photos from the Hoecker Album and has toured to China and France.

How may audiences benefit from such artistic approaches to Auschwitz and its history? 

PC: I’m not an art critic, and my approach to this issue is not from a professional point of view but rather from an intuitive point of view. Auschwitz has been present in arts for a long time. Movies have been made since the 1960s – very different movies. Of course, none has probably had the impact of Schindler’s List, for example. For part of the world, that movie was the discovery of the story of Auschwitz. For France and Belgium, the story of the Holocaust came from Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

There is a possible range of axes for different evaluations of such films, theater productions, artistic representations. On one hand, you find good, honest, useful works. Such for example is Triumph of the Spirit, the 1989 movie with Willem Dafoe, about a Greek boxer here at Auschwitz. Another is Son of Saul, which in my opinion is a bit less successful but you can see it’s trying first of all to tell the truth, then by showing this truth, touch or even raise the consciences of people. These are works of art where the artist doesn’t put himself on a pedestal, in the center.

On the other side of that axis, we have works of art that I consider bad, dishonest. They shouldn’t be used or shown. Works of art where Auschwitz is raped, exploited only to promote the artist. There are different examples of installations in contemporary art that I don’t even want to name.

Between these two, you have many different levels at which you can situate different works of art.

There are projects with which we try to cooperate in some limited way. One is the Denial movie.

AL: Participation as historical consultants? Was the production crew here?

PC: One aspect of this movie – of course, it’s a feature film – is as a paradocumentary. It shows the story as it happened, the trial between historians Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving. Part of this story is very difficult to tell without Auschwitz, because some things happened right here. In the 1990s, the decision had been made that feature films are not made in Auschwitz. We tried to help – not violating this rule, and on the other hand not forcing the producers to recreate everything somewhere outside. Then, for example, voices of deniers might undermine the essence of this movie for not showing anything authentic. For example, when you have the scene on the [collapsed] roof of the gas chamber, it’s a [studio] reproduction of the destruction. But when a discussion occurs outside the perimeter of the camp, this is where we could allow very limited activity. It took us a long time, finding ways to match fire and water, in a way.

Other artistic projects that I would not lift even a finger to help. There are even projects we try to stop, when they are disrespectful to the memories of the victims and prisoners of the camp. 

Author: Alan Lockwood