New Auschwitz museum director set for changes

One week on the job and fresh from a visit to Yad Vashem, Piotr Cywinski says the museum is in desperate need of a makeover.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, perhaps the best-known symbol of the Holocaust, has a new director after 16 years under the stewardship of one man. Piotr Cywinski was appointed director of the museum in September, replacing Jerzy Wroblewski. One week on the job and fresh from a visit to Yad Vashem, Cywinski said the Auschwitz museum was in desperate need of a makeover. "I want to renew the main exhibition, which is about 50 years old. It's time to speak differently about this history," said Cywinski, 34, a Pole active in Polish-Jewish dialogue who was a member of the Auschwitz International Council before taking over the top spot at the museum. He has a doctorate in history from the Polish Academy of Sciences. Cywinski said any revamping would be done in consultation with international organizations and Jewish museums. The crumbling gas chambers at Birkenau where victims were murdered and the collection of their glasses, hair and shoes lumped in huge piles are among the most recognized symbols of the Auschwitz museum. Cywinski sees a need to help visitors relate to such anonymous suffering. "The exhibitions need to be more attractive to visitors and more educational," he said. "Considering the exhibitions were developed during the height of Stalinism, they are excellent. But there are some themes that are not developed, like the history of anti-Semitism in Europe before the Shoah and the role scientists played in implementing the Nazi genocide." The Nazis murdered 1.1 million to 1.6 million Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the town of Oswiecim, 50 km. west of Krakow. Some 90 percent of the victims were Jews. The former German death camp was made into a Polish state museum in 1947 and was named a United Nations World Heritage site in 1979. The museum attracted 1m. visitors from 106 countries last year, the largest number since the 1970s. The museum is famous for its repository of prisoner artifacts, many of which are on display and evoke empathy and horror among visitors. For instance, the museum holds more than 2,000 private photographs that once belonged to prisoners, 8,000 letters and postcards sent by prisoners from the camp and 70,000 death certificates for victims. During the Communist era, the Jewish identity of the victims and the Nazi's intent to destroy the Jewish people were barely mentioned at the museum. This was consistent with the Communist government's desire to politicize history. Beginning in the early 1990s, international pressure, as well as the education of museum officials, completely changed the museum, which now recognizes Auschwitz as predominantly a place of Jewish suffering where political prisoners from Poland, the Soviet Union and other countries also were tortured and killed. Gypsies, or Roma, also were murdered there. Along the way to its new post-Communist identity, the museum has been the subject of various controversies. Jewish groups objected to crosses there and a Carmelite nunnery, both of which have been removed. The museum is seeking to change its name to include the phrase, "Former German Nazi Concentration and Death Camp," after many media reports referred to it as a Polish death camp, which is offensive to Poles, who also were brutalized by the Germans. In another source of tension, Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt, an Auschwitz survivor now living in California, has been trying for years to get back paintings of gypsies she was forced to do at the camp for Dr. Josef Mengele. These issues aside, Auschwitz has received enormous aid and respect from its counterpart institutions. The museum staff "did an outstanding job at Birkenau" after 1990, "adding some interpretive elements, while retaining its authenticity and its memorial character and showing great sensitivity to it as the largest Jewish cemetery in the world," said Andrew Hollinger, spokesman for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "We recognize that there are other parts of the complex that have yet to be updated, and trust that the Auschwitz Museum will take on those projects with the same thoughtfulness and expertise they have shown in the past," he said. Cywinski said future exhibitions would focus on individuals, not just group suffering, and would tell their stories in a more personalized way. He said the museum also needed to start focusing on how to teach young people about the Shoah with new tools. "It's not pleasant to think about but there will come a time when our devoted survivors who help teach about what happened will no longer be here. We need to be prepared for that," he said. He also contemplated the museum's role in fighting intolerance and anti-Semitism, which he sees as a growing threat in the world. "The sentiment of 'Never again' doesn't function. Look at the poor reaction in the world to modern anti-Semitism; it's something that's dangerous," he said. Cywinski feels that people are not getting the message that institutions like the Auschwitz Museum and Yad Vashem impart. "If you take the number of people who visit the Holocaust Museum, Auschwitz, Yad Vashem - 10m. people each year. Where are these people when a genocide happens in Rwanda? The silence of the world is terrible. We have to think about how to make people more responsible," he said. "'Never again' doesn't mean only never again genocide, but never again silence."