36th session of the International Auschwitz Council
A summary of the activities of the Auschwitz Memorial in recent years - particularly during the pandemic - was the main topic of the session of the International Auschwitz Council, which took place in Oświęcim and Krakow on 23 and 24 November 2022, chaired by Dr. hab Grzegorz Berendt.
The proceedings began with a visit to the Museum site. Members of the IAC visited the construction site of the new Visitor Services Center, which is being built directly adjacent to the historic site of the Memorial, thanks to the support of the European Union and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Thanks to the project, the historic building that housed the slaughterhouse and dairy during the camp's existence have been saved from destruction.
A modern, three-storey hostel is also being built next to the new Visitor Services Center - thanks to a grant from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the support of Ronald S. Lauder and Joel and Ulrika Citron. The accommodation facility thus created will provide lodging for volunteers, trainees, and those participating in extended study stays, conferences and seminars.
Additionally, the Council members visited the site of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, where they had the opportunity to see the ongoing conservation works in one of the brick barracks and a historic building after conservation. The conservation works are funded by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. They also saw the museum's Conservation Laboratories.
At the beginning of the main part of the meeting, which was held at the headquarters of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage Szymon Giżyński and Deputy Minister of Education and Science Dariusz Piontkowski handed out certificates of appointment to two Council members who were absent from the first meeting: Romani Rose and Jan Erik Dubbelman.
Museum Director Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński summarised the most important activities at the Auschwitz Memorial that have taken place over the past four years following the end of the third term of the International Auschwitz Council, and about the Museum's plans for the immediate future. The recent pandemic has been a period of peculiar experience.
'These years were marked by moments of a total decline in attendance. It was a period when schools functioned differently, and tourist traffic virtually froze. It was the most challenging period in the functioning of the Memorial since 1989. It was a difficult challenge for us. We decided to put all investments on hold to protect the Museum's staff. This was possible thanks, among other things, to government shields and additional assistance from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. It was also incredibly moving to see the support of thousands of people worldwide who responded to our appeal and decided to support the Memorial's mission during the pandemic financially,' he said.
The director also commented on how attendance at the Memorial was affected by Russia's attack on Ukraine. The Museum issued a special statement at the beginning of the war, which was recognised in the media, and also launched a special scholarship programme for Ukrainian conservators. According to Piotr Cywiński, these and other difficult experiences of recent years necessitate a rethinking of the Memorial's message.
'We are in contact with other institutions, such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem, on this issue. The tragic events worldwide in recent years are reigniting questions in public discourse on the nature of genocide and what should be the focus of memory-based reflection. We all need to reflect on how to reach the hearts and consciences of visitors and how to make memory the starting point for addressing our contemporary responsibility for the world today and beyond. We want the result of the visit to be more than just a knowledge of the past and a moral concern about today. Such memory may indeed be the key to the future,' he stressed.
The director highlighted the preservation of the Museum's authenticity, investments, education, research issues and communication challenges as some of the most important spheres of the Museum's operation in recent years and the future.
Director Cywiński also spoke about attendance, its impact on the Museum's budget situation, and the activities of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which provides financial support for the conservation of the Memorial. Speaking of conservation issues, Piotr Cywiński referred to a visit by IAC members to the site of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, where they had the opportunity to see the brick barracks under conservation.
'We hope all brick buildings will be conserved in about 25 years. This means that they will be disproportionately strengthened. It is also worth noting that in a few weeks, the total support allocated to the Museum by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation for preservation will amount to PLN 100 million. It demonstrates the value of the tool we have created to safeguard the authenticity of the Memorial; it is operating at optimum efficiency,' he said.
He also listed the Visitors' Service Centre under construction and the hostel, which will be a huge support for volunteers, the microbiology laboratories in the Conservation Laboratories, as well as the new home of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust that has already been completed, among the essential investments currently underway at the Museum.
'The new premises of the ICEAH, where this meeting is taking place, is a new beginning for our educational activities owing to the size of the investment. The building was already completed at the end of 2019; however, the pandemic has resulted in us only being able to use this new space now and develop a wide variety of augmented education activities - study stays, seminars, etc. Not only for students and teachers, but also for many other professional groups,' he stressed.
In speaking about education, Director Cywinski spoke not only about the challenges of online education during and after the pandemic but also about a new project that will be launched next year, a guided online tour of the Memorial.
Director Cywiński also mentioned the New Main Exhibition that is being prepared, the planned national exhibitions - including the Polish exhibition - the temporary exhibitions at the Museum, and the exhibition "Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away."
Among the research projects, Piotr Cywiński mentioned the research carried out together with the Arolsen Archive into archival documents that expand our knowledge of Auschwitz prisoners. In his opinion, the greatest success of recent years has been the compilation of a new calendar of the history of Auschwitz: 'We have managed to supplement and correct the publication compiled by Danuta Czech three decades ago. The first volume of the new calendar will be ready by the end of the year. We are already working on the English translation. This work will serve future generations. In the coming years, a new monograph on the history of Auschwitz will be written based on this calendar.'
The report also talked about the publications produced by the Museum, as well as the role and importance of the Museum in the world, as shown by the experience of the recent round anniversaries of the liberation of the camp or the scale of the Museum's presence on social media.
The first day of the meeting concluded with a discussion among Council members.
On the second day, the IAC members listened to reports on the activities of the memorials located at the former German camps of Treblinka and Plaszow. The meeting concluded with a visit to the KL Plaszow Memorial in Cracow.