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“The role of museums and memorials in a changing world” - expert debate on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Memorial


On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Memorial at the site of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, on July 1, the Museum hosted an expert debate “The role of museums and memorial sites in the changing world”.

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It was attended by people professionally associated with the functioning of museums and memorials dealing with the history of concentration camps, extermination centres, the Holocaust and the tragedy of World War II.

Among the guests there were also representatives of the President of the Republic of Poland, state and local authorities, the diplomatic corps, members of the Auschwitz Museum Council - among them the Auschwitz survivor Bogdan Bartnikowski - representatives of state institutions, associations and foundations.

The motto of the meeting were the words of the Auschwitz survivor and the later director of the Museum, Kazimierz Smoleń, who in his account recalled discussions on the commemoration of the camp victims that were still taking place in the camp: “We did not know if we would survive, but we spoke about a memorial site… that is about creating some institution, monument (...) we were only convinced that humankind cannot forger about the crimes committed in Auschwitz”.

The event was held under the honorary patronage of the President of the Republic of Poland, Andrzej Duda, who wrote in a special letter to the participants of the meeting: “It is our duty to guard the truth and the memory of the fate of millions of defenceless victims. That is why the Polish state makes every effort to preserve for future generations what was saved from the Nazi concentration and extermination camp in Oświęcim. This mission is fulfilled by the local Museum, which has been taking care of this place for 75 years, keeping evidence of genocidal crimes, collecting reports of witnesses and survivors, documenting and disseminating knowledge about the Holocaust of Jews and the extermination of other nations by the Germans. It is a task of great importance for all mankind. Auschwitz-Birkenau must forever be an admonition against what racism, hatred, contempt, cruelty and cynicism lead to, and a constant warning to the whole world must be heard from this place: never again”.

A letter was also sent by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki: “The reality in which we live is increasingly influenced by modern technologies. This also applies to the dissemination of knowledge. New forms of discourse management and its new platforms also influence its shape, and thus the shape of collective memory. Everything changes. Therefore, I consider it really worthy of recognition that the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau was celebrated by the management of the museum with a debate on the role of museums and memorial sites in a changing world and their active influence on shaping attitudes. Thanking you for your deep understanding of your mission, I would like to express my hope that, despite the passage of time, it will be possible to preserve the memory showing the truth. We owe this memory to the victims. We also owe it to future generations.”

The inaugural lecture was delivered by the director of Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński: “Times are changing ever more rapidly and changes are manifested in more than just new emerging technologies and global warming. Virtually every anthropological plane is now evolving at an increasingly rapid pace. The Russian war in Ukraine reflects this in the most profound way. Our institutions, Memorial Sites and Museums, which have in their hands a message of unique importance for all humanity, today must undergo a deep, fundamental reflection on our joint work with remembrance, education and formation, our dialogue with the world, and on the clarity of the message we convey.”

“We are faced with the great temptation to replace Survivors’ voices with silence, art, speeches delivered by politicians or words of the new generations. But that is not why Survivors wrote hundreds of books, provided thousands of accounts and recorded personal interviews. Their words remain in our hands and we must do everything we can today to ensure that they, even though many of them may be physically absent, remain at the very heart of our narrative. I see one fundamental reason for this – this is the only way we can avoid exaggerated historical interpretations, ward off the threat of politicization and prevent any divergence from the discourse on remembrance,” said Piotr Cywiński.

“The debate about the values and threats related to the symbolic understanding of our Memorial Sites, which began 25 years ago, has yet to be resolved. The debate has focused on the limits of possible comparisons of cases of genocide. However, symbolism does not only manifest itself in the sphere of comparisons. The “never again” appeal in itself embodies the need to link today’s tragedies with the message of the past. This clearly applies to any case of antisemitic, racist and de-humanizing aggression. We cannot fail to draw on the experience of the past in the face of mounting populism, manipulation and propaganda,” he emphasized.

“If we want to be inclusive and credible – while remaining within the frame of unconditional historical truth – we must embrace that polyphonic side of remembrance with greater wisdom. It is also with greater wisdom that we should integrate the accounts handed down within families and encourage discourse with local narratives. We should stimulate the young generation to reflect on what has already been instilled in them, as their history, in order to better show its meaning, its background and its consequences,” said director Cywiński.

“Today, we must think deeply about what we want to achieve through our activities. This is not only about historical facts or only about empathetic emotions. If we want the rite of passage to work fully, if we want people to emerge from the Memorial Sites better prepared to act, we need to stir moral anxiety in their hearts. Anxiety about their deeds, words and the choices they make as human beings. This commitment must more fully become a consequence of visiting our Memorial Sites. We cannot do it alone or in isolation, we need to act together in a planned and concerted way. The moral shape of the world does not depend on schools, the media or politicians. Still, it is what we all see as a priority and to what we have dedicated decades of our lives,” he said.<

Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Tal Bruttmann, historian, member of the Remembrance and Transmission Commission of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, Piotr M. A. Cywiński, director of Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dani Dayan, director of Yad Vashem - World Holocaust Remembrance Center and Deborah Hartmann, director of the Director of the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Education Center took part in the discussion on the role of Museums and Memorials today. The discussion was moderated by Marek Zając, chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Council, who was also the host of the entire meeting.

The discussion began with a question about reflection on memory in a world where soon there will be no survivors.

“Nobody and nothing can replace the survivors. We should reflect on this question and think about how these people can be used while they are with us, and about what they do in a unique way. It is the power of their stories that is so important. Our guests and teachers look for and ask for their stories, and then want to illustrate them with objects from our collections. Therefore, we treat these special people as unique educational tools. However, thanks to the memories and diaries written by the victims, we can also tell the story using the words of those who did not survive. Of course, we need to think about what technology will change in the future, but we need to think about how to recreate the testimony of the survivors,” said Sara Bloomfield.

According to Dani Dayan, director of Yad Vashem, technology is important, but it is impossible to create a substitute for a person who lived: “This is a big mistake. We use technology to record memories. Technology can be a powerful communication tool. It is a tool, not an end in itself. The survivor is the message. We have to be careful when using technology, because history is not an artificial thing. Therefore, we at Yad Vashem are very sceptical about the use of holograms or artificial intelligence. If it were a method of recalling the words of the survivors and we were sure that we are not disturbing the context - it is one thing. However, if we mention these words in other contexts, then it is very problematic. Technology is with us, but it does not necessarily answer our doubts. I would suggest increasing efforts to collect documentation. We must stand firmly on the foundation of facts, collect documents and create resources that we will convert into specific knowledge.”

“We must remember that technology into which we put the words of the survivors cannot obscure these people. You can choke on technology, the memories of the survivors are sometimes instrumentalised. In a few years, there will be no one who will be able to oppose the trivialization of their memories. We have to focus on new formats and forms, we have to be aware of the generational change and touch this past from the point of view of the present. There are studies showing that young generations are increasingly interested in the history of the Holocaust and the war. We should find simple formats for assimilating this knowledge and for building connections with the present day. We can be critical, but we can play an active role here. Platforms can help us reflect on collective memory,” said Deborah Hartmann.

“We face many challenges. On one hand, we talked about the survivors, and on the other hand, we have Holocaust deniers. Soon the voice of the survivors will no longer be with us, which may strengthen those who deny this story. We cannot replace the survivors, and here looking for new technologies will not change anything. Of course, we can tell a story presenting history without survivors - we still teach history of Ancient Greece, Rome, or Judea. The challenge is for people to become interested in the historical event that created the world we live in today - such as Europe. We are at a time when there is war in the East and people today think about it in the context of the events of World War II. Because this special event - World War II and the Holocaust - will remain with us as a point of reference for a long time,” said Tal Bruttmann.

According to Piotr Cywiński, there are several levels on which we deal with history: “There is a historical and brutally historical level - indisputable. There is a level of remembrance, and this is a polyphonic space which is very subjectively conditioned – by a person who remembers, who has completely different points of reference. This is the case with visitors to our places - we do not know their points of view. This creates a multifaceted message and for me the main question is: what will be the target place where this message is to take root. If it’s only in history, it's going to be zero-one, but it will fade from generation to generation. If it only finds its way into living memory - which I understand as the key to understanding the present day - then this polyphony can have very far-reaching effects. For history to be living and appealing, it is fundamental that the history of extermination camps and centres not only find its way into history books, but that it becomes an important part of our post-war identity."

We encourage you to watch the entire broadcast of the debate.

The organizer of the conference was Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in cooperation with the Memorials Management Society.