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Piotr Cywiński

To whom does Auschwitz „belong?”

20 August 2011
  • Solidarity
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Museum
  • Auschwitz
  • Birkenau
  • Places of Memory

What is Auschwitz today? This is a question that needs to be asked at the beginning in order to even enter into the topic of affiliation. Various concepts define the space of Auschwitz. Former inmates, who created this Place of Commemoration after Second World War, termed their blueprint by the word Museum. Then, a Monument was built in Birkenau in the 1960s, as if the ruins of this former Nazi death camp were not enough to commemorate it. Following that, the concept of the world’s biggest Cemetery emerged. Finally, the name the Place of Commemoration appeared. This term is a neologism that perhaps best reflects the inability to call a spade a spade.

Of all similar places in Europe, this one is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The entry indicated that this place is to be representative for all other sites of this type and that others will no longer be listed. I do not know what does the term “sites of this type” mean. Does this mean other Vernichtungslagern? Or the entire system of concentration camps? Is the GULAG Soviet system of camps included into this typology? In the provision “other sites of this type”, placed on this worldwide list, we encounter a legal interpretation of Auschwitz as the most broadly conceived heritage of man and mankind and thus, in a tangible way, we touch on the issue of affiliation.

This can be viewed on very different levels that do not exclude one another: historical, political, emphatic and also moral or task-oriented. A certain subjectivism, that is completely normal and natural in this place, develops in this complexity of levels. We cannot escape this subjectivism in this place, because people have the right to feel more or less linked to this place. Undoubtedly, various kinds of memories are crossing in Auschwitz today. The annihilation of the Jewish nation was one thing and the history of the concentration camp was another. We hope that there is no need to explain this difference today. One Jewish survivor remembers forty, fifty persons from his family who ended up there and did not survive. And among other victims, dozens of living persons remember this one cousin who died there as, for instance, a political prisoner. These are extremely different social situations.

The differences can also be political and ideological. For some, it will be primarily a place of education. There are communities for whom Auschwitz plays a very important identity role. In this case, I am thinking about the Jewish diasporas and to some extent also about Roma. In Poland, to a large extent, this constitutes an independence symbol, although it should also be remembered that Poland also has different interpretations of the Auschwitz history. As quite different is this place for the elites that were the majority of inmates in the first period. It was quite different for inhabitants of the Zamość region who were sent to Auschwitz to be exterminated. And Auschwitz was still quite a different place for residents of Warsaw after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising. Finally, Auschwitz was completely different for people from round-ups in street cars who did not at all know why they landed there, as they were not involved in any activity of the resistance movement. This place is, of course, a great experience for the Germans. Their presence there, often very helpful, creates profound interpersonal relations with this place. For Catholics, Christians, this is also a certain reference to the world of martyrdom and holiness that is manifested in this place and this also cannot be omitted .

Looking at Auschwitz from these various points of view, it is easy to understand why the 1990s, after the fall of communism, were years of such difficult conflicts. Suddenly, all these memories met in this place and began to notice each other. For this reason, I hope that today we have become wiser.

Among all affiliations, the most striking is the affiliation to those whose ashes are mixed with this soil. The memory and affiliation of the successors of victims are this first memory and this first affiliation, above all, of course of the world of Jews but also of Poles, Roma and prisoners of the Soviet Army.

Auschwitz is of course a symbol of the Holocaust, but also the largest former concentration camp. Thus, groups that visit Auschwitz today identify with this place as well as other stories that did not happen so often in this place as elsewhere. Priests died more often in the Dachau death camp, but they are remembered in this place. Women died in the Ravensbrueck camp. German homosexuals or Jehovas witnesses also in other camps—Dachau, Sahsenhausen, Oranienburg and Flossenburg. The disabled, who did not perish at all die in the camps, but often in the facilities attached to hospitals or in specially designed lorries by exhaust fumes are also remembered here.

And what can be said about Nazi criminals, on the other side of the barbed wires? In Auschwitz there were about 8,000 free people, SS and Gestapo members who worked there. Historians estimate that there were about 70,000 of them in the entire system of camps, out of which 1,600-1,700 were brought for court proceedings after Second World War. An overwhelming majority of them were sentenced to three or five years of imprisonment, often in suspension. This awareness should also be kept in mind and this raises a multi-faceted and profound question about affiliation to the place.

And since we are talking about the perpetrators, one very delicate problem remains. The victim and the prisoner of the camp could have had the experience of being the perpetrator at the same time, because the system was designed in such a way. A trusty, Blockaltester, a prison mate from a plank bed could at a certain moment be the perpetrator because he hit (his neighbor), stole a bread (from him), informed on (him), did not help. And here we touch the essence of humanity, something that each of us can encounter in our own life. This means that each of us is not only this impeccable human being but that we have different faces.

At the time of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, there was a thesis that this Place of Commemoration is already passing into European history, that everything had already been said. But we can judge at least by attendance that people still continue to seek for answers. In the last five years, the number of visitors doubled annually. Last year, we achieved the highest number of visits since the end of Second World War. Quite suddenly, a few years ago, South Korea appeared in visitor statistics - today almost 40,000 visitors a year, which is almost as many as from France or Israel. South Korea represents a completely different world and a completely different history. Countries such as Manchuria, China, Japan and South Korea have their own dramas stemming from World War II. And yet, their nationals still feel the need and willingness to come visit this place. In the 1990s, Auschwitz was a symbol primarily for Europe, Israel and North America. Now, it is beginning to function as a truly world-wide symbol.

Attendance has two ends. There are also geographical, political and historical areas that do not feel connected to Auschwitz or do not want to manifest this. First of all, I would like to point to Austria as a problematic case. Three thousand visitors last year, as compared with 60,000 Germans or 56,000 Italians. If 3,000 visitors come from Austria and about 25,000 from the Czech Republic, this means that we are facing an educational and identity problem that has not been overcome and we must think about it jointly. I stress: together. There are hardly any visitors from Africa and Arabic countries.[1] This is a problem in the context of today’s challenges and the result of this neglect is the emergence of the new geography of the Holocaust denial. .

In the future, an important element will be the fact that in today’s Europe national determinant stops being the most important point of reference for one’s own identity. There are mixed groups that want to find their identity in this Place in a different way—as doctors, lawyers, priests.

There are also other determinants of subjective affiliation - particular care of maintaining the Place. For years, half of the budget of this Place has been contributed by the Polish government. The second half has been worked out by the museum and single percents have been coming from foreign assistance. And after all affiliation has been linked exactly with responsibility and thus it is primarily a moral problem.

In conclusion, I would like to discuss the question of participation. This is perhaps the most important question stemming from membership and responsibility. When one sees photos from the liberation of Auschwitz, it is necessary to think about reportages from Ruanda. And the question is not about these two events, but about our passivity. In the idea of social participation, a person is linked to what he or she co-creates, to what he or she builds, to that in what he or she engages in and to the goals he or she fulfills. Affiliation to this place or affiliation of this place to a concrete person would thus be reaching this goal which means never again. But meanwhile, millions of people visit this place and other places of this kind—Yad Vashem or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. And these millions of persons sit later in front of TV sets, watch reports from Darfur and do not see any link. Living in free states, they criticize those who did nothing in Hitler’s times. Several weeks later, having returned home, they themselves do completely nothing as regards other tragedies of the world.

Also answering the question that I was asked, I would say that Auschwitz as a Place of Commemoration is, in a dramatic way, common, and in a dramatic way, nobody’s. Unfortunately, still.

[1] Data from 2011. In 2019, 2 million 320 thousand people from all over the world visited Auschwitz - at least 396,000 visitors from Poland, 200,000 from Great Britain, 120,000 from the USA, 104,000 from Italy, 73,000 from Germany, 70,000 from Spain, 67,000 from France, 59,000 from Israel, 42,000 from Ireland and 40,000 from Sweden. Source: Website of Auschwitz Museum


Piotr Cywinski (born in 1972) is a historian, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, member of the International Auschwitz Council, Catholic activist, former chairman of the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia in Warsaw.