Auschwitz Goes On and On… – Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial for the Polish News Agency (KAI) before the visit of Pope Francis

“There are places and tragedies which make you at a loss for words”, tells KAI Piotr M. A. Cywiński, Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum referring to Pope Francis’ announcement that he would not deliver any speech when visiting the former Nazi German camp on July 29. Cywiński also said that over 300,000 World Youth Day participants, half of whom are from abroad, have declared their intent to visit the former camp.

Tomasz Królak (KAI): What do you expect and hope for in connection with the visit to the former Auschwitz camp of Francis, a pope from South America?

Piotr M.A. Cywiński: I believe that the pope’s visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau will be a major element of his stay in Poland, possibly the most visible one from the world’s perspective.

Francis’ two predecessors who came here were both popes closely linked with this history, albeit from different perspectives. First John Paul II, who invariably saw this place as of major significance, as he would come here very often prior to becoming pope. Later on Pope Benedict XVI came to the place with a difficult visit, during which he rather closely followed in John Paul II’s footsteps.

Pope Francis will arrive in the former camp with a background unrelated to the history of the Second World War and of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he has the experience of South America, whose many countries have for whole decades grappled with democracy, human rights and dictatorship. As a result, while this particular geographical context is not the geography of the pope’s life experience, the problems or issues are acutely close to him.

The pope will visit both parts of the camp: Auschwitz I, where he will cross the gate “Arbeit macht frei”, meet former inmates, pay homage at the Death Wall, and visit the cell where Fr. Kolbe was murdered with a phenol injection. Subsequently he will visit Birkenau, where he will move along the ramp, from the Death Gate to the Memorial, and will walk along the plaques commemorating the victims.

KAI: The popes you have mentioned made important statements here. Pope Francis decided, however, that he would not deliver an address in Auschwitz. Neither did he speak in the Cicernakaberd Memorial in Armenia, erected to commemorate the victims of Turkish genocide or in Italian Redipuglia at the First World War Memorial.

This is a very telling choice. There are places and tragedies which make you at a loss for words, where actually there are no words to express what so many still see as unimaginable.

The pope’s speeches about Auschwitz and the Holocaust have been different in the past, just like history was discovered and its understanding grew. Its comprehension in the post-war decades has changed slightly. We recall the speech delivered by John Paul II in 1979. It was a profound personal reflection. The pope asked questions about the condition of the civilisation, about our human capacity for killing and also about seeking ways of forgiveness. In turn, the principal tenor of Benedict XVI’s speech was repeatedly asking God how He could possibly have allowed all this.

Just like his predecessors, Francis, the third pope to visit Auschwitz, knows intimately questions of the Christian-Jewish dialogue and has also spoken on a number of occasions about the Holocaust. I am referring here mainly to his powerful address in the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. He applied a perspective different from that of Benedict. While Pope Ratzinger asked how things like this could have happened, how God could have allowed it, Francis adopted an interpersonal angle on this tragedy, invoking the pain of Adam after one of his sons had killed the other one. This is, then, a much more anthropocentric perspective.

KAI: The pope will not deliver a speech yet his very presence in this place should incline us to look on today’s global concerns through the prism of Auschwitz.

Definitely the world of today is different from that of 1979 and different from the one of 2006, when the predecessors of Francis visited this place. The world speeds up culture-wise, it is increasingly internally divided, threatened with terrorism and deterioration of human rights. It is a world where human solidarity is slowly being worn down.

If 15 years ago someone had told us that we would so hysterically react to aiding refugees from war-torn territories, I would never have believed it. This is the world which is desperately in need of a wise message, of being reminded of the fundamental human truths. Auschwitz and the tragedy of the Holocaust sensitise us acutely to these issues.

KAI: It is by all means appropriate, then, that this place should be visited by new generations of people from around the world.

Today Auschwitz is visited by nearly 2 million people annually. These are by and large young people, who come with their classmates or participate in all kinds of educational programs related to this place. Actually, there are more and more of them. In many countries it has been recognised that young people must ask themselves some fundamental questions at the threshold of adulthood.

Here we can almost palpably sense what the lulling of conscience can lead to. This is the Auschwitz that the pope comes to.

KAI: What do you make of the fact that as many as a few hundred thousand WYD participants have expressed their intent to visit Auschwitz?

So far over 300,000 WYD participants, half of them foreigners, have expressed their intent to visit the former camp. This is the number of people in organised groups only; many will come as individual visitors. This means that they treat their presence at the World Youth Day not only as pure contemplation, but as a time of asking themselves pressing questions.
A memorial place like Auschwitz makes one vulnerable, through first-hand contact with the ramp, with the inmates’ blocks, with the remains of the barracks and watch turrets, as well as with the ruins of the gas chambers. The experience of being in this area should bear fruit with these young people assuming responsibility for today’s world.

KAI: A visit of such a huge group of visitors must be a corresponding challenge for the Museum?

Exactly; since the numbers are a few times higher than the highest turnout in the Museum, we have had to make special preparations, given both the security of the visitors and technical considerations.

On July 29, on the day of Pope Francis’ visit, the Museum will be inaccessible to visitors. Between July 20-28 and August 1-3 2016, the premises of the former camp will be accessible solely to the WYD participants.

At this time the visitors will walk a specially prepared trail. Due to the extensive interest and conservation requirements, visitors will not be allowed into the historical buildings. However, the trail has been planned to allow the young pilgrims to get to know the most important places both in the former Auschwitz I camp and in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. A special open-air exhibit will demonstrate the most significant questions related to the history of the camp.

KAI: Being the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum cannot boil down to ordinary administrative work. What does it mean for you?

I was extremely lucky since six years prior to becoming the Director I had been introduced into the questions related to Auschwitz by its former inmates, including figures such as Prof. Władysław Bartoszewski, Prof. Israel Gutman, Józef Szajna and many other people from the world over; I had met them as the Secretary of the International Auschwitz Council.

What I was most intrigued by when I took office nearly ten years ago was the complexity of the task. Here you need to take care of very technical matters and also build a team on site, which is not easy in a small town, far from major academic centres. Furthermore, one needs to take due care of the large area of preserved authenticity, develop unprecedented conservation solutions. Perhaps it is easier to care about Machu Picchu or Egyptian pyramids than about 155 buildings, fragile, intended for a short time only. Conservation issues in the case of a Memorial are very difficult as there is no school which teaches you how to preserve makeshift constructions from 70 years ago…

Another problem is the absolute need to engage in a profound dialogue with various parties, who continue to see this place as acutely painful: the victims’ families as well as various religious and national groups. People’s understanding of what this place is or should be is often mutually exclusive and that again is only natural. It calls for a lot of engagement in conversations and lending an ear to the place itself, listening to the way it talks and what its natural legacy is. It moreover prevents any contamination with ideology or a political or other message.

The main tasks I encountered there were first of all developing a model of financing conservation work, as this cannot be done through annual Memorial budget. We are talking here the assurance of financing for whole decades. It was for that reason that the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was set up six years ago.

On the other hand, education is a major element of our work. Our visitors are ever younger. These are most often 16-17-years-olds, people whose grandparents were born after the war. It was crucial to develop connectivity with teachers, who come from a variety of countries, cultures and traditions. Therefore, they require assistance to prepare well their students for the visit.

KAI: You are the author of the book Sny obozowe w pamięci ocalałych z Auschwitz (Camp dreams in the memory of Auschwitz survivors). Where did you get the idea from?

Numerous books have been penned about the tragedy of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. They can be divided into three principal groups. There are, then, memories of former inmates, sometimes very powerful. Naturally, this is a very authentic yet also very subjective set. Each inmate saw their own history, as an Auschwitz inmate did not know what happened in Birkenau and described only the reality of their commando, etc. The second group is composed of typically historical books, which most readers find unpalatable due to their scientific jargon, loads of footnotes, references, etc. Finally, there are books that promote the knowledge about Auschwitz for a wider readership and tell the history of the camp in a more accessible manner.

In Auschwitz we have thousands of different, short and long accounts of survivors. These are recorded or written down memories. Gathering such memories has been taking place in the Museum for decades, in principle since it was started. One a half years ago I came to the conclusion that while it is virtually unrealistic to publish all of this as books, it would be great to collect and present certain topics in separate volumes.

I focused on a few diverse topics, events or camp phenomena, such as the death march or the arrival of the first transport to Auschwitz. At one moment I came across a sizeable section dedicated to dreams. In 1973, a former inmate, medical doctor Stanisław Kłodziński sent a questionnaire to around 500 co-prisoners concerning dreams in the camp and after leaving it.

Over 120 inmates responded to the questionnaire. Some gave pithy replies, others came up with lengthy accounts, quoting a lot of their dreams. The replies gave rise to one article in a specialist medical journal in 1975. Ever since, the file with the accounts was waiting to be discovered in the Museum archive. It seemed to me that the topic is extremely important as it shows that the history of Auschwitz does not finish with the liberation of the camp, as we learn about it.

The camp lives on in the minds of the survivors, in a violent way they themselves would definitely not like it to. These are people who dream about camp-related events with varying intensity. These dreams are very painful and they wake up with similar symptoms of an increased pulse, sweating all over, experiencing anxiety, unable to resume their bearings for a good few minutes. It turned out that the inmates’ dreams are comparable and that the trauma has some common core and can be divided into a few themes, such as the motif of an escape, being returned to the camp, the horror and terror of the camp, being led to an execution, etc.

It also turned out that the dreams are dissimilar from those they had when in the camp. The camp dreams were an attempt to imagine one’s return home, a free world out there, being reunited with one’s nearest and dearest. These people cried when woken up as they realised it was but a dream and they were lying on a wooden bunk and could hear the scream of the head of the block, who urged them to get ready for work. During the war they dreamt about their home; having returned home, they revisited their wartime experiences.

An interview by Tomasz Królak

Francis will visit the premises of the former Nazi German camp Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau on Friday, July 29. In line with the express wish of the pope, the visit will be in fact a prayer in silence. The pope will meet a group of former camp inmates and Holocaust survivors. No speeches will be delivered; the only planned agenda item is a recitation by the Chief Rabbi of Poland of Psalm 130: “Out of the depth of sin towards the Divine Mercy”.

The pope’s visit will take place on the most probable 75th anniversary day of the roll-call during which Fr. Maximilian Kolbe sacrificed his life for Franciszek Gajowniczek, selected by the Germans to die in a hunger bunker after an inmate’s escape.