In Defence of the Auschwitz Museum

Because of the nature of my PhD thesis, I receive a notification on my phone every time the Auschwitz Museum puts out new content on Twitter. So I was more than a little surprised to unlock my phone a few days ago and see this:

The article in question appeared as an opinion piece on the Haaretz website, authored by writer and film-maker Ariel Sobel. In it, Ms Sobel accuses the Museum of 'rewriting history' by denying Polish antisemitism and blocking her on Twitter for challenging the Museum on this point.
This article is a gross misrepresentation of the Museum's work, particularly its use of social media. I never thought I would feel the need to write a blog post in defence of the Auschwitz Museum, but it is hugely important that at least some of the issues raised in the article are addressed, especially for those who do not follow the Museum's Twitter account and might therefore get the wrong impression of how it is managed.

Ms Sobel says she reached 'boiling point' with the Museum's Twitter account when it replied to an article published via The Jewish Voice. The title of this article? 'Auschwitz-Birkenau & Its Polish Roots'. The short piece highlights the Polish government's current attempts to whitewash any notion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust (going so far as to make any such statements illegal) whilst drawing attention to antisemitic incidents committed by Polish civilians against their Jewish neighbours in Jedwabne in 1941 and Kielce in 1946. The content of the article is extremely important - these crimes, as well as other antisemitic attacks carried out by Polish civilians before, during and after the Holocaust, must be acknowledged. To deny them would certainly constitute a rewriting of history. But the article's title is little more than click-bait, a deliberately provocative headline that was sure to receive backlash in the current political climate.
Antisemitism existed in Poland before, during, and after the Holocaust, just as it did in many other countries in Europe. That's a fact. That's indisputable. However you define 'complicity' - reporting Jews in hiding, killing Jews, settling into the homes of deported Jews and auctioning off their possessions - it happened. To suggest that Auschwitz-Birkenau had Polish 'roots', however, is misleading and unjustified. Let us not forget that the first prisoners deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp after its establishment in 1940 were not Jewish, but Polish (the Museum itself has an online lesson with more details about the beginnings of the camp and those who were first sent there). Shortly afterwards, the residents of the nearby village of Brzezinka were forcibly evicted and the area was razed to the ground in order to make way for the concentration-extermination camp of Birkenau.1 Whether or not antisemitism existed in occupied Poland at this time, the construction of the Auschwitz camp - in addition to the other concentration and extermination camps built in what is now Poland - was not exactly welcomed. (And even if the campaign highlighting 'German death camps' can seem, at times, a little over-zealous, the distinction is an important one).
Unsurprisingly, the Auschwitz Museum publicly challenged the article, stating the title to be 'false and ahistorical'. In her article, however, Ms Sobel accused the Museum of 'attacking a Jewish media site', thereby implying this in itself was an antisemitic attack. There is nothing antisemitic about challenging a misrepresentative headline just because it has been published via a Jewish news outlet, and to suggest this was the reason for the Museum's reply is purely disrespectful to those who manage the account.

The larger issue at hand, however, is the accusation that the Museum denies Polish antisemitism. Perhaps it is the case that the Museum could be somewhat more open about this issue, but let us consider two important factors that make this more difficult. Firstly, the Museum publishes content related to the history of Auschwitz and its post-war development as a museum. It does not present the history of the Holocaust as a whole, be it in occupied Poland or elsewhere, and does not create content related to social or political contexts either then or now. The majority of the Museum's social media posts highlight the fate of individual people or transports, so that we might all remember the names and faces behind the statistics. The Museum is therefore not going to start writing content about Jedwabne, or Kielce, or any other events involving Polish civilians, because these are outside the remit of the site's history. One could argue that the Museum could include content on, for instance, antisemitic attacks that took place inside the camp (because there are eyewitness accounts stating this happened), but that would then also create a need for content on attacks of a homophobic or xenophobic nature, or perpetrated by one prisoner against another because of their perceived status and position in the camp. The format of social media is limited, and such events were often complex and require a good amount of detail to understand. Such events have been written about in various survivor memoirs and historical studies. To not include this content, though, is not a denial on the Museum's part.
Secondly, the Museum does need to keep a sense of neutrality, even with current political issues in Poland. The Museum does not align itself with any particular political party, and so cannot start publicly criticising laws and policies made by the government. We must also remember that the Auschwitz Museum is a State Museum which receives a significant portion of its funding from governmental organisations (last year, 24% of the Museum's budget was derived from Ministry of Culture and Heritage funds).2 If the Museum were to speak out against the current 'Holocaust law' - however far-fetched it is - what then? What would happen to this funding, which is needed to preserve the Museum and ensure that people from all over the world can still visit safely? If the Museum expressed a political stance, would the current Director, Piotr CywiƄski, be sacked and replaced with someone who is more aligned to the Law and Justice Party's policies, as happened with the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk? Of course, it is not right that the Museum should effectively be silenced on such matters, but to oppose the government's current laws would equal serious consequences.

Furthermore, the Museum itself has suffered as a result of this law. In May 2018, The Guardian reported on the waves of disinformation and abuse that had been directed at the Museum's Twitter page from Polish nationalists and right-wingers, seemingly emboldened by the passing of the bill. Hundreds of Tweets accused the Museum of 'downplaying' the suffering of non-Jewish Polish victims in Auschwitz; of allowing Israeli flags to be brought into the Museum, but not Polish flags; of a 'foreign narrative' being peddled by tour guides that is hostile towards Poles. All of this is, of course, utter nonsense, and in itself highlights the problem of contemporary Polish antisemitism amongst at least some (read: not all) of the population. But it also shows just how unjustified Ms Sobel's accusations are. How can the Museum deny this issue when it has suffered so much abuse from those who do hold such attitudes?
The history and memory of Auschwitz is inherently complicated. The prisoner population consisted not only of Jews, but Polish political prisoners, Soviet POWs, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian clergy, Roma and Sinti, and so on, from at least a dozen different countries. There is therefore never going to be a straightforward presentation of the camp's history, or how its victims should be remembered. The Museum has a very difficult job of presenting many different histories and memories at once. The suffering of one group cannot compete with another - how can one measure suffering in the first place? - so some sort of balance has to be reached. Evidently, this is not always going to appease everyone.
But perhaps the line in Ms Sobel's article that I took the greatest issue with was the following:

'Could the Auschwitz Museum regress back to the spirit of the times of its founding by Polish parliamentary decree in 1947, when it was established as a "Monument to the Martyrology of the Polish Nation and other Nations," with Jews out of sight and mind?'

In a word: no. It is true that Communist Poland was less than forthcoming about the targeted extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany and their collaborators (though a small Jewish exhibition did exist when the Museum was first opened), but Auschwitz has (rightly) become such a symbol of Jewish suffering that this will never be reversed.3 The 'Shoah' exhibition in Block 27 in Auschwitz I, with its haunting Book of Names, is a testament to that. The hundreds of schoolchildren visiting the camp - whether Israeli teenagers wrapped in their national flag or British Sixth Formers participating in the Holocaust Educational Trust's 'Lessons from Auschwitz' Project - is a testament to that. To suggest that the Jewish victims of Auschwitz may one day be forced 'out of sight and mind' is both illusory and offensive to those who work there. The Museum did not welcome the disinformation and accusations from Polish nationalists with open arms; instead, it publicly challenged them, expressing the need to remember both Jews and non-Jews who were imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz. Perhaps the decision to block Ms Sobel on Twitter was something of an extreme reaction, but when we consider how much the Museum already has to contend with, and how many attacks are levelled against the institution on a regular basis, it is of little surprise that the Museum should choose to disengage with yet another person challenging its ethos and practices.

The staff at the Auschwitz Museum - whether Director, security guard, tour guide, cleaner or spokesperson - are faced with an enormous task. They manage a vast site which they did not create and did not ask for. They educate literally millions of visitors every year about an incredibly sensitive history, delicately weaving individual stories of friendship, resistance, love and tragedy in with the facts and history of the camp. They conserve millions of items once owned by thousands of murdered men, women and children, so that their individual legacies can be memorialised as best as possible. Many of them walk past the gas chamber in Auschwitz I twice a day, whilst entering and leaving work, so that the reality of what happened at Auschwitz is the first and last thought of the day. And all this important work is continued without fuss, without any notions of martyrdom or self-righteousness. To therefore accuse the Museum's staff of 'rewriting history' is to do them a great disservice. Let's show them the respect they deserve.

1 James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 1993, p. 128.
2 See page 73 of the Museum's 2018 report.
3 Jonathan Huener's book Auschwitz, Poland and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945-1979 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press), 2003, presents a comprehensive overview of the Museum's early exhibitions.