MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

FORMER GERMAN NAZI
CONCENTRATION AND EXTERMINATION CAMP

The first years of the Memorial

In April 1946, the Ministry of Culture and Art (Ministerstwo Kultury i Sztuki – MKiS) sent a group of former prisoners, led by Tadeusz Wąsowicz, to Oświęcim to protect the site of the Auschwitz camp and set up a museum there.At the beginning of 1947, Ludwik Rajewski, the head of the Department of Museums and Monuments in the MKiS, presented an organizational plan according to which the Museum would be a “historical document.”

It was planned to present the extermination of the peoples conquered by the Germans and to highlight the fact that the German atrocities were committed on a mass scale, while steering clear of “the macabre” and using only suitable visual elements. It stressed that the killing of the Jews should be presented in a special way, and that it was necessary to cooperate with the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce – CKŻP) to establish the number of Jewish victims, broken down by country.

The exhibition was planned to consist of three parts: a general section showing the story of prisoners in the camp, an international section devoted to the wartime situations of the countries whose citizens were deported to Auschwitz, and a third section presenting the other German concentration camps. The exhibition was to be located in 12 blocks at the site of the main camp, named here in the order suggested for visitors to follow: the history of Polish-German relations (block 15); the structure and nature of the SS origins of the concentration camps, categories of prisoners, and attitudes of the SS to the prisoners (16); life, labor and death inside and outside the camp (17 and 18); the Destruction of the Jews, officially named “The Extermination of Millions,” since it would also cover the extermination of people from other groups (4); property belonging to the Jewish victims (5 and 6); the history of the camp and the resistance movement in the camp (7); the state of a block in 1940 (8) and in 1944 (9); experiments on prisoners and the life of women in Auschwitz (10); and the interior of the “Death Block” (11). Block 11 and the adjacent courtyard were to be a mausoleum. The remaining blocks were to be placed under the protection of the countries whose citizens died in Auschwitz, or to be used to display information about other Nazi camps.

In this project, Birkenau was supposed to be transformed into a kind of cemetery-park in which it was planned to erect a mausoleum on the ruins of crematorium III. A vocational school with dormitories, in turn, was to be opened in the buildings of the so-called Lagererweiterung, erected near the main camp in 1943-1944. This school would, above all, educate the orphans of former political prisoners. The sites of the sub-camps in Rajsko, Harmęże, and Pławy would be turned into farms that would generate money for the upkeep of the Museum. 

On April 25, 1947, there was a conference in Oświęcim of officials from the (CKŻP), including the director of the Central Jewish Historical Commission (Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna – CŻKH), Natan Blumental. The Jewish delegates conferred with the head of the Department of Museums and Monuments in the MkiS, Ludwik Rajewski, and Museum head Tadeusz Wąsowicz, on the role of Jewish institutions in setting up the Museum. After inspecting the plans for the exhibition, the Jewish delegates asked for blocks 4 and 10 to be put at the disposal of the CKŻP. This request was approved. The CKŻP representatives undertook to prepare one of the exhibits in block 4, with its installation entrusted to Jewish painters and sculptors from the Art Cooperative in Łódź.

The official opening of the Museum was held on June 14, 1947. Only part of the organizational work was completed by that date, and only a part of the planned exhibition was open to visitors.