“Auschwitz - Never again! – Really?”. Summary of the international educational conference
“Auschwitz – Never again! – Really?” – was the motto of the International Educational Conference, which took place from 1-4 July 2019 at the Auschwitz Memorial. The topics of lectures and discussions concerned education in the context of preventing genocide and crimes against humanity. The event took place under the honorable patronage of Professor Piotr Gliński, Minister of Culture and National Heritage.
“A few years ago, we decided to organize every two years the educational conference representing mostly methodological dimensions. Two years ago, we did not feel yet how this discussion would evolve. We were debating in July 2017, and a little later, in the autumn, it turned out that regular genocide is taking place in Burma. Nothing happened at all. It was to such an extent that in November 2017, the UN General Assembly issued a statement with relation to this genocide, expressing exclusively “deep concern about the reports coming from Burma and referring to serious violations of human rights.” Nothing else happened. After Rwanda, numerous voices appeared that we are doing nothing. As far as Burma is concerned, where over half a million people fled to Bangladesh and 50-60 thousand were killed, there was not even such concern. For this reason, we feel that such a methodological reflection is unnecessary. The reflection that would call everything into question because we did not succeed in something. We did not succeed in it at all”, said Dr. Piotr Cywiński, Director of the Auschwitz Museum, during the inauguration of the conference.
“We should either change something on a global scale, or the memory will lose its ethical significance, as the current state is, to a large extent, ineffective. The world is experiencing huge speed-up which is even difficult to analyze. It is today hard to imagine what will take place in five, ten years. While in the world, these changes are the source of subconscious stress, as it is the only way in which I can imagine the reasons for this new increase in populism. People do not know where we are going, they are anxious, and naturally, politicians suggest easy solutions and topics to them. It is all speeding up in quite an unpredictable direction. In this context, we would like to think of what to change in our teaching about the unimaginable tragedy from over 70 years ago. We cannot rely anymore on the methods dating back to the 1990s, as those times are gone. Between the awareness of the past and building the responsibility we should be introducing to a larger extent, the elements of moral unrest,”, Piotr Cywiński emphasized.
Guest of the inauguration panel were Professor Dan Michman, Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research and Incumbent of the John Najmann Chair of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem; Anna Cave Director of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington as well as Jennifer Wells, Director General of Genocide Watch from George Washington University.
The participants were debating on the issue to what extent Auschwitz and the Shoah and the tragedies from 70 years ago can constitute the key to understanding the present. To what extent can they help us in understanding our current situation? Can one event from the past be compared to other events only because all of them represent genocide? Is such a comparison too difficult or too painful?
“We need to draw conclusions on what happened at Auschwitz and how it can contribute to solving the current situation. Raphael Lemkin coined the term of genocide. For me, it constitutes the fundamental point of reference for the people to be able to understand what we are talking about. Not every crime is the same, but we need to understand what they mean,”, said Jennifer Wells.
“Importantly, the core of the Holocaust did not consist of exterminating all Jews. The Nazis wanted to destroy something that they had called the “Jewish spirit”. According to them, Jewish spirit and Jewish ideas polluted the world. This is what the Nazis were fighting with. What was happening during the Holocaust was the fight with human equality. It is referred to in the convention. If we are emphasizing that the Holocaust was not only a crime, but also the fight with human equality, it will matter from the educational perspective […] Talking about comparisons, we need to think about methodology. Historians are monitoring each case carefully. Genocide is a notion from the field of social studies coined by a lawyer. We screen the development and characteristics of subsequent events and try to find some patterns. On the one hand, it is good, as a tool emerges, but we tend to ignore some characteristics of subsequent cases,”, said Dan Michman.
“Educators should not only stimulate empathy but also ask difficult questions – why and how this happened. In order to analyze our own prejudice, these fields in which we are a little more indifferent. I am convinced that we need an analysis of what is motivating people to act. We need here the involvement of groups, and groups are the collections of individuals. We need to understand how certain things can be perceived within different fields and this is upon what we should be building the strategy. We should not be too optimistic about whether what we know can prevent genocide. I think that we still need to learn a lot. Never again – we should start thinking which aspects should be referred to on an international scale”, said Anna Cave.
The second discussion took place with the participation of survivors, witnesses of different conflicts: Marian Turski, the Auschwitz Survivor, Marin R. Yann, survivor of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields in Cambodia, Mevludin Rahmanovic, survivor of the conflict in Bosnia and the Trnopolje concentration camp as well as Aline Umugwaneza, survivor of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.
They were presenting, among others their earliest experiences connected with persecutions.
“I grew up in Yugoslavia. We were educated to become soldiers and I would listen to the stories about war heroes. When the war began, I was 11 years old, and it was so amazing. For a child it was like a game. It may sound strange, but – having received such education – I was excited. I grew up in one night. My father was an imam. I woke up in the morning and saw him beaten. They attacked our house and we did not feel secure there anymore. I realized that our life is in danger. As a child I used to hear – we are Muslims and they are going to kill us. Nobody would ask about their identity. We left the house and together with my mother and sister, we were sent to a concentration camp. We were Muslims and the Serbs wanted to kill us. I was frightened and I cried all the time because I wanted to be with my father. Once a drunk Serbian soldier said – if you don’t stop crying, I’ll kill everybody. This had a great influence on me. After this experience, I have cried only five times. And I promised myself that no one will ever force me to anything, force me to cry. For this reason, I got involved in activities promoting the peace”, said Mevludin Rahmanovic.
“They would kill all those who looked educated. My younger brother died of starvation, my mother was sick and the soldiers took our father. My sister disappeared without a trace. I was six years old and the only one to survive. I experienced persecution many times. The first time was when I caught an injured bird to eat it. But the Khmer Rouge would accuse us of theft. My mother wanted to cook this bird, but when they saw that we were eating something, they came and accused us of stealing hens. They wanted to kill us all. My mother was beginning them for mercy, arguing with them. I was so frightened that I was shaking. Another time I stole some rice from the warehouse. I was starving, I was 6 years old and slipped into the building to take a few grains of rice. I would chew them to survive. I was caught once. I felt somebody grab my neck and suffocate me. It was a Khmer Rouge soldier. He dragged me out of the warehouse to the field. He forced me to spit all the rice out. I was choking out of pain. He told me to look in his eyes. I was a frightened six-year-old boy. I would only see the whites of his eyes. Then he dragged me to a small water duct and threw me into the water. He asked – do you want to die this way? I shouted: I don’t want to die! He said: look at your shadow. I was shouting: I don’t want to die. He dragged me away from the water. He said: If I see you steal something again, I will kill you and your entire family. I ran away”, said Marin R. Yann.
“For me, personally 1994 was the year when the perpetrators could finish something which had already begun much earlier. It is said that genocide had started from the air crash in which the president died. But it had been prepared before. It was prepared. When the genocide began we knew that each Tutsi may become a victim. Weapons were distributed, the police were trained, lists of Tutsi were prepared. This means that it had been already prepared. We were living next to each other. And suddenly, everything changed. The people with whom you played became your enemies. People were killed from a short distance. They were killed by their neighbors, sometimes even relatives. A father could kill their children because his wife was a Tutsi”, said Aline Umugwaneza.
“While listening to the stories of my co-speakers I am so moved that it seems that what I’m going to talk about will be idyllic childhood. When I realized for the first time myself that I was different. I was a teenager, I was reading the papers, I knew that I was different. I saw anti-Semitic caricatures in the Polish press. I felt it myself when I was going to school. Between my flat and the grammar school there was a unit of the National Radical Camp (ONR). These teenagers – a little older than us – with the symbolic Chrobry’s sword – they were beating us with truncheons. We learned that we could not walk alone, but always in a group. It was when I felt different. The next strong feeling of this kind came already of course after the German invasion – when we were told to start wearing armbands, it was the first stigmatization. Then – we were not allowed to use trams, to walk on certain streets. I remember when I was pushed out of the queue while waiting to buy bread. When the ghetto was established, in order for the people to run to the ghetto quickly, the German shot the residents of two houses at Piotrkowska Street. Great terror began,”, said Marian Turski.
“Our ghetto was totally closed and isolated. Within the first stage, in Łódź – the city incorporated into the German Reich – when we follow the papers of those times – the German would claim that they would manage with the Jews. Sooner or later, it will be possible to annihilate them. The city of Łódź was supposed to be Polenfrei – it was necessary to get rid of the Poles to have enough space for the German. We did not have any opportunity to contact each other,” added Turski.
On the second day of the conference, participants listened to four discussion panels:
“Dangers of the modern world”, in which took part Professor Paweł Śpiewak, director of the Jewish Historical Institute, Professor Ireneusz Kamiński from the Institute of Law Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) as well as Father Patrick Desbois, director of Yahad in-Unum;
“Conflicts in literature” with the participation of writers who are involved in the topic of unfathomable experience and who tell the story of crime, genocide and conflict from the perspective of an individual: Celine Uwineza, Hanka Grupińska and Artur Domosławski;
“Informal educational means which raise awareness”, the hosts of which were Luis Ferreiro, Musealia director, Cécile Allegra, director of the film “Under the skin – A journey into savagery”, Elena Zhemkova, executive director of the “Memoriał” Association as well as Todd Bernstein, head of Global Citizen;
“Preventing crimes and genocide”, in which the panelists were Paul Rukesha, Head of the team for the Development of Digital Content at the Genocide Memorial Site in Kigali, Małgorzata Wosińska, Representative of the Director of Jewish Historical Institute ŻIH responsible for International Cooperation as well as Céline Bardet, lawyer of international law, founder of We Are NOT Weapons of War.
“For decades, we have been listening to the words of the witnesses of history who share with us tremendous knowledge concerning their tragic personal experiences. It is a great distinction, but also a great responsibility, as we are today responsible for sharing their story and their message to the world – in order for such crime not to repeat again”, said Andrzej Kacorzyk, Director of the International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
“I often recall the words of Professor Władysław Bartoszewski relating to the effects of survivors’ efforts for the preservation of memory. He used to say: “we did a lot, but not enough.” Today we see and feel how much of this “not enough” surrounds us and stays in us,” Kacorzyk added.
“It is one of those conferences during which I am learning. The accounts of survivors of different genocides will remain part of our memory. It was for me the strongest experience of this conference. I want to refer to several key issues. For us, Auschwitz has today become the measure of what genocide can be. We refer to Auschwitz and the Holocaust when we are thinking about each specific example of genocide, a war crime, or ethnic cleansing. Each of these crimes is a unique and unrepeatable thing. But thanks to our human characteristic – that we can think and compare, we are able to perceive some shared patterns. Comparing makes sense in order to understand better what we are experiencing”, said Professor Marek Kucia, Head of the council of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
“Crimes and genocide were a fact, they are and unfortunately will be happening. Until humanity lasts. However, we can do something in this context. The first thing is memory. We need to remember past events, including in particular the memory of specific individuals, who the victims were and why they were victims. Without it we will not be able to understand the modern world. This is where historiography matters as science. The second thing is education, but not only teaching about dates and facts but to try to understand why. Our task as educators is to develop critical thinking. We should never stop asking: “why?” Marek Kucia emphasized.