“Awareness – Responsibility – Future”


“Awareness – Responsibility – Future” was the title of the international educational conference dedicated to education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. It was part of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Prof. Piotr Gliński assumed honorary patronage over the conference.


Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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Photo: Bartosz Bartyzel
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More than 150 persons from 14 countries participated in the conference, including Belgium, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, the United States and Great Britain. The attendees were experts in education at Memorial Sites and Holocaust Museums, as well as historians, teachers, educators and methodologists. The special guests were witnesses to history, former prisoners of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The conference was organised by the International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which organises such methodological reflection meeting every two years.

The problems of the conference were focused on the following issues:

• “Auschwitz Message - particularism versus universalism”
• “Contemporary representation and reception of Auschwitz”
• “Witnesses to the history, depositories of memory”
• “Memory carriers - material evidence and new technologies”
• “Visit to the memorial site as a special educational experience”
• “Shoah, a challenge for the future”

‘The knowledge we received from Witnesses obliges us to debate the challenges of education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust that we are faced with today and in the future. Today, we want to reflect on the current state and historical significance of education conducted in many places of memory,’ said Andrzej Kacorzyk, director of the International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust.

‘The 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was not ‘only an inspiration for us to sum up our educational activities but also to reflect on the message of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, its topicality and significance to today's generations,’ he added.

The conference was opened by the panel led by the secretary of the International Auschwitz Council and the chairperson of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Council, Marek Zając. Participants included Sara J. Bloomfield - the director of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Dr Piotr M. A. Cywiński - director of the Auschwitz Museum and Prof. Alain Chouraqui - director of the Camp des Milles Memorial.

Discussions revolved around issues such as: what questions regarding threats from our surrounding reality are posed by visitors to the Memorials and whether they find answers to these questions? What challenges do the Memorials face in shaping a universal reflection on the Shoah? What are the experiences of Memorials in counteracting xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance?

‘A young man who visits the authentic space of Auschwitz-Birkenau probably does not come into a face-to-face contact in his or her daily life with genocidal policy. Therefore, these strong points of reference that we want to convey to him, should translate into the surrounding reality. However, individual associations that a particular person has here when asking questions, may be unacceptable to others. We believe, however, that after the visit, everyone should be able to rethink about what in his or her life and surroundings poses serious threats, as it may build a sense of personal responsibility for today’s world,’ said Piotr Cywiński.

‘It is very easy to go into generalisations - here, it is about hate, genocide, but it is also about something much more complicated. Why does hatred flourish; why does genocide becomes possible - these are questions about human nature. We strive to make our exhibitions pose questions, not just about history, but also universal questions about ourselves. We try to create exhibitions on broad topics and motifs from the history of the Holocaust in order to motivate people to ask themselves questions,’ said Sara J. Bloomfield.

‘Our responsibility is to ensure a lasting memory of the Holocaust. Camp de Milles Memorial was founded 4 years ago. We work on the basis of several principles, the most important of which is that our research focuses on the usefulness of this contemporary knowledge. Our motto is memory for today. The second principle is to consider the Holocaust as a paradigm that understands the human mechanisms, which their combination makes genocide possible. We try to use a multidisciplinary approach. History is the basis, but also of importance are sociology, psychology, political science, law, etc. We strive to combine the results of research in these areas and from their perspective talk about the history of the Holocaust. We want to show facts, but also relationships between them,’ said Prof. Alain Choraqui.

One of the topics of discussion was the search for a balance between knowledge and emotions during a visit to Memorial Sites.

‘There are educators who obviously try to evoke specific emotions. That to me is counterproductive in the long run. Manipulating emotions is just as bad as manipulating facts in narratives. It is not difficult to bring someone to tears. But that is not the point. I would rather pass through this place in silence - in this way no particular emotion is imposed, and also because in silence everyone can find their own emotions, their own thoughts and decisions. However, I do not think that the narrator's role is to impose emotional states when passing through an authentic place,’ said Piotr Cywiński.

‘The main challenge is the need for a balance between emotion and reflection. And there is also the element of knowledge. These three dimensions: knowledge, authentic place and reflection are closely related. Emotions alone are not the best way of arousing reflection on the topic of responsibility. And when we only invoke reflection on the topic of genocide or human rights, then we overlook the history of people, who suffered, resisted, or fought. It is a huge challenge because emotion today is the main tool that arouses reflection. When we talk of about abstract topics in a dispassionate and intellectual way, we will remain in this place. On the other hand, if we get to the emotions, which trigger the next questions, then an abstract subject becomes human and can reach the heart,’ said Prof. Alain Chouraqui.

‘I believe people usually remember best what they have experienced. An emotional element is needed in this experience. However, in our exhibition, we have taken care to avoid sentimentalization of history. We managed to find a balance between the educational and commemoration element. We wanted the exhibition to make an impression on the visitors, but the emotional experience is also important. Reflection begins with emotion,’ said Sara Bloomfield.  

Special guests of the second panel, titled “Difficult returns ...”, were Auschwitz survivors: Halina Birenbaum, Dr Janina Iwańska, Prof. Zbigniew Kączkowski, Roman Kent and Marian Turski.

‘I was here for the first time in 1965. - quite by accident, because friends asked me to show them the former camp. I told them that I would show them the block I stayed, and the bunk bed on which I slept. At Birkenau, I stood before the gate, so dumbfounded that I was only able to walk in silence to the barracks, where I pointed to my bunk. I could not bring myself to say a word. In the car, from Oświęcim to Warsaw I could not speak but cried all the way. After a few days, I remembered that my parents came to Auschwitz 10 years earlier on an excursion, and for a long time, they did not speak to me about it, only stroking my head occasionally when passing by me. It was only after a few days did my mother say “we saw your braids in Oświęcim. I never returned to Auschwitz again and never encouraged anyone to visit it. I was unable to utter a word there. I consciously returned at the 50th anniversary of the camp’s liberation,’ said Dr Janina Iwańska.

‘I emigrated from Poland in 1946, illegally to Palestine. I returned to Poland after 40 years. However, from the first moment I told my story everywhere. People did not want to hear the story repeatedly. And since 1964, I have been telling this story to children in schools. It was in June 1986, on the way to Oświęcim, I could not bring myself to utter a word or stand anyone’s conservation. Only the view of the roadside cemeteries brought relieve, at their sight I felt most at home... I entered the barrack, it was dark, I squeezed my bare hands on the wooden edge of the bunk bed... And suddenly, as if I had touched an incomprehensible power! The power of the greatest evil and the even greater power of victory over it. Something lifted me in the barrack over all the vanities of the world. It was as if I had surpassed myself and everything. I asked the Israeli guide to take me to someone from the secretariat. From the threshold, I began to spew out, who I am, who I was. I took out my notes from Israel about Auschwitz... the frenzy I roused in them with my tension and haste, I did not even allow them to invite me to the table to sit down. Finally, however, they agreed among themselves and the manager quickly offered to bring a tape recorder ... I was afraid that my group would leave, and I would not get to tell them everything here. I just did not expect that my sudden sobbing would stifle my voice. Never before have I cried when talking about these experiences. Now everything was different, strong - close. Because it was here, on this piece of land, under this sky,’ said Halina Birenbaum.

‘I am 96 years old, and as Ludwik Solski said - at this age, I have the right to forget. I do not remember exactly when it was. I came here for the first time with my wife, whom I showed my escape route from the camp, something that strongly stuck in my memory. About the escape, apprehension, and how I got out of it alive. It’s not the first time I am talking about this today. I have 4 children and 7 grandchildren - each of them wants to be here with me and I have toured the place with each of them. One of the first memories is the meeting with the Museum guides - it was one of my first public accounts. However, I do not avoid telling the stories. I am not a poet - I am a civil engineer by education, but to a lesser extent kept my feet firmly fixed on the ground. I was not so emotional during those visits,’ said Prof. Kączkowski.

‘There is perhaps a difference between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, where the Holocaust and destruction of an entire nation in gas chambers were conducted on an industrial scale. I was in the camp and only knew of what happened there from other people’s accounts. I stayed in Birkenau for some time and was horribly impressed by the constantly fuming crematoria and the smell of burnt bodies. It was horrible and frightening. But I only knew what was going on there from other people’s accounts,’ he added.

‘We are sometimes ascribed a special honour. However, there is nothing honourable in our camp experience - it is an experience that should never have occurred. When I first returned to Auschwitz, I was very quiet, I did not want to talk, I wanted to be alone. I passed through various parts of Auschwitz - from the railway ramps, where the Germans welcomed us and tried to relive the events again. We were locked up with the family in a freight wagon for three days without food. The smell there was horrible. Many children and adults did not survive the journey. I remember that we when the doors opened were blinded by the sun. And then we heard, Alle Raus, Schnell. This command was expected because we very much wanted to leave the wagons but did not know what awaited us. It reminded me of when I came back here for the first time. I wanted to recall that scene, to see it with my own eyes after these years. Today, Auschwitz is longer just a word - it is an expression of evil, the greatest evil that could have befallen mankind at that time. I hope it never happens again. Auschwitz in the near future may become a small footnote in history and for me it would be a great tragedy. We cannot forget about it,’ said Roman Kent. 

‘I was afflicted with amnesia. After all these experiences, I was afflicted by almost total amnesia, but always remembered my first day and could not free myself from the number B-9408. I know many who have tried to erase it, but it did not cause me pain. In this sense, I could not forget. However, besides the episodes it is emptiness. How did I regain my memory? It was a strange story. I went through all the camps with a group of friends. After the war, out of ten persons only six remained. We constantly met on the anniversary of the liberation, which occurred on 9 May in Theresienstadt. One of the ten was Shmuel Krakowski, long-standing director of the Yad Vashem archive, who had a number next to mine. We sat in his flat in Warsaw with our wives. When at a certain point he raised his glasses in a toast - to me. “- Why to me?" - Because you saved my life. In the second part of the Death March, 120 persons were loaded into wagons and for three and half days we were stuck in the wagons. There were 36 corpses in Buchenwald. You remember - we were in the wagon, they threw dead bodies into the corner. And you started to scream - here is my brother. And it was Szmuel Krakowski. I did not remember anything. The next day I came back to him and asked him to recount the events. It was not until half a year later that I decided to go to the Memorial. Then, I went alone, I wanted to cross the road from the ramp towards Kanada and the Saunas. First of all, I went to the places through which I passed,’ Marian Turski recalled. 

The panel “Message of Auschwitz and the Holocaust - particularism vs. universalism” was attended by Prof. Yehuda Bauer, Rabin Irving Greenberg, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, Bishop Grzegorz Ryś and Prof. Nikolaus Wachsmann. They contemplated on what message is derived from the history of Auschwitz and the Holocaust of today and how it has changed over the decades.

‘Personally, I do not believe in the message of the Holocaust and think that besides human suffering it does not convey any message, moral and hope,’ began Prof. Barbara Engelking, who moderated the discussion.

‘We use terms that do not mean anything because we do not like the reality that lies behind them. The Holocaust was a burnt offering to God. It has nothing to do with respect to the Jews. Antisemitism is a nonsense, because there is no Semitism to which one could be in opposition. We talk about United Nations that are not united... We use terminology because we do not like reality. Our concepts are clippings of a much more complicated reality. Instead of adapting abstract concepts to reality, we do the opposite. There is no contradiction in the title of the panel. Every genocide is something specific in a given place. However, all genocides are universal. The Holocaust was a genocide, so it is similar to other genocide in many ways - especially in terms of the suffering of victims. You cannot measure and quantify suffering. Suffering is the fate man, and therefore, it is something that unites the Holocaust and genocide. The Holocaust was not unique, because uniqueness means that it only happened once. But neither the devil nor God unleashed the Holocaust, people did. And given that it was done by people, people may as well repeat it - perhaps never in the same way. However, they may do it in a similar way,’ said Prof. Yehuda Bauer.

‘I believe Prof. Engelking was right in stating that there is no message from the Holocaust. The scale of the event was huge and hence the shock and anger. It is very difficult to talk about it. However, we must remember. Certain events in human history become certain milestone events. We have the book of Exodus for Jews and the life of Christ for Christians. People try to shape their lives through these instructions. We look for such events that direct us. The Holocaust is one of them. Here, we are dealing with pure evil. We cannot argue about what it is and perhaps thanks to that we may be able to work out our direction for the future. Here we are dealing with universalism - they wanted to kill all the Jews, and we have a kind of utopia. If we want to understand where we are going, one of the things that the Holocaust is saying is that development and progress can bring about total destruction on an unprecedented scale. Permission to centralise power in a totalitarian regime leads to death. We should defend ourselves from a totalitarian regime,’ said Rabbi Irvin Greenberg, who dedicated his speech to Elie Wiesel.

‘Sometimes we begin to debate if one pain is greater than the other. Particularism will not take us far, but there are certain aspects of the Holocaust, the way the Germans behaved at certain moments during World War II. Peter Black of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, said that if the Nazis had won, probably there would have been many genocides: The Roma, Mongolians, homosexuals and perhaps many other victims. However, only in relation to the Jews they could not wait for victory. I think this debate has been exhausted. Someone should make a historiography of this discussion. As for the message, that I would not want to call it. Today, the Holocaust has become utilitarian, and different messages are created post-factum. Sometimes dragging on this message, taking advantage of the victims, becomes very negative. It is not a good direction. When teaching about the history of the Holocaust, I never say at the end of the semester that after this semester you will have to do something like that. If students are unable to understand over the course of the semester how this story affects their lives, it means that it was not a successful education. There are various lessons but not the message,’ said Prof. Deborah Lipstadt.

‘I have in mind the example of a person who died in Cracow on 11 August 1945. It was Róża Beger, an Auschwitz survivor who returned to her home in Kazimierz and there died from a bullet that shattered the lock of her door. It occurred during the pogrom in Cracow when terrible things happened. This happened three months after the end of the war. It is hard to believe that people did not know what happened during the war. This incident poses a challenge to us that this message cannot stop such events. This avalanche was triggered by stereotypes and accusations used for ages because the ritual murder slogan was applied here. It was enough to initiate this horrible practice, after which many Jews left Cracow saying that Poland is not their homeland. And stereotype may turn out to be stronger than the entire message. Behind the stereotype lies a responsibility, which we - as a Church must shoulder. The responsibility for the Holocaust is not a responsibility for direct facts and as to who built the Auschwitz camp. The questions are about what happened before and what has happened over the centuries, that such an event was possible. It is a question about all these stereotypes towards the Jews. It happened for centuries. If we do not oppose these stereotypes today, then they will persist even stronger. Stereotype is present, and if we do not contend it with education and showing the Holocaust using specific names, people and faces, then the message of the Holocaust may prove too weak. History must be taken in its entirety because I cannot imagine life without history. It is up to us, which part of history we wish to continue,’ said Bishop Grzegorz Ryś.

‘I would like to concentrate on the importance of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The magnitude of the crime committed was such that thinkers and artists have spent decades thinking about what the message could be. And they found various answers. Prof. Bauman said that the XX century ought to be perceived as the age of the camps. For him, Auschwitz is the dark side of modernity. Hanna Arendt said that the Nazi camps and the gulags were the laboratories of total domination. Psychologists and doctors wrote about the significance of Auschwitz. Some said that there is something about it that shows the human capacity to adapt. We have various, divergent answers. Analysing eyewitness accounts, we see that some of the survivors learned something about absolute evil. Others returned with a completely different understanding, they spoke of solidarity, friendship, faith in another human being in incredibly difficult conditions. So here, we have two completely different conclusions. It seems to me that if we return to the question of the significance of Auschwitz, it is a place where we can find a variety of messages and ideas. But thereof arises the question as to why there are so many answers. There is a divergence between the moral imperative and the actual understanding of the historical past There are several misconceptions at the basic level. The history of Auschwitz is much more complicated and complex, than many imagine. However, it must be borne in mind that the history of concentration camps does not begin with Auschwitz, nor does it end with the liberation of Auschwitz,’ said Prof. Wachsmann.

The second day of the conference began with a panel discussion on the contemporary representation and reception of Auschwitz in the art world. The panellists included Affinity Konar, Prof. Marek Kucia, Prof. Tadeusz Lubelski and Michal Rovner. Then the attendees listened to presentations prepared by the conference participants. They focused on four issues: "Witnesses of the history of the depositories of memory", "Auschwitz and the Holocaust in formal and informal education", “Visit to an authentic memorial site as a unique learning experience" and “Memory carriers and new technologies."

The motto of the final panel was a quote from Elie Wiesel: "I knew that the story must be told. Not sharing experience means as much as to betray." The question as to, whether the memory of the Holocaust shape responsible citizens was debated by Prof. Michael Berenbaum, Andrzej Kacorzyk, Dr Noa Mkayton and Dr Christa Schikorr. The moderator was Anna Miszewska, Director General of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

The international debate was an opportunity to highlight the role of Auschwitz and other memorials and museums in raising awareness on contemporary historical knowledge and moulding attitudes of civic responsibility as well as preventing genocide today and in the future.