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“Family memory” - discussion at the 75th anniversary of Witold Pilecki’s escape from Auschwitz


“Family Memory” was the topic of the discussion panel held on 28 April at the Auschwitz Memorial in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Witold Pilecki’s escape from the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz. It was dedicated to the significance of the Memory of the camp’s victims in Polish families.


Photo: Marek Lach
Photo: Marek Lach
Photo: Marek Lach
Photo: Marek Lach
Photo: Marek Lach
Photo: Marek Lach
Photo: Marek Lach
Photo: Marek Lach

Among participants were relatives of Auschwitz prisoners: Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, Kazimierz Piechowski, Witold Pilecki, Mikołaj Siemion, Kazimierz Smoleń, as well as grandchildren of Antoni and Katarzyna Piskorek, who helped the prisoners during the war.

- An extremely important question is - what will become of our memory in the future - will it pinch as hard as too tight shoes or will become a signpost towards wise and ambitious goals; a path that we will we thread alone and show to our children and grandchildren. Family bonds have placed our guests so close to the saints, heroes, brave men, Polish patriots. What does their memory mean to you and what can it be for me? - Andrzej Kacorzyk, director of the International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust said during his opening speech.

The discussion was moderated by Marek Zając, secretary of the International Auschwitz Council and chairperson of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Council. The guide to the fates of the heroes of the meeting were selected excerpts from the report of Witold Pilecki.

In the opinion of Marek Zajac, family memory is of paramount importance, as it is usually the first remembrance of the man, and often - due to various dramatic circumstances - perhaps the only memory of a man, which is passed on from generation to generation.

- The family is the primary carrier of memory, also because the family means personal relationship with a man; it means penetrating into his life; it means understanding who was close to us for so many years. The family is also a huge force, operating even against and in spite of death. Many of us remember members of our family even if we did no get to meet each other - but we feel that they are close to us. We are interested in their lives. We know that we are a part of them and we would not be in this world, and would perhaps be different were it not for these people - emphasized, Marek Zając.

We publish below excerpts of guests’ comments.

Krzysztof Kosior - great-grandson of Calvary Capt. Witold Pilecki, co-founder of the underground movement in KL Auschwitz, who escaped from the camp on the night of 22-23 April 1943.

Witold Pilecki seemed to me as a warmly remembered husband and father - a little frantic, who threw huge armfuls of liliac at the window during his courtship of my great-grandmother but at the same time as a father who had very little time to pass anything to his children. They were still very little when the war broke out - then the underground activity, stay in the camp, and again the underground activity. It made these contacts very short.

We are happy that this character took the plunge and that this memory exists. Like a lens, his biography focuses on the fate of Poland in the XX century. This story is even becoming a bit of pop-culture at the moment. I always try to emphasize that for me this character symbolizes all those that we do not know about, or know very little about because Witold Pilecki never acted alone. He built the resistance movement in Auschwitz, but he wouldn’t have accomplished anything alone.

What I try to avoid is to get Witold Pilecki entangled in modern politics, because its beautiful a biography. I always dismiss political questions with the response “please ask Witold”. I wish that all those who learned a thing or two about him would try to comprehend it. The fact that someone has the biggest flag or a shirt with Witold Pilecki’s image does not make them the greatest patriot.

Joanna Wozniak - her great-grandmother was the eldest sister of the mother of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a monk, and Auschwitz prisoner who voluntarily sacrificed his life for another prisoner - Franciszek Gajowniczek - sentenced to death by starvation.

Having a saint in the family is, of course, a reason to be proud, but also some responsibility. For me, Maximilian from the stories of my grandmother and great-grandmother was Mundek because that was what he was called at home. I remember my grandmother telling how he was a naughty boy; he jumped from that wardrobe to the bed, was full of mischief just like every other child. They were all happy he grew up to become such a responsible man, who joined the monastery.

Her was a personality that deviated from the standards of those times, his inventions - the establishment of the Niepokalanów monastery, but most of all the printing house and his travel to a foreign country (Japan) without knowledge of the language all ended in success. He was an extraordinary personality, and we have the unique opportunity to transfer this knowledge.

Daniel Piechowski - nephew of Kazimierz Piechowski, KL Auschwitz prisoner, who escaped from the camp on 20 June 1942.

For me, Kazimierz Piechowski - my paternal uncle - is still a living figure; the more that one and a half year before his death I assumed care over him and tried to provide him with a five-star old age.

Here, when we talk about family memory, we should prior to discussing memory related to his escape, first of all, define the concept of family non-memory; because the family non-memory was not the result of forgetfulness but the result of a decision taken by Kazimierz Piechowski and respected by the family. For several years the topic of Auschwitz was never brought up at home. As a young boy, I only knew that uncle Kazik escaped from Auschwitz and no more was said. At the beginning of 2000, he underwent a transformation. In my opinion, the reason was the moment when he could confront this history. Until that moment, my uncle just as any other man simply tried to live a normal life. The war and the communists robbed him of the best years of his youth. However, the moment came when he began to deal with his past, thanks to the mission he found for himself - telling stories and being a witness to history.

I remember him as a traveller, as someone who treated everyone with respect, with great subjectivity - someone who never wanted to hurt anyone, who is always very careful not to utter any unpleasant word. He is a non-monumental figure, somehow completely unrelated to the escape from Auschwitz.

Monika Siemion-Dudek - granddaughter of Mikołaj Siemion, who was murdered at the Auschwitz camp on 28 October 1942.

Grandpa Mikołaj had seven sons - two were killed by the Germans, and the four youngest always stuck together. Grandpa had a strong personality - he exerted influence on his sons, students and residents of Krzczonów. When they were still little boys, he encouraged them to get the best education possible, and write books. And they have all been writing books since childhood. Each of them wrote and tried to do something useful. The most famous is Wojciech Siemion because Petrykozy has become the centre of cultural life and to date, it is a place where, thanks to Wojciech, cultural life continues to strive, addressed primarily to young people.

Wojciech Smoleń - son of Kazimierz Smoleń, a former prisoner, later director of the Auschwitz Museum

I began working at the Museum as a guide quite early - in 1993. I was 22 years old then. I learned most of my father's camp history as a guide, and I had the opportunity to listen to him when he talked about his pre-war, wartime and post-war history as a guide. At home, we did not sit and talk about Auschwitz. I know him personally as a son, but most of his camp experiences and further history, I learnt not so much from him, but from my mother and people who knew him. When I started working here, I knew virtually all the employees of the Museum. Family memory was, in fact, an everyday thing, but I do not have such experience to gather any information about my dad - someone else has already done that job for me. I have worked here for 25 years - and in a sense, I’m also sustaining the family memory. However, that is not to say that I introduce myself to visitors as the son of a former prisoner. If question arise during a conversation with a group that my father’s story may clarify or explain, then I sometimes talk about it. It is never the essence of guided tours. The story of each prisoner can highlight some aspect of the camp's existence.

Andrzej and Antoni Piskorek - grandsons of Katarzyna and Anotni Piskorek, who helped prisoners of Auschwitz during the war

I remember a few habits my grandmother taught me. During all family parties, everything was organized so that food is never wasted. I remember that when a slice of bread fell, we would scrape off the sand and eat it to the end. Grandma taught us respect for food. Once bread was actually in short supply, and one loaf of bread could mean life - life also for those people they helped. This is the story of ordinary people. In addition to grandma and grandpa, a huge number of people helped the prisoners, and this is an impressive history. There was no question about it - It was just right. They did not flaunt it - for them it was normal.

At the end of the debate, the guests paid tribute to all the victims of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp by placing candles in the courtyard of block 11 at the former Auschwitz I camp.

Soon, the entire debate will be posted on our website.