ROLLING UP MEMORY
WIESŁAWA LEWANDOWSKA: - The truth about this place created by hatred is not only about what happened there but also about what is happening today – Fr. Józef Maj said during the recent conference in Oświęcim. How should we understand it?
WŁADYSŁAW A. TERLECKI: - Today’s problem is that a lot of people in the world, especially in the West, forgot that there was the Second World War, that there was Auschwitz. Whereas Auschwitz is not only the past but also the present and the future.
If those who committed this terrible crime of genocide of not less than 4 million people, are doing everything to remove this number from the register of history, and we agree to it, so, there may easily appear criminals who will want to repeat it – hoping for forgetting and impunity – to a much greater extent.
The fact is that we easily agreed to reducing the number of the murdered in Auschwitz.
We did because we did not have our own strong country which would have defended the truth and remembrance. Therefore we easily forgot about warning- testament of prisoners of Auschwitz: ‘Do not wake up the beast in the man, as once it is woken up, it will not withdraw from anything!’. And today this beast is being woken up in all possible ways. Therefore it is very important to save remembrance about those not less than 4 million people.
Throughout the post-war decades, various ‘new’ researchers estimated this number to nearly about 1 million.
Those who were responsible for the crime did everything to minimize it, blur it in memory. In my opinion only estimations done soon after the war and based on testimonies of both prisoners and torturers are trustworthy. And this number has been questioned. And, in vain, it is at least 20 years since a group of activists have been demanding on organizing an international scientific conference on this issue by Poland.
Like the number of the murdered, the whole terror and the message of this place were blurred in the human awareness...
Unfortunately, that is true. One can say that they were blurred…When 50 years ago we were entering the area of KL Auschwitz, one could still feel that fear, nightmare…I also remember how I was shocked by the words of Fr. Konrad Szwed – a death camp compatriot of Fr. Maksymilian Kolbe – who used to celebrate the Holy Mass every 14 August after the war, on the court of the death bloc: ‘If you wanted to see the Gospel unwritten in books, unpublished, but realized in life, you had to be here, at the time of extermination’.
Whereas others were saying that it was a place deserted by God.
That is not true! People there were related to one another for death and life, according to the rule: ‘One for everybody, everybody for one’, and their everyday experience was mutual help. Prisoners, all of them without an exception, used to say: ‘we were there then – prisoners and them – executioners, nobody divided us, prisoners, so do not divide us today’. And it was the spirit in which they began to organize the museum in Oświęcim, soon after the first meeting of the saved in Oświęcim, which was held on 14 June 1947. Here it is worth emphasizing that the museum was built thanks to the scouting engagement of his first directors – companions Wąsowicz and Szymański, who stood for duty despite their personal trauma connected with this place.
It is 50 years you have been working for the sake of remembrance about the extermination in Auschwitz. Why are you doing it? How did it begin?
Personally I perceive it as a special gift of God’s grace. In 1965 I set off with a group of people at my age on a trekking camp on the route of castles in Silesia, and on the route there was Oświęcim which we visited…We stood in front of the bloc number 12, with a pennant of our team – although we were dismissed from scouting a year earlier. A guard came up to us and seeing our confusion, asked: You would like to know what really happened here, wouldn’t you? He arranged a meeting for us with a former prisoner Tadeusz Szymański, a vice-director and co-founder (together with a scoutmaster of the Lvov Flag Tadeusz Wąsowicz) of the museum in Oświęcim. He was one of the most important people in my life!
I was impressed by his attitude and determination. We stayed three days on the area of the camp – there was an accommodation shelter for pilgrims then – he was telling us stories, explaining and showing….But, first of all, he shared his anxieties with us that ‘the Germans are hosts here again’ – he meant a German action called Sign of Penance which, in his opinion, was to be based not only on penance. At that time he forced us to think on what had happened there and also on what is happening now. He somehow forced us to get engaged, obliged us for social work for the sake of maintaining the truth and remembrance about that place. So, in 1970 we began – despite objection of our families and surprise of our acquaintances – to go to Oświęcim every year as a special working group of about 30 people.
What was this special work based on?
It was a particular work, for example, in the department called ‘collections and storage of collections’ where about 2 thousand suitcases in the bloc number 5 had to be inventoried. However, I think that Tadeusz Szymański did not want this work as much as the fact that we could become the defenders of the truth and remembrance, as a younger generation which had not experienced Auschwitz. The essence of our work in holiday were meetings with former prisoners, still returning where their mates had been killed. We met, among the others, MIeczysław Kościelniak who showed us a place where Fr. Maksymilian had given his speech, later every year we celebrated our ‘little mystery play’ there’….Unfortunately, it turned our quite quickly that our presence on the area of the camp was a nuisance for somebody.
It is difficult to say. The fact is that soon after the second camp time in 1971 we were forbidden to organize other camps. It was seen that something bad was happening if somebody did not like our work, our interest in this place. In the beginning we were informed that we would not be able to use the accommodation for pilgrims, existing on the area of the camp then. In 1971 we hitchhiked to the camp, thanks to good people we found accommodation in the Vocational School of Construction in Oświęcim and we used to go there for the next 12 years. However, it turned out soon that the troubles with accommodation is not the only problem and next year the director of the museum at that time Kazimierz Smoleń forbade Tadeusz Szymański to lead our group.
Was the reason given?
Not at all! And at that time we could not understand what the reason was – we used to go there with sincere intentions. Today we know that an agency of more précised tasks is working there….In my opinion it was the time when the plan of transforming this place into an ordinary museum building was implemented, where visitors will have little time for reflection, as when one begins to look at it too long, one can see the things which cannot be shown any longer…And, unfortunately, we saw those things there, we got to know too much…
So, was it all about actions aiming at ‘rolling up memory’?
At that time we could not name it so we were opposing it. Today I know that there were attempts to lead us. Tadeusz Szymański was allowed to see us in secret from directors. I remember that we were thinking for a long time why the Jewish bloc was closed all the time. Only thanks to the scout Szymański we could see the exposition existing there.
Why wasn’t it made available for visitors?
I do not know. It is excellent both ideologically and plastically. I remember that there was a big board with a text of a telegram of the Jews of a synagogue in Warsaw from the time of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto to Sanhedrin in New York: ‘Brothers! You have not done anything to save us, you betrayed us to the Germans’.
When was this exposition locked with a key created?
We know that the first main exposition was created within a few years and was opened in 1955. The exposition in the Jewish bloc was created as the next one, that is, till the 60s. At that time we were not allowed to tell even the difficult truth…
That is why today it seems that the whole museum became to be possessed by the ideology of Holocaust, which they are cultivating thoroughly, also – or maybe mainly – the Americans ones. When did this post-war segregation of prisoners of Auschwitz begin?
In my opinion this is an issue of the German policy thought out in a cunning way. The whole process was taking place very slowly, beginning with an informal New York agreement between Konrad Adenauer and David Ben Gurion in 1960 under which the Germans offered Israel an enormous amount of money (50-70 milliard dollars) of war damages and military and economic help. In return they received forgiveness for the murder on Jews during the Second World War, which led to the change of attitude of Jewish opinion-makers and changing the direction of German responsibility….to Poland. That plan could have been fully implemented after geopolitical changes, which appeared in Europe after the year 1989. Before that very little was spoken about Holocaust but much more was spoken about the extermination in Auschwitz instead. About the extermination, not Holocaust, just the first exposition about the museum in Oświęcim – prepared by the very prisoners .
And more exactly?
It was subordinated to one truth: it showed prisoners and executioners without any extra divisions. I remember that nearly from the beginning hardly anyone liked it and somebody was ‘tinkering’ something about it all the time. In the 90s, for example, the exhibitions entitled: ‘Criminal medicine of SS’ and ‘Slavery work for German companies’ disappeared. When we were working for the museum in Oświęcim, we always thought that it was forbidden to destroy what prisoners had made here, as it was a testimony which showed the truth the most. Tadeusz Szymański still organized protests and we wrote petitions to the ministry…
Did they bring any results?
We did not lose any hope, although for half a century somebody ‘was improving’ something, correcting history all the time. We associated some hopes for survival of the trend with taking over the post as a director of the National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Piotr Cywiński in 2006. Unfortunately, he quickly made a decision to rebuild the main exposition.
Was it all about modernization?
One can be afraid of not only about it. The fact is that before that a lot of new national exposition had been created in the museum, using new technical possibilities, and as it was argued, on their background the main exposition seems old-fashioned. One problem is that on the main exposition there were shocking evidence of the crime- human hair, clothes, suitcases, etc. – and they are not on the modernized one, only photos, boards. There is not the original leading thought showing the division: we – the prisoners of various nationalities, they – executioners, the Germans.
Don’t such organizations as the Society of Care about Oświęcim, have anything to say in this issue?
Since 1947 a few prisoners’ societies have been functioning, still in the 70s and 80s prisoners were arriving at the camp numerously in order to protest outside the office of the director of that time Kazimierz Smoleń and accuse him of not taking care of the substance of remembrance. At that time prisoners had a lot of power of pressure, today only a few of them are alive….Being founded in 1983, TOnO was to be a respond to concerns expressed by the last alive prisoners of KL Auschwitz in relation to a clearer action of German revisionists.
Now the task of ‘care about Oświęcim’ falls onto the next generations. It is not easy, isn’t it?
It is our deepest tragedy….Prisoners were right to be concerned about what would happen to remembrance about Auschwitz when they would die, because, for example, the former Main Management Board TOnO have been encouraging to terminate the association….It is difficult not to think that there is a strong trend of blurring remembrance about what was happening on the fields of Oświęcim and Brzezinka; the aim is to show as few facts as possible, as few details as possible. A few years ago the president of Oświęcim came up with an idea of making a mound of remembrance about the extermination.
Is it bad?
It is because in a few years this mound hardly saying anything, will become a symbol of the extermination in Auschwitz and will discourage those who are still interested in the museum. Undoubtedly we are dealing with the progressing distraction from the essence of everything, from the truth about Auschwitz.
Nobody can – or maybe want? – to oppose it?
It looks so. There are no longer times when all ‘inhabitants of Oświęcim’ and their families as well as heirs of remembrance were one big family, which could be felt mainly in the atmosphere of the museum in Oświęcim. It used to be a really holy place, where people could cry and pray….Here because of strong emotions people used to faint. It was a real church of martyrdom of one big human family. Now it seems that this place is losing this character….The museum is facing up a more and more difficult task of passing over the truth about KL Auschwitz. And not only because of a bigger and bigger amount of visitors which have doubled to 2 million annually during the last several years…..
Translated by Aneta Amrozik
Niedziela 2/2018 (3 VI 2018)