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Arrested Mourning

Memory of the Nazi Camps in Poland, 1944–1950


Zofia Woycicka

«Analyzing the earliest debates over the memory of Nazi camps, the author makes an important contribution to the study of their origin, reducing the existing asymmetry in our knowledge on the relevant phenomena in Western and Eastern Europe. This is all the more important as the Poles and Polish Jews, whose involvement in the disputes over memory she describes, were the most important group of survivors and eyewitnesses of the camps and so the genuine group of memory.» Prof. Dariusz Stola (Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Science)
«The vast number and variety of sources used in this work create a fascinating picture of a multifaceted, rich, vivid, and at times heated debate conducted in Poland in the late 1940s. A great merit of Wóycicka is to preserve this discourse from oblivion and to bring it back into the public sphere.» Barbara Engelking (Polish Center for Holocaust Research)
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Chapter 5: Disputes over the Method of Commemorating the Sites of Former Concentration Camps

← 192 | 193 → Chapter 5

Disputes over the Method of Commemorating the Sites of Former Concentration Camps

In the previous chapter I discussed which concentration camps and death camps were commemorated in Poland, which ones were not, and the reasons behind these decisions. My analysis shall now turn to the disputes that arose over the form and content of remembrance. To some extent these disputes reflect the discussions and conflicts over the interpretation of the wartime experience, particularly the experience of the camps, which were addressed in the first part of the book. This chapter tackles the question of how the theoretical debates translated into visual forms of remembrance.

The history of the first monuments and museum exhibitions points to a relative pluralism in historical debate during the 1944-1948/1949 period, and to the gradual monopolising of that debate by the authorities towards the end of the decade. Here, too, one observes a departure from the remembrance of crimes and suffering in favour of an “heroic” narrative. Analysing the memorial projects from that period, one also sees how the subject of the Holocaust, which was still present in Polish public debate during the immediate post-war period, gradually became taboo. Many of the controversies described below, however, did not follow the lines of division between particular “memory groups” or political parties; rather, they reflected the broader crisis of European culture caused by the experience of the Second World War—an experience for which the traditional arsenal of forms and symbols had no adequate means of expression. It is no surprise, therefore, that similar discussions were taking place concurrently in other parts of Europe.

“Evidence of Crimes” or “A Collection of Curiosities”?

For many people in Poland and in other European countries there was an obvious need to commemorate the sites of former concentration camps and to create museums that would document the crimes which had taken place there. Yet no prototype existed for the “museums of martyrdom” established soon after the war. Hitherto, the purpose of historical museums had been rather to commemorate the positive events in the history of a given community. In the modern era, writes ← 193 | 194 → Krzysztof Pomian, museums have become temples of secularism in which “the nation gives perpetual homage to itself by celebrating every aspect of its past, each and every one of its social, geographical and professional groups which it believes has contributed to its general prosperity, and all the great men born on its soil and who have left lasting works in every domain imaginable. Even objects from other societies or from nature render the nation which has collected them more illustrious, since this shows it has recognized their value, via its artists, scholars, explorers, even its generals, and has even been able to make sacrifices in order to acquire them.”1 By contrast, in the history of those “traumatic places” (traumatische Orte)—a term used by the German historian Aleida Assmann to describe the sites of former concentration camps—it was difficult to discern a positive message.2 Even when attempts were made to turn former concentration camps into symbols of the victory of good over evil, of Slavs over Germans, or of socialism over fascism, capitalism and imperialism, they nonetheless remained places of crimes and suffering above all else. Already in the 1940s there was an awareness that the Auschwitz Museum was a museum “the like of which has never existed on this earth before” and that it had “no prototype or precedent in history”.3

Very soon it also became apparent that, contrary to expectations, the remnants of former camps did not speak for themselves, that their authenticity might not just facilitate but also hinder the transfer of historical knowledge. More than half a century later, this problem is still present. Ruth Klüger, a former inmate of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz-Birkenau, writes about it as follows:

I once visited Dachau with some Americans who had asked me to come along. It was a clean and proper place, and it would have taken more imagination than your average John or Jane Doe possesses to visualize the camp as it was forty years earlier. Today a fresh wind blows across the central square where the infamous roll calls took place, and the simple barracks of stone and wood suggest a youth hostel more easily than a setting for tortured lives. Surely some visitors secretly figure they can remember times when they have been worse off than the prisoners of this orderly German camp. [...] Sure, the signs and the documentation and the films help us to understand. But the concentration camp as a memorial site? Landscapes, seascapes—there should be a ← 194 | 195 → word like timescape to indicate the nature of a place in time, that is, at a certain time, neither before nor after.4

Although the problem of how to communicate the experience of the camps in an authentic way might have seemed less pressing in the 1940s than it does today, when the last witnesses to those events are dying out, the issue was nevertheless a subject of public debate.

Both in Poland and abroad, many concentration camps were opened to the public soon after liberation. In areas of Germany and Austria occupied by the Americans, mandatory visits to concentration camps were organised for local people, who were also employed to bury the corpses of the victims.5 This was an element of the “re-education” programme for German and Austrian society. In the eastern occupation zone of Germany, and in Poland, too, German civilians and Wehrmacht soldiers frequently participated in the exhumation of bodies and in the cleaning up of former concentration camp sites.6 At the same time, the sites became places of pilgrimage for Poles who wanted to see for themselves evidence of the crimes that had been committed there and to honour the dead. However, once the former inmates had left, the corpses of the victims had been buried and their possessions removed, the sites soon lost their aura of horror. For those who had not experienced incarceration themselves, the sites became incoherent. Therefore, exhibitions documenting Nazi crimes were set up in the camps soon after their liberation. These first “museums of martyrdom”, in the creation of which former inmates frequently participated, were often highly explicit and extreme. As early as in 1945, in Dachau and Buchenwald, both of which had been liberated by the Americans, there were exhibitions in which life-size models dressed in prisoners’ striped uniforms or SS uniforms demonstrated the use of instruments of torture.7 Propaganda films, posters, and information brochures distributed throughout the western occupation zones of Germany showed shocking photographs of victims’ remains or the emaciated bodies of survivors, often accompanied by captions that blamed German society for these atrocities.8

Soon it was realised, however, that such ghastly images were not fulfilling their desired educational purpose, and far from eliciting remorse they aroused ← 195 | 196 → disbelief and defensive responses in the viewer, which, in turn, led to the relativisation of crimes and the abrogation of personal responsibility. As early as in May 1945, General Omar Bradley advised Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of the US occupation forces in Germany, to close Buchenwald to the public. Bradley claimed that, despite the life-size models placed around the camp, Buchenwald no longer made a convincing impression now that the human corpses had been removed and the survivors had been transported to hospital:

Buchenwald Concentration Camp has been completed to such an extent that very little evidence of atrocities remains. This negates any educational value of having various groups visit this camp to secure first hand information of German atrocities. In fact, many feel quite skeptical that previous conditions actually existed.9

Bradley’s concerns about the effectiveness of such educational methods were confirmed a month later when the Psychological Warfare Division commissioned the sociologist Morris Janowitz to conduct a survey of German reactions to an information brochure containing photographs of concentration camps liberated by the Americans.10 Janowitz’s analysis showed that the majority of respondents either questioned the credibility of the publication or—if they accepted the facts contained therein—denied all personal responsibility and attributed all the blame to the leaders of the Third Reich. In the absence of an alternative strategy, however, the propaganda campaign was continued despite the unsatisfactory results. The American experience was a negative point of reference in Polish debates on the commemoration of former concentration camps.

Although similar museums and publications in Poland were directed at a different audience and were not intended to arouse feelings of guilt or responsibility but rather to commemorate the victims and bring the perpetrators to justice, here, too, the realities of camp life were recreated in the most vivid way possible. In one of the first designs for the Majdanek Museum drawn up in November 1944—thus, nearly six months after the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald—Antoni Ferski wrote: “What took place in the death camp will be visually recreated by means of wax figures in all the places of execution.”11 The director of the museum planned to include the following scenes, among others: “several people with a look of fear in their eyes, dressed in striped uniforms, standing before a Gestapo officer holding a whip, while beside him a dog tears at the body of one of the unfortunates”; “a Gestapo officer snatching an infant from its mother’s arms”; “several people ← 196 | 197 → lying dead in a gas chamber, poisoned by Zyklon B”. Such an arrangement, Ferski explained, would make visitors aware of “the enormity of the terror which prevailed at Majdanek” and enable them to feel as if they had been prisoners themselves. “A visitor to the museum will experience the horror of a day in the camp, whose purpose was to exterminate non-German people.”


Interior view of the first exhibition at Majdanek, opened in September 1945 (courtesy of APMM).

Whether on moral and aesthetic grounds, or for financial reasons, Ferski’s design was never fully implemented. However, at the first exhibition, which opened at Majdanek in September 1945, life-size models depicting camp inmates were used.12 Concerns were raised in the Polish press that such a method of presenting the history of the camp might provide fuel for sensation seekers and lead to the profanation of places rightly regarded as symbolic—and in many cases, actual—cemeteries of the victims of Nazi terror. In an article for Tydzień [The Week], Jerzy Wyszomirski relayed his impressions from a visit to Majdanek in September 1946:

There are decaying shoes and sets of striped uniforms with the appropriate letters and symbols sewn on, and a burial mound built of “compost” with a cross on top. In the ← 197 | 198 → huge barrack, which once housed the shoemakers’ workshops, numerous “exhibits” are to be found: lists of the deceased, charts, statistics, miscellaneous objects, pictures, prints, photographs, skulls, Zyklon B canisters, etc. There are also life-size figures of prisoners (of wax? plaster? plasticine?), to whose faces the artist has rather primitively given a look of exhaustion and suffering. Amongst these figures are a Jew and a Pole, and a woman with a small child, all dressed in regulation prison uniform and wearing clogs on their rotting feet. From a distance they give the impression of living people—or, rather, of ghosts from the afterworld; up close, instead of sympathy and compassion, they evoke horror and disgust.13

Majdanek, lamented Wyszomirski, far from being a “symbol of suffering and despair”, recalled the “Musée Grévin and Les Oubliettes in Paris, where for a few francs one could observe various macabre scenes: medieval torture, wax figures being torn apart by horses, wax effigies being guillotined (as if they were living people), etc.”.

These initial negative experiences meant that, when planning further exhibitions both at Majdanek and at Auschwitz, care was taken not to shock visitors with atrocities. The Auschwitz Museum, declared a proposal published in June 1947 in Wolni Ludzie, “must bear witness to the truth without creating a horror show or a Grand Guignol through the use of visual effects”.14 Direct reference was also made to the American propaganda campaign in the western occupation zones of Germany. In an article published in Robotnik to mark the official opening of the museum, Wanda Kragen praised its creators because they had:

rejected the facile approach: the overt presentation of the horrors which prevailed at the camp, the approach of the Grand Guignol or some sort of American Museum of Second World War Atrocities—in other words, the presentation of facts through the use of, for instance, wax figures to illustrate flogging, hanging, reverse hanging, the “standing cell”, execution by firing squad, or even suffocation in a gas chamber, or to show people as walking skeletons. That would defeat the purpose and undermine the gravitas of this type of museum. Instead, [the creators of the museum] have chosen a more difficult path, one that engages the viewer’s imagination, namely, the path of meticulous documentation, of statistical graphs and maps revealing the Germans’ plans for the expansion of the camp, and of exhibits in the form of inanimate objects as the only vestiges of living beings.”15

← 198 | 199 → Stanisław Stomma also appreciated the “realism and discretion” of the Auschwitz exhibition. In an article published in July 1947 in Tygodnik Powszechny, he wrote: “Auschwitz needs no retouching, nor does it require anything designed to create a particular mood. It is enough to show people the truth. That is why, as far as is possible, we should leave Auschwitz just as it was. Facts alone convey the most powerful message. And the tragic pathos of facts does not need to be supplemented or enhanced through the creation of a particular mood by ersatz means. Otherwise, successful artistic ideas will only weaken and distort the message conveyed by naked facts.”16

However, the Auschwitz exhibition came in for criticism, too. Some observers doubted whether the remnants of the camp, now tidied up and restored, would properly communicate the truth about Nazi concentration camps in general or whether, on the contrary, they would belittle the crimes that had been committed there. In a text published in the autumn of 1948 in Przekrój [The Review], Kazimierz Koźniewski argued that once the generation that knew Auschwitz from personal experience had died out, it would be necessary to close the museum and even dismantle the camp buildings, leaving only a symbolic cemetery in their place. Even now, claimed Koźniewski, the museum was unable to convey the true horror of Auschwitz; visitors could only see the “external framework” of the camp, which diminished its importance: “One could introduce entirely different content into this very same framework […]. The essence of Auschwitz was the system of mass murder. That is why it is inappropriate only to show the external elements; to preserve, in a mechanical way, the layout of the bunks, the innocuous signs, the paths, the blocks, even the barbed wire, whilst ignoring the realities of camp life. Many things have vanished: the mass of human beings, the terrible overcrowding, the squalor, the noise, the SS officers executing inmates on the slightest whim. There is no hunger or fear, no mutual suspicion or recrimination; human suffering is absent. All that remains is manicured lawns and cavalry barracks.”17 According to Koźniewski, another reason why Auschwitz made such an innocent impression was the fact that everything had been tidied up and repaired. The paradox lay in the fact that “the museum requires restoration, yet horror is not something that can be restored”. For this reason Koźniewski felt that the completely neglected Birkenau had a far stronger impact. “This is an unresolvable contradiction,” he concluded. “Despite its apparent authenticity, Auschwitz as a museum does not do justice to the real Auschwitz; it falsifies it. Former inmates are deluding themselves if they think that the world looks at the camp through their eyes; the world looks at it differently with each year that passes, as it recovers from the sickness of war and Nazism. Ever fewer people will believe in the truth about Auschwitz, the ← 199 | 200 → truth about that system, when they visit the museum. Indeed, the museum dispels even the horror of legend. And therein lies the danger.”

Koźniewski’s article provoked a lively response from the ex-prisoner community and museum staff alike. The notion that the institution would eventually need to be closed raised the greatest concern. As one appalled reader wrote in a letter to the editor of Wolni Ludzie, the closure of the museum would “most definitely appeal to ‘denazified’ war criminals!”18 At a meeting of the Expert Committee of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites held in November 1948, Jan Sehn compared Koźniewski’s idea to the SS wishing to eradicate all traces of their crimes.19

Nevertheless, there were voices in support of Koźniewski as well. Some suggested that the PMOB should be closed down as soon as possible and the land returned to its pre-war owners, who had no means of supporting themselves20; others challenged the very idea of creating that kind of institution. If the Auschwitz Museum was not just “one big mistake”, read a contribution to Kuźnica [The Forge] published in the autumn of 1948, then at least the view, “which many of our ‘patriots’ endorse”, that the museum should be seen by every foreigner, was simply mistaken.21 The author of the text shared Koźniewski’s belief that it was impossible to recreate the horror of Auschwitz; without it, he argued, the museum appeared “dull” and “tedious”, especially to those who had no emotional connection with the camp, and did not arouse the expected response in the visiting public.

Other participants in the debate took a more measured approach, but they too, following Koźniewski, claimed that the PMOB was not fulfilling its intended educational purpose and only had meaning for former inmates. In an article for Wolni Ludzie, Jerzy Krygier wrote that the Auschwitz Museum had been designed, on the one hand, “as a memorial to those who survived and to those who perished” and, on the other, as a record of Nazi crimes.22 Unfortunately, and in Krygier’s view—entirely predictably, it had only been possible to achieve the first of these aims. For it was not possible “to preserve a festering wound on a healthy organism. Sooner or later it will heal, leaving only a barely visible scar.” Krygier’s solution, therefore, was to “cease to preserve the remnants of Auschwitz by artificial means. And not only that. We should eliminate everything which—as practice ← 200 | 201 → shows—affects people who have no direct experience of the camp differently than was intended.” This would not be tantamount to forgetting Auschwitz: the open-air museum could be replaced by an historical museum based on documentation gathered by the GKBZNwP and by a huge mausoleum dedicated to the memory of the victims or a giant cemetery. Eugenia Kocwa, too, was concerned that the Auschwitz Museum might not be able to communicate the horror of the place and that it risked becoming a “macabre collection of curiosities”. In Auschwitz, wrote the former Ravensbrück inmate, it was above all necessary to honour the memory of the victims; a museum, on the other hand, particularly a museum of crimes, was an artificial construct compared to a cemetery, which is perhaps why the idea of it “finds little public support”.23

Although they rejected the idea of closing the PMOB, certain other authors agreed that the museum needed to be redesigned. In the autumn of 1949, a long article by Jan Paweł Gawlik appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny, in which the author drew attention to the fact that Auschwitz would increasingly be visited by people who had no personal experience of the war or occupation and that the museum should be adapted to suit the needs of such people. We, contemporary Poles, he wrote:

survived six years of occupation. We witnessed the mass executions of Jews. We were in Majdanek a few days after its liberation, and as we approached the crematorium, taking care not to tread on the corpses, we realised that the piles of coarse grey powder next to the ovens were in fact piles of human ash. After all those experiences, today, standing within the walls of the museum and seeing the intact accessories of crimes, we are able to imagine what went on and the horror of those days. But could the same be said of the sceptical Englishman, American or Swiss, for whom [Wanda Jakubowska’s] The Last Stage is just exalted hyperbole? Future generations raised in an atmosphere of respect for others—generations who did not experience the Nazi occupation of Poland at first hand—will not understand the meaning of Auschwitz on the basis of memorabilia as they are shown in the museum.”24

The Auschwitz Museum, warned Gawlik, should clearly not become a “cabinet of horrors”; uninformed tourists had to be introduced to the history of the place somehow. For this reason, the open-air museum needed a conceptual framework. The remnants on display had to be accompanied by a thematic exhibition consisting of expert commentaries, documents from the period, and witness testimonies. Only after viewing this exhibition “should the visitor be confronted with the authentic remnants, for then he will not approach them with feather-brained curiosity, as is often the case now. He will stand before them as if before a holy relic.”

The defenders of the museum, the majority of whom were staff and former inmates, emphasised that the camp was above all a place of pilgrimage for the families ← 201 | 202 → of the victims, who visited the “Auschwitz open-air museum” in order to learn about the conditions under which their loved ones had lived and died. They also argued that Auschwitz I had been a model camp (Musterlager) and that during the war it had been much more orderly than at present.25 Indeed, this orderliness had precisely been one of the instruments of terror. Koźniewski’s scepticism “relates not only to paths and flower beds, but also to the varnished doors, the freshly painted walls, the impeccable tidiness and the fragrant cleanliness”, replied Konstanty Przybysławski, a former Auschwitz inmate. “If he had seen those same walls, window frames and doors when the camp was operational, he might complain to the museum management that previously the blocks were more meticulously maintained, except that in those days you could pay with your life for damaging the French polish […] Signs such as ‘Remove Your Hat’ may seem innocuous to the author of the reportage, but back then failure to comply would have resulted in severe head injuries at the very least.”26 For Wincenty Hein, another inmate, it was precisely the contrast between the appearance of the main camp on the one hand, and “the dry numbers of victims”, “the mass of spectacles, suitcases, etc.” on the other, that revealed the true horror of Auschwitz.27 And in any case this was a simplification, since the items in question did not originate from Auschwitz I but from Birkenau and belonged to Jews who had been exterminated there.

But even the advocates of the PMOB agreed about one thing: that the museum, just as film, art and literature, was not able to recreate the “aura of death” which had permeated the camp. The Auschwitz Museum, wrote Tadeusz Korczak, “does not reveal the horror of the camp, nor do a few barracks in Birkenau. Works of art will likewise fail in this challenge. From the moment the smoke ceased to billow from the crematoria chimneys, nothing would ever be able to represent the horror as it truly was.”28 It was also emphasised that the museum’s task was not to recreate the atmosphere of those days but to impart knowledge about Nazi crimes. According to Hein, “the Auschwitz Museum is not meant to be a temple of horror or an exclusively emotional experience. Its essence and purpose is to accumulate documentary evidence and materials relating to the concentration ← 202 | 203 → camps, with their dry and dispassionate eloquence, emphasised solely by authentic, external accessories. For this reason it is not, and has never been, the intention or the responsibility of the museum management to preserve all the accessories that accompanied ‘that life’ and ‘that horror’. By maintaining, within certain limits, the external framework of the camp in the form of blocks, signs, barbed wire, etc., the intention was not to evoke or to recreate the horror of those times but rather to give an idea of the external appearance of the camp at ‘a given time’.” There was widespread agreement, however, that the permanent exhibition needed to be supplemented with statistical data, documents, and witness accounts. For, as Konstanty Przybysławski noted, although the remnants of the camp were an important aid to the imagination, they could not replace historical data. The PMOB staff gave assurances that the current exhibition was merely the germ of a future museum. However, the PMOB faced serious financial and staffing problems, and the deadline for completing the work was continually put back.

Similar discussions on the desirability of preserving camp remnants were taking place in regard to Mauthausen in Austria. In this debate, analogous arguments were used. Concerns were raised that the camp buildings had completely lost their original appearance as a result of restoration. Some authors even accused the people and institutions responsible of deliberately erasing the evidence of crimes. As Perz claims, these accusations were in part justified, as the method used to restore the camp remnants did not meet conservation standards.29 On the other hand, the equally widespread view that concentration camps had always been dirty and unkempt was also mistaken. While SS structures still operated smoothly, writes Perz, Mauthausen resembled a “tightly-run barracks” (straff geführte Kaserne), as did other concentration camps. The staff tried to give the camp an idyllic appearance, although the maintenance of order was itself an instrument of terror, a fact noted in the debates which took place in the second half of the 1940s. It was only just before liberation that Nazi camps fell into chaos. “Thus, the outward appearance of a concentration camp […] did not reflect, in any simple fashion, the crimes committed within,” writes Perz. “To negate the dissonance between the monstrosity of those crimes and the restored remnants of the camp’s physical structure would have amounted to consciously opting for a strategy of complete and utter staging.”30

In the discussions over Mauthausen, serious doubts were also raised about whether the camp experience could be communicated at all. Thus, for instance, in an article entitled “If the Mauthausen Memorial Could Speak” (Wenn das Mahnmal Mauthausen sprechen könnte), published in the spring of 1949 in Linzer Tagblatt, the author cites a (no doubt spurious) conversation between a tourist visitor to the camp and a former inmate:

← 203 | 204 → “Please tell me.” But the man, a former Mauthausen inmate, shakes his head. “How could I explain it to you? It cannot be described, or shown, even in approximate terms. Over there is a fake sanatorium that the Nazis wanted to show to people who visited the camp. And the reality? Listen, even the sun shone differently back then….”31

Just as in Poland, the debates in Austria cannot be completely separated from the political context. Austrian society, admits Perz, was rather reluctant to commemorate Mauthausen, and for this reason some of the statements should be seen as attempts to repudiate the very idea of building a museum. Harold Marcuse recounts a similar debate which took place in the West German press in 1951/1952 over the exhibition in Dachau.32 In this instance, the people who initiated the debate wished to see the closure of the museum, which was inconvenient for the Bavarians, and succeeded in doing so. Nevertheless, the fact that similar issues were raised simultaneously in various corners of Europe, and on both sides of the Iron Curtain, suggests that these debates cannot merely be put down to political infighting; rather, they should be seen as expressions of the universal problem of how to commemorate “traumatic places”. Stalinism brought the whole process to an end. In November 1950, with the opening of a new, purely propagandist exhibition at Auschwitz, the problem of how to communicate the experience of the camps ceased to be a pressing concern for the museum staff.

Cemeteries or “Battlefields”?33

In the words of Jonathan Webber, Auschwitz is “not a museum, even though it seems on the surface to be a museum; it is not a cemetery, even though it has some features of a cemetery; it is not just a tourist site, even though it is often full to overflowing with tourists. It is all these things at once.”34 The place thus belongs to the realm of both the sacred and the profane, and the same is true of other Nazi concentration camps and death camps. In the immediate post-war years, therefore, it was natural that the manner in which those places were commemorated, and the ceremonies which took place there, took on a religious character. Indeed, religious symbols were a common aspect of remembrance in the second half of the 1940s. Monuments commemorating mass graves, places of execution or members of a community killed or murdered during the war, were also very often religious in ← 204 | 205 → nature. Such monuments were erected all over Poland, usually as a result of grassroots initiatives.35 Almost all the events at Majdanek and Auschwitz, as well as at other former concentration camps and prisons, were accompanied by religious ceremonies. Between 1945 and 1948, a regular feature of “Majdanek Week” was a requiem mass that took place on the site of the former camp.36 As part of the event, other religious faiths also held services in the nearby city of Lublin.37 The opening ceremony of the Auschwitz Museum on 14 June 1947 began with Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish prayers said by religious leaders from all four denominations.38

Former Nazi camps became places of pilgrimage on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.39

From the outset, the Polish authorities not only tolerated but actually encouraged the use of religion to commemorate wartime places of execution. The two institutions principally responsible for remembrance were the Department for Museums and Monuments of Polish Martyrdom at the Ministry of Art and Culture and the ROPWiM, the latter having been established in the summer of 1947; the commemoration of Jewish martyrdom was largely left to the CKŻP. The authorities sought to standardise forms of remembrance across Poland. According to Zbigniew Mazur, by using the same designs for plaques and monuments the authorities wanted to emphasise the mass nature of the crimes and the idea of a nation joined in suffering.40 However, such homogeneity also made it easier to scrutinise grassroots initiatives. Control was stepped up during the summer of 1948. In a circular sent out in July, the PZbWP’s Executive Board informed members ← 205 | 206 → that pursuant to a new resolution all monuments, exhibitions, publications, and lectures on the subject of “the struggle and martyrdom of the Polish nation” would require the approval of the Department for Museums and Monuments of Polish Martyrdom and the ROPWiM.41


Holy Mass celebrated in the yard of Block 11 in Auschwitz during the official opening of the museum, 14 June 1947 (courtesy of APMAB).

Already in the summer of 1945, the Department had launched a campaign for the temporary commemoration of wartime places of execution.42 These makeshift memorials were to comprise a wooden cross entwined with a crown of barbed wire made to resemble thorns, as well as a commemorative plaque. The Department sent out letters to provincial offices in which it encouraged the public to erect throughout Poland monuments commemorating the victims of Nazi crimes, ideally in accordance with the enclosed design. As Mazur notes, the design combined both religious and national elements. By supplementing the cross with a crown of thorns, the idea was to emphasise that the victims had died as martyrs, ← 206 | 207 → giving their life for their faith and the Fatherland. The message was reinforced by the inscription on the plaque: “This place is sanctified by the blood of Polish martyrs fighting for freedom”.43 The design alluded to the iconography which had been used in contexts such as the Information Bulletin—the official newspaper of the Polish Underground State. It appeared to meet the public’s expectations and did not differ much from unofficial commemorative designs, with one caveat: it seems—though this would need to be confirmed by further research—that the memorial crosses which arose through grassroots initiatives were devoid of heroic elements in the form of a crown of thorns or a relevant inscription.

Religious symbolism was used not only by Catholics but also by members of other faiths. I mentioned earlier the Jewish, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox services conducted in Lublin and at Auschwitz. The modest monuments that accompanied the Jewish exhibitions created by the CKŻP in Auschwitz and Majdanek in 1946-1947 also contained many references to Judaism, including a nine-branched candelabrum (hanukiah), a Star of David, a flying dove, and running deer.44 In the case of Jewish culture, however, it is hard to distinguish clearly between religious and national symbolism. The Star of David, in particular, may be seen as a symbol identifying both the faith and the nationality of the victims.45

It is worth noting that the sanctification of former concentration camp sites was characteristic not only of Poland but also of other European countries, including Austria and Germany.46 The most obvious example is Dachau. At the turn of 1945/1946, members of the SS who were interned in Dachau constructed a Catholic church nearby. The project was initiated by Father Leonhard Roth, a former inmate of the camp and chaplain to the interned men.47 In 1949, the mass graves of Dachau victims located on Leiten hill on the outskirts of the town were commemorated with a cross and a Star of David.48 Finally, in the years 1960-1967, a Carmelite convent was established in the immediate vicinity of the camp, and within its perimeter Catholic and Protestant chapels as well as a Jewish memorial ← 207 | 208 → building were built49; to this day, these constitute the central elements of the landscaped memorial.

As the German scholar Insa Eschebach notes, “in the modern age, sanctification should be seen as typical method of dealing with death caused by violence”.50 Its primary function is to lend transcendental meaning to death, which enables traumatic experiences to be overcome. Sanctification also attempts to restore dignity to the victims—the very dignity denied to them by their torturers. In the immediate post-war years, the purpose of lending a religious character to the sites of former concentration camps was to raise their status and prevent their desecration. As Jerzy Wyszomirski suggested, “in order to protect Majdanek against sensationalism and vulgarity, it must be given more solemnity. [...] I am neither excessively religious nor a practising believer. I am a philosophical Christian, and I think that Majdanek is, in the final analysis, a cemetery. [...] Aside from a museum, a few small shrines could be built—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim shrines—to commemorate the people of those faiths who perished at Majdanek, in many cases, no doubt, with prayer on their lips. Such shrines would perhaps highlight the fraternity of nations […] and strengthen the symbolism of Majdanek. Furthermore, they would add solemnity and majesty, which frankly might otherwise be lost amongst the hustle and bustle of inquisitive tourists.”51 Similar proposals were made in regard to Auschwitz. Jan Paweł Gawlik, for instance, lamented the absence of a chapel within the museum: “The matter having of a place of worship in a cemetery of millions of people is hardly trivial. The followers of at least four religions have the right to say prayers here for the souls of their loved ones.”52

This ecumenism proved to be largely declarative. Although elements of Jewish iconography could be noticed at the sites of former concentration camps, Christian symbolism, and its associated conceptions of death, was dominant both in Poland and abroad. One of the most flagrant examples of the Catholic majority’s disregard of victims of other faiths, particularly Jews, was the cross placed on the ruins of one of the crematoria in Birkenau before the official opening of the museum in June 1947.53 The cross was also the central element of the first ← 208 | 209 → exhibition opened in 1946 in the basement of Block 4 in Auschwitz I; it was set at the end of a colonnade, at the sides of which victims’ belongings brought from Birkenau were displayed on low platforms.54


Official opening of the State Museum at Auschwitz, 14 June 1947. A ceremony by the remains of one of the crematoria in Birkenau. In front of the ruins a cross with a crown of thorns is visible (courtesy of APMAB).

Klaus-Peter Friedrich is probably right to claim that the purpose of many of these projects was to blur the identity of the victims.55 Thus, for instance, in a letter to the editor of Tygodnik Powszechny, one reader demanded that a huge church be erected within the Auschwitz site, since, he argued, most of the victims of the camp had ← 209 | 210 → been Catholics: “Published memoirs and the stories of former inmates alike tell us about the religious experiences of those who survived the camp, and the famous crosses scratched onto plaster by people condemned to death are a stark reminder of what religion meant to the prisoners.”56 The spires of the church, according to the reader, would be a symbol of “the victory of good over evil and would express gratitude to God for ending the long night of captivity”. It would be simplistic to claim, however, that the Christianisation of places of remembrance was always part of a deliberate attempt to “dejudaize” or even to “polonize” the victims of concentration camps. From the perspective of Polish Catholics—for whom, despite centuries of coexistence, the world of Judaism remained entirely alien—raising a cross seemed to be the most obvious way to commemorate the victims. For many, the cross was not so much a religious symbol as a centuries-old means of honouring the dead. As Zofia Żorecka wrote in a commentary to the aforementioned exhibition in the basement of Block 4 in Auschwitz I, the cross had become “a universal symbol, the most dignified symbol of suffering, regardless of faith.”57


First exhibition in Auschwitz, probably opened in the summer of 1946 in the basement of Block 4. It is this exhibition that Zofia Rosensztrauch was referring to in her complaint that Jewish liturgical items such as prayer shawls and phylacteries were on display against a background of crosses (courtesy of APMAB).

← 210 | 211 → In another article, Jan Paweł Gawlik proposed that in order to convey to visitors the sheer number of victims of Auschwitz, four million crosses should be erected within the Birkenau site.58 In light of this proposal, Gawlik’s earlier declaration that Auschwitz should not become “a chauvinistic institution of Polish martyrdom” appears somewhat less than sincere.59 It is clear from his other proclamations that Gawlik was perfectly aware that the majority of Auschwitz victims were Jews. However, his proposal can also be interpreted in another way: not as a deliberate attempt to blur the identity of the victims but as the most obvious means—in Gawlik’s view—of commemorating the dead, irrespective of their faith or nationality. This is also how Eugenia Kocwa interpreted the proposal. She was one of very few to see the idea as problematic, yet she supported it nonetheless:

It does not matter that many of those who died there did not consider the cross as their emblem. The cross is not just a symbol of a Christian idea—it is an emblem of suffering. Those who died a martyr’s death are deserving of the cross. [...] Let us look upon them as people who were denied the right to life by an inhuman ideology, and let us celebrate their memory in the manner that centuries-old tradition teaches us to commemorate the dead.60

Putting up crosses in a place of execution, Kocwa continued, “would not be at all artificial. It would be a long-accepted means of honouring the departed; it would give their anonymous and debased death the dignity it was denied by people who had only contempt for other human beings and human life.”

The Christianisation of former concentration camps and death camps testified, if not to the deliberate blurring of the victims’ identity, then at least to a total lack of sensitivity to the feelings of other groups of victims. For Jews who survived the Holocaust, this was an extremely bitter pill to swallow, as is evidenced by Zofia Rozensztrauch’s report on her visit to the Auschwitz Museum in January 1947, which was sent to the Presidium of the CKŻP. Neither in Auschwitz I, nor in Birkenau, she complained bitterly, “was there a single word, a single plaque, about the suffering and death of millions of Jews”.61 Yet scattered around the entire camp were crosses entwined with thorns, obscuring, in the background, Jewish liturgical items such as prayer shawls (tallitot) and phylacteries (tefillin).

The discussion in Tygodnik Powszechny was divorced from political reality, and Gawlik’s proposal, leaving aside the cost and potential technical problems, had not the slightest chance of being implemented. Indeed, religious forms of ← 211 | 212 → remembrance were gradually abandoned in Poland from 1948 onwards.62 The reasons for this new course were, first, the growing conflict between Church and State and the efforts of the authorities to secularise Polish society and, second, the general change in the PPR/PZPR’s “historical policy”, which I discussed earlier.

The religious monuments which appeared in the first years after the war, although they sometimes included heroic elements, primarily expressed a sense of loss and mourning for the victims; if they offered any comfort, it was only in the transcendental realm. This stood in contradiction to the slogan of “the struggle against victimhood”, which first emerged in 1948. Furthermore, the sanctification of sites of memory led to the exclusion of leftist and communist activists from the Polish national pantheon at a time when the Stalinist authorities were trying to rebrand them as the leading force of the anti-fascist resistance movement. An instruction from the Central Committee of the Polish Workers’ Party (KC PPR) to the PZbWP’s Executive Board read: “Self-pitying grief without a sense of victory would consolidate the dark vision of national humiliation; it would, in fact, sustain the poisoned moral fruit of the Nazi invasion and occupation. Monuments raised on the graves of the victims of Nazism should depict the oppressor’s ultimate defeat, the struggle for freedom and democracy, and the liberation and victory of the nation.”63 For the KC PPR, “victimhood” and “religiosity” were synonymous. Characteristic in this regard were the words of a delegate to the PZbWP’s national congress in the summer of 1949. As a result of the purges carried out amongst the authorities of the Wrocław Branch in 1948, stated the delegate, it had been possible to eliminate “victimhood and a deep-rooted religious spirit” from the ranks of the organisation.64 For the sake of clarity, it should be added that until 1948 the chairman of the PZbWP’s Wrocław Branch had been a Catholic priest.

Beginning in 1949, ceremonies at former concentration camp sites were no longer accompanied by prayer and religious services. Proposals to commemorate the victims of Birkenau that arose in the 1950-1955 period, which I discussed in the previous chapter, were also secular in character. A sketch of a provisional monument made in the autumn of 1950 by Henryk Matysiak shows a black obelisk, meant to symbolise a crematorium chimney, standing on a wide platform. A stone path lined with candles on either side leads up to the obelisk. The monument was to bear the following inscription: “In memory of the four million people from all countries of Europe who were martyred here at the hands of their Nazi ← 212 | 213 → oppressors, 1940-45”.65 The monument in the form of an urn that was unveiled in Birkenau in 1955 between the ruins of the crematoria was also devoid of all religious connotations.66

The struggle against “religiosity” was waged throughout the entire Stalinist period. In the autumn of 1953, the new director of the PMOB, Stefan Wiernik, denounced one of his employees to the Central Museum Administration with the following words:

The museum management has established that Citizen Targosz is creating an atmosphere of feverish preparation for 1 November [All Saints Day] as a day of religious worship. Among other things, he has tried to convince the management that it is necessary to renovate, before 1 November, the crosses in Birkenau next to the pyres and near to Crematorium No. IV, which (he believes) are in an unsatisfactory condition. The clerical atmosphere whipped up by Citizen Targosz is infecting the staff and even spreading to less informed members of the Party.67

The aim of the authorities was to eliminate not only Catholic symbolism but all religious connotations per se. In the autumn of 1949, a monument to Jewish martyrs was unveiled in the Jewish cemetery in Płock. At the next meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, Salo Fiszgrund, who had been present at the unveiling ceremony, stated that although the monument was very handsome and impressive it was inappropriate on account of its religious character, which was due to the fact that its construction had begun three years previously.68 An Auschwitz exhibition scenario dating from the first half of 1950 recommended that, in the section relating to the extermination of Jews, “commemoration in a secular, and not a confessional Zionist form” should be used, since “the emphasis should be on the race, and not on the religion” of the victims.69

← 213 | 214 → “Jewish Cemeteries” or “Places of Martyrdom of the Polish Nation and of Other Nations”?

As I tried to show in Chapter Two, the subject of the Holocaust was present in Polish public debate in the years 1944-1948/1949. Jewish martyrdom was mentioned not only in the media and in academic texts, in fiction and in memoirs, but also found expression in material forms of remembrance. Local Jewish communities and the CKŻP funded monuments and plaques commemorating the victims of Nazi genocide in many parts of Poland. Most well-known is the Warsaw Ghetto Monument by Natan Rapaport and Leon Suzin, which stands to this day70; it was unveiled on 19 April 1948 to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Most monuments, however, were far less ambitious. They were usually raised in Jewish cemeteries or, where none existed, in cemeteries of other faiths. In Warsaw itself, prior to the creation of Rapaport and Suzin’s monument, several smaller memorials were built. In April 1946, on a square by Zamenhof Street where one of the first armed clashes of the 1943 uprising had taken place, a modest monument in the form of a plaque surrounded by red sandstone was unveiled; the inscription, in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish, read: “To those who fell in the unprecedented and heroic struggle for the dignity and freedom for the Jewish nation, for a free Poland, and for the liberation of man—The Polish Jews”.71 A month later, a monument to the fallen Poale Zion [Workers of Zion] activists appeared in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street.72 In the same year, a plaque was affixed to a section of the wall that had surrounded the Umschlagplatz73 during the war; it commemorated the “hundreds of thousands of Jews” sent from the Umschlagplatz “to the extermination camps”.74 And in the summer of 1946, a monument to the Unknown Jew was raised in a Protestant cemetery in the Pomeranian town of Wyganowo.75 I mentioned earlier the Jewish monument unveiled in the spring of 1948 by the ruins of one of the crematoria in Birkenau, as well as the monument to Jewish martyrs erected in the Jewish cemetery in Płock in the autumn of 1949.76 Similar monuments appeared in many other places across Poland.

← 214 | 215 → Aside from monuments, several historical exhibitions dedicated to the fate of the Jews during the Second World War were created. In September 1946, the “Jewish pavilion”, arranged by the CKŻP and CŻKH, was opened to the public in Majdanek. In June of the following year, during the official inauguration of the Auschwitz Museum, a display devoted to the Holocaust, again prepared by the CKŻP, was opened in one of the blocks in Auschwitz I. And in April 1948, on the fifth anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a Museum of Jewish Martyrdom and Struggle was opened in the Jewish Historical Institute on Tłomackie Street.77 Besides national or even international exhibitions organised in cooperation with the CKŻP, small local exhibitions were also established. Thus, for instance, in the spring of 1948, an exhibition entitled “German Crimes” opened in Radom, which included a room dedicated to the fate of the city’s Jews.78 According to a description given in the local newspaper, Życie Radomskie, against the wall stood “a ruined altar with a shattered panel, broken candleholders, and a discarded tallit (prayer shawl) whose dirty whiteness is stained with blood. Terrifying exhibits fill the display case: a handful of human ashes from the crematorium and a bar of soap made from human fat. On the table lies a photograph album, the contents of which make one’s hair stand on end.”79 The display was arranged by a member of the Radom Jewish Committee.

The above examples show that in the initial post-war years it was possible to commemorate Jewish martyrdom in Poland. However, the form and status of such commemoration was the subject of disputes and negotiation between, on the one hand, representatives of the Jewish community and, on the other, the central and local authorities, the PZbWP, and other interested parties. The history of the Jewish exhibitions at Majdanek and Auschwitz shows that much depended on local decision-makers and their relationship with the CKŻP.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter, as part of “Majdanek Week” in September 1946, barracks were ceremonially handed over to delegates from 22 nations and countries whose citizens had perished in the camp, including Jews, who were represented by the CKŻP.80

Many Jews from Poland and abroad took part in the ceremony. Marek (Mejlach) Bitter, a former Majdanek inmate and CKŻP member, paid tribute to the ← 215 | 216 → hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered in Majdanek and the “millions of Jews who had died on the front line of the fight against fascism and in Nazi death camps”.81 Next, the Minister of Justice and chairman of the PZbWP’s Supreme Council, Henryk Świątkowski, handed Bitter the keys to the building with the words: “Accept this barrack as proof of our deepest sympathy for the Jewish people, who suffered more than any”, after which the historical exhibition prepared by the CKŻP in cooperation with the CŻKH was officially opened.82


Symbolic handover of barracks to countries whose citizens perished at Majdanek, September 1946 (courtesy of APMM)

One of the initiators of the project was Zofia Rozensztrauch, mentioned earlier. The exhibition was at once very modest and traditional in character; its main purpose was to honour the memory of the victims. Although it contained certain heroic aspects, it primarily expressed a sense of grief and loss. The central element of the exhibition was a symbolic tombstone.83 The figure of a weeping woman resting against the tombstone, flanked by burning candles, captured a sense of sorrow and reverence for the victims ← 216 | 217 → of genocide. The nine-branched candelabrum (hanukiah) atop the tombstone not only confirmed the identity of the victims but could also be interpreted as a sign of hope and trust in God. The Hebrew inscription on the tombstone read: “Rachel weeping for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15).84 In the background, on a drape of black fabric, was a Star of David and an inscription in Polish: “In memory of the hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered at Majdanek by Nazi thugs”. The monument was reached along a colonnade formed of the posts supporting the roof of the barrack. Up above were hung banners which proclaimed in Polish, French, Yiddish and Hebrew: “The extermination of Jews on Polish soil”. Placed along the sides of the barrack were display cases and charts which briefly illustrated, with the aid of a few exhibits, documents, photographs, drawings and statistics, the successive stages of the Holocaust, beginning with the creation of the ghettos and ending with mass extermination. One corner of the barrack was dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; its central element was a portrait of the leader of the Uprising, Mordechaj Anielewicz. This was the only national exhibition at Majdanek; the plans for further national exhibitions were never realised.


Monument to the Jewish victims of Majdanek. Jewish exhibition at Majdanek designed by Zofia Rozensztrauch, Mojżesz Lubliański and Dawid Opoczyński, opened in September 1946 in one of the barracks (courtesy of AŻIH).


← 217 | 218 → Interior view of the Jewish exhibition at Majdanek, 1946 (courtesy of AŻIH).


Interior view of the Jewish exhibition at Majdanek, 1946 (courtesy of AŻIH).


← 218 | 219 → The part of the Jewish exhibition at Majdanek dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and its leader Mordechaj Anielewicz, 1946 (courtesy of AŻIH)

It would seem that no major conflicts occurred over the creation of the “Jewish pavilion”. Although the project was probably initiated by the CKŻP, it was endorsed by the management of the PMM. Nevertheless, the Jewish exhibition at Majdanek was always meant to be temporary in nature. At the end of the year there were plans to move it to a freshly renovated barrack, where a new and much larger exhibition would be created. In a letter sent in November 1946 to the CKŻP’s Department of Culture and Propaganda, the Lublin Jewish Committee gave assurances that the new exhibition would faithfully reflect “the martyrdom of the Jewish nation and its heroic conduct during the years of occupation”.85 Yet the plan was never implemented. We do not know the exact reasons why work on the new exhibition ceased. It would seem, however, that the obstacle was the Jewish Committee rather than the management of the PMM. As the public’s interest shifted from Majdanek to Auschwitz, so the CKŻP’s priorities changed, too. In 1947, the committee was entirely focused on the creation of the Jewish exhibition at Auschwitz and on the construction of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument in the capital. The committee did not rekindle its interest in the “Jewish pavilion” at ← 219 | 220 → Majdanek until the spring of 1948, during preparations to mark the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; even then, however, no major changes were made, probably due to lack of funds.86 We do not know exactly when the “Jewish pavilion” at Majdanek was finally closed, but it must have been prior to the opening of the new exhibition at the PMM in 1954.

The history of the Jewish exhibition at Auschwitz was rather different. Unlike Majdanek, Auschwitz was managed by Polish political prisoners and not by externally appointed officials. From the outset, no representatives of Poland’s Jewish community were involved in the creation of the museum. Members of the CKŻP who visited Auschwitz reported that the PMOB staff were failing to commemorate Jewish victims of the camp. The chairman of the Jewish Committee in Zawiercie, who visited the museum in the autumn of 1946, was shocked that “the guide, when describing the Nazi atrocities that took place in the camp, only talks about the suffering of Poles. When it comes us, all he mentions is the Giant Jew87 [...] and the fact that the Sonderkommando was composed of Jews. Neither the guide nor the inscriptions say anything at all about Jews or their suffering in Auschwitz.”88

In response to an intervention by the CKŻP, the director of the PMOB, Tadeusz Wąsowicz, explained that the museum was a work in progress and that the issue of how to present the suffering of various social and national groups had yet to be decided. He gave assurances that the CŻKH would be involved in this decision. For now, the management could not take responsibility for its guards and guides, who were still being trained and whose views were solely their own.89 But the CKŻP did not give up. In a letter sent in December 1946 to the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, the committee members expressed their disbelief that the Auschwitz guides were completely beyond the control of the museum management. They demanded that Wąsowicz instruct his staff on how to talk about the Holocaust.90

← 220 | 221 → Barely a month later, Zofia Rozensztrauch—the creator of the Jewish exhibition at Majdanek and an employee of the CKŻP’s Department of Culture and Propaganda—visited Auschwitz. In a report addressed to the committee’s presidium, she complained that:

Neither in Auschwitz nor in Birkenau will you find a single word, a single plaque, about the suffering and death of millions of Jews. This distressing issue, which affects the entire Jewish community without exception, must be resolved by the Central Committee.”91

The museum management did indeed seem largely uninterested in commemorating Jewish victims of the camp. Although in the initial exhibition scenario, Wąsowicz and his co-workers—probably as a result of pressure from the CKŻP—noted that the issue of the Holocaust required “special treatment”, no details were mentioned.92 The PMOB’s proposal from the spring of 1947 stated that the purpose of the general exhibition would be to “illustrate the prisoners’ plight, regardless of their nationality, race or country”. Nevertheless, it would be necessary to discuss “the most important issue in the Auschwitz camp, namely, the Jewish question”.93 In the same document, however, the authors stated that the museum should not “give the impression that Auschwitz was exclusively a Jewish place of execution”.

In May 1947, a delegation headed by the director of the CŻKH, Nachman Blumental, visited Auschwitz and Katowice. The delegation established that the PMOB director, Tadeusz Wąsowicz, had already developed a plan for the museum that did not envisage a separate Jewish exhibition.94 The display was to be organised thematically, which meant that exhibits relating to the martyrdom of Jews would be spread across all the rooms. At a meeting convened on the occasion of Blumental’s visit to the Katowice Jewish Committee, it was decided that action should be taken to establish in Auschwitz “a separate Jewish pavilion on a par with other national exhibitions”.95 It was also decided that Jewish advisers should ← 221 | 222 → play a role in determining the profile of the general exhibition. In the words of the chairman of the Katowice Jewish Committee, “further non-participation of Jews in the Auschwitz Museum will cause outrage throughout the Jewish world”. The resolutions adopted by the Katowice Jewish Committee were approved by the Presidium of the CKŻP. After hearing the delegation’s report, Adolf Berman stated that it was essential that a Jewish pavilion be created at the PMOB, just as in Majdanek. He therefore proposed that the committee members should revisit Auschwitz to review the plans for the exhibition and “force through” their own position. It was also decided that CKŻP representatives would meet with the Minister of Culture, Stefan Dybowski. They were to “categorically demand the establishment of a Jewish pavilion in Auschwitz”. Adolf Berman was to intervene with Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz on the matter.96 Meanwhile, the official opening of the museum was barely a month away. For this reason, it was decided to focus on organising a temporary display that would form part of the general exhibition.

The CKŻP at least managed to score a partial success. At the end of May 1947, a conference took place in Auschwitz attended by representatives of the CKŻP, CŻKH, the Department for Museums and Monuments of Polish Martyrdom, and the management of the PMOB. Also present at the conference were Nachman Blumental, Ludwik Rajewski, and the director of the museum, Tadeusz Wąsowicz, among others.97 It was agreed that in future two blocks within Auschwitz I would be placed at the disposal of the CKŻP. In the meantime, the committee was to set up one of the rooms in Block 4 by mid-June; the work was entrusted to Jewish artists from Sztuka [Art], a local cooperative.

The Jewish exhibition opened on 14 June 1947 as part of the official inauguration of the Auschwitz Museum; its central element was a symbolic monument-cum-sarcophagus98, opposite which stood an urn containing the ashes of victims. Hung on a side wall was a map showing the numbers of Jews deported to Auschwitz from various countries of Europe.


← 222 | 223 → Monument-cum-sarcophagus. Jewish exhibition at Auschwitz opened on 14 June 1947 (courtesy of APMAB).

The exhibition also included photographs, documents, and sketches depicting Nazi crimes. Organised Jewish resistance in Auschwitz was also mentioned.

The Jewish press was generally positive about the Auschwitz exhibition. In his review, the correspondent of Nasze Słowo wrote: “On its opening day, the Jewish pavilion was visited by the public in great numbers. Observing those visitors, I could not help but feel, as I did at the Museum of Jewish Martyrdom in Majdanek, that a great many of the people viewing the exhibits and documents had hitherto been completely unaware of the catastrophic fortunes of the Jewish nation and the boundless suffering that Jews experienced during the occupation, both within this camp and beyond it. Therein lies the justification for having separate Jewish pavilions. For not only do they express our deep sorrow at the loss of one third of our nation, not only do they illustrate the fact that the Jewish nation holds tragic primacy amongst the victims of Nazism—they also fulfil an important educational purpose.”99 It was widely assumed that the exhibition which opened in the summer of 1947 was merely the germ of a much larger “museum of Jewish ← 223 | 224 → martyrdom” to be established at some point in the future. A few weeks after the official opening of the Auschwitz Museum, Nachman Blumental and Józef Kermisz sent a memo to the head of the Department for Museums and Monuments of Polish Martyrdom, Ludwik Rajewski, in which they presented the CŻKH’s plans for the further expansion of the Jewish exhibition. They felt that the exhibition should be transformed into a “lasting monument to the martyrdom of the Jewish nation”100:

An approach based on accurate documentation is the way forward for the Jewish pavilion; statistical documents, charts, numerous exhibits, maps, etc., in all their grim authenticity, are the best means of illustrating the horrors of the camp experience to visitors. We believe that the Jewish pavilion or, rather, Jewish pavilions in Auschwitz should also include exhibits from other death camps, primarily Treblinka, Chełmno, Sobibór and Bełżec, as well as from concentration camps, which, as we all know, were for Jews nothing less than places of extermination. [...] We plan to expand and supplement the pavilion with some of the many exhibits in our possession. We have in mind here, in particular, lists of Jews transported to Auschwitz […] as well as photographs of “deportations” from towns and villages to Auschwitz and other death camps. Since more than a million foreign Jews perished in Auschwitz, we also plan to contact Jewish communities in Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and France, to ask them to send us materials concerning the “deportations”.

Despite the earlier promises of the museum management and the Ministry of Art and Culture to hand over two blocks in Auschwitz I to the CKŻP, the process came to a standstill. At the turn of 1947/1948, CKŻP delegates were sent to Auschwitz to find out how work on the permanent exhibition was progressing. They were given a frosty reception.101 They also noticed that on a plaque listing the nationalities of the victims of the camp, Jews were conspicuously absent. Perturbed by these facts, Adolf Berman visited the Auschwitz Museum a few weeks later, and the impression he got was similarly negative. Berman stated that although the exhibition had an international character, only one room was devoted to Jewish martyrdom.102 In other parts of the museum there was no mention of the Jews at all, despite the fact that prayer shawls (tallitot) and other Jewish liturgical items were on display. Berman came to the conclusion, therefore, that it was essential to create a separate Jewish block. As the commemoration of Jewish victims of Auschwitz was being derailed by Ludwik Rajewski—a fact which came to light at the next meeting of the CKŻP Presidium—it was decided to intervene directly with Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz, the chairman of the ROPWiM, Zygmunt Balicki, and with the Minister of Art and Culture.

← 224 | 225 → A few days later, a CKŻP delegation was received by Balicki and presented him with its demands concerning the organisation of a Jewish block at Auschwitz. Balicki responded favourably to the demands.103 In March 1948, a meeting of the ROPWiM took place, attended by, among others, the Minister of Art and Culture; the head of the Department for Museums and Monuments of Polish Martyrdom, Ludwik Rajewski; the director of the PMOB, Tadeusz Wąsowicz; and Salo Fiszgrund from the CKŻP.104 During the discussion, Fiszgrund once again requested that two blocks in Auschwitz be handed over to the Jewish community. In response, Wąsowicz stated that the appropriate decisions had already been taken; this, too, proved to be an empty promise. The efforts to commemorate the Jewish victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau were not entirely fruitless, however. As mentioned earlier, in the spring of 1948 the CKŻP obtained the consent of the ROPWiM to create a modest monument within Birkenau in honour of the Polish and European Jews who had perished there; it was to mark the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In the autumn of 1948, the ROPWiM appointed a special Auschwitz Museum Historical Commission105, comprising Jan Sehn as the representative of the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland; the director of the PMOB; and several former Auschwitz inmates, including Kazimierz Smoleń and Tadeusz Hołuj. Dorota Agatstein-Dormont from the Jewish Historical Institute was also invited to participate.106 The commission’s task was to complete the work on organising the museum. The decision was taken to change the layout of the section entitled “The Extermination of Millions” (Block 4), part of which was devoted to the Jews. As early as in November 1948, Nachman Blumental entrusted the design of the new Jewish room to the PMOB management working in tandem with the Historical Commission. After the design had been approved, the Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH) undertook to cover the cost of its implementation. The institute was also to supply materials for the exhibition and was consulted over its design.107

← 225 | 226 → In accordance with the plan developed in the years 1948-1950, the exhibition in Block 4 was largely structured to reflect the nationalities of the victims.108 Although the existing Jewish room was dismantled, in the first half of 1950 a new exhibition devoted to Jewish martyrdom arose in its place. While it had often been stressed previously that the museum should not leave visitors with the impression that “the camp was only populated by Gypsies and Jews”109 or that “only the Jews suffered mass extermination”110, photographs from the period show that, despite its brevity, the exhibition did give an idea of the scale of the genocide perpetrated on European Jews. The exhibition illustrated the successive stages of the Holocaust, beginning with the creation of the ghettos and ending with deportation to the death camps. The focus was not only on the fate of Polish Jews but on Jews from all over Europe. Hung on one of the walls was a map of the continent showing the countries from which Jews had been deported to Auschwitz. The maps and charts were supplemented with photographs, exhibits, and documents. Next to the Jewish room, a Polish room was also created. Other parts of the exhibition were dedicated to the fate of the Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.

That the interventions of the CKŻP made the museum staff and members of the Historical Commission more sensitive to the issues surrounding Holocaust remembrance is also shown by the discussion which took place at a meeting of the CKŻP in October 1949. During the deliberations on how to organise the “Block of Death” (Block 11), one of the museum employees pointed out that the proposed design was “dangerous” as it only mentioned Poles. “That’s because Poles perished there. No one is going to deny historical fact,” retorted Tadeusz Hołuj.111 He was supported by Jan Sehn: “If you are commemorating a dying person, it is not dangerous. The Jews will be treated in exactly the same way. They will all be commemorated at the mausoleum in Birkenau. The approach here is thematic, so Block 11 will focus on the Polish cause.” Of the same opinion was Kazimierz ← 226 | 227 → Smoleń: “In Block 11 there will be one room entirely dedicated to the Poles, in other words, the Standgericht (Special Tribunal). Of the people who perished there, 95 per cent, if not all of them, were Poles.”


Interior view of the Jewish exhibition at Auschwitz probably opened in the spring of 1950 (courtesy of APMAB).

In August 1950, the Central Committee of the PZPR decided to make fundamental changes to the proposed exhibition scenario for the Auschwitz Museum. At the request of the Central Committee, the Minister of Culture appointed a special commission whose task was to ensure that the institution had an appropriate ideological framework. At its first session, the commission reviewed the exhibition entitled “The Extermination of Millions”. It was decided, among others, that the rooms on the ground floor of Block 4 should be redesigned in compliance with the following principles:

– national issues, and in particular Jewish issues, should not be treated separately,

– the impression should not be given that Auschwitz was a place where almost exclusively Jews were exterminated—on the contrary, it must be shown that the enemy of the Jews was also the enemy of the Poles and others.112

← 227 | 228 → The pressure under which Poland’s Jewish community found itself as a result of the Auschwitz exhibition is evidenced by a letter sent in October 1950 by Salo Fiszgrund and the director of the Jewish Historical Institute, Bernard (Berl) Mark, to the Department of Propaganda at the Central Committee of the PZPR. Having conducted an inspection of the Auschwitz Museum—wrote the authors—the delegation, which comprised representatives of the CKŻP and ŻIH, reached the conclusion that “the Jewish room cannot continue in its current form”, since it meets “neither the most elementary research guidelines of the Jewish Historical Institute nor the basic requirements of the current political situation”:

The most important shortcomings include the total absence of materials on the resistance movement amongst Jewish prisoners and on the international solidarity shown by Polish, French and Soviet prisoners, and by Austrian and German anti-fascists, towards Jews in the camp. […] The room does not explain the reasons for the extermination of Jews by German fascism and offers no materials on the imperialist context of the Holocaust. It also fails to show that the extermination of Jews was the first stage in the biological eradication of other subjugated nations, above all the Slavic nations. And, most importantly, there is nothing on the emancipatory role of the Soviet Army, which rescued the last survivors of the Nazi terror.113

Whilst they were in favour of redeveloping the museum, the authors stressed that—as in the case of other nations—it would be necessary to have a separate Jewish exhibition alongside the main exhibition. They also expressed their willingness to prepare a new design for such an exhibition, which, in general terms, would adhere to the following format:

a)   Imperialism and imperialist war as the main reason for the extermination of nations,

b)   The Holocaust as the first stage in the Nazi policy of eradicating entire nations,

c)   The passive attitude of the Anglo-Saxon nations towards the extermination of European Jews,

d)   The martyrdom of the Jews,

e)   The Jewish resistance movement (the uprisings in the Warsaw and Białystok ghettos, the revolts in Treblinka and Sobibór, a profile of the heroic Jewess Mala Cymetbaum, who died at Auschwitz, etc.),

f)    The solidarity shown by Poles towards Jews (the People’s Guard, Auschwitz resistance groups, etc.),

g)   The help given to Jews by French anti-fascist inmates of Auschwitz,

h)   The help given by German anti-fascists, for instance in Białystok,

i)    The emancipatory role of the Soviet Army,

j)    The new threat of war, etc.

← 228 | 229 → In order to preserve their own exhibition at Auschwitz, the representatives of Poland’s Jewish community were thus willing to subordinate the meaning of the exhibition entirely to current ideological imperatives.

We do not know what changes were made in Block 4 prior to the opening of the new exhibition in November 1950. Perhaps by that time the Jewish exhibition had already been closed; if not, then this was only on account of the authorities’ hurried preparations for the Second World Congress of Peace.

* * *

The history of the Jewish exhibitions at Majdanek and Auschwitz once again confirms the hypothesis put forward in the second chapter of the book. It shows that there was rivalry between “Polish” and “Jewish” remembrance in the immediate post-war years and that commemoration of the Holocaust gave rise to numerous controversies from the outset. The main protagonists in this conflict were Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust, represented by the CKŻP, CŻKH and other Jewish institutions, and Polish former concentration camp prisoners, represented by the PZbWP. Members of the PZbWP played a key role in several institutions dedicated to wartime remembrance, including the Department for Museums and Monuments of Polish Martyrdom, the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites, and the Auschwitz Museum. These people were often indifferent to, or even hostile towards, the commemoration of crimes perpetrated on the Jewish population. In all likelihood this attitude stemmed largely from a sense of alienation and from concern that the fate of the Jews could overshadow their own suffering.

On the other hand, the cited examples reveal that, despite the conflicts, Jewish martyrdom found (albeit modest) expression in various memorial projects in Poland up until the end of the 1940s. This success should be attributed to the lobbying efforts of Jewish organisations and the “historical policy” of the Polish authorities, which at that time was still relatively liberal. However, the success of projects initiated by Jewish organisations depended to a large extent on local arrangements. Thus, in the case of the Museum at Majdanek, the management of which was composed of people unconnected with the camp, the creation of a Jewish exhibition encountered far fewer obstacles than in the case of the Auschwitz Museum, which was managed by former Auschwitz inmates. Nevertheless, even here the CKŻP ultimately managed to win some concessions.

It was not until the late 1940s and early 1950s that the subject of the Holocaust became a powerful taboo. One of the main reasons for this was the significant decline in Poland’s Jewish population in the years 1947-1951. Successive waves of emigration saw the number of Jews living in Poland fall to between 57,000 and 80,000.114 At the same time, as a result of top-down directives, all Jewish political ← 229 | 230 → organisations and virtually all social and cultural institutions were liquidated; the only exceptions were the Jewish Historical Institute, created in the autumn of 1947, and the Social and Cultural Association of Jews, established in 1950. However, these two organisations were completely subordinate to the policies of the PPR/PZPR. Consequently, the Jewish community and the institutions that represented it ceased to perform the role of a separate “memory group” in Poland.

Although the closure of independent Jewish institutions was an element of the Stalinisation of public life in general, it was also the outcome of a change in the Communist Party’s policy towards Poland’s Jewish minority. This process was inspired by Moscow and had parallels in other Eastern bloc countries. With the emergence of the Iron Curtain and the creation of the state of Israel (1948)—a country favourably disposed towards the United States—the policy of the Soviet Union towards the Zionist movement, and thus also towards its own Jewish population, changed significantly. In 1948/1949, an anti-Semitic campaign initiated by the central authorities under the banner of the struggle against cosmopolitanism and Zionism took hold in the Soviet Union.115 The prelude to the campaign was the murder in January 1948 of Solomon Mikhoels, a celebrated Jewish actor and chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (Yevreysky anti-fashistsky komitet—YAK) established at the turn of 1941/1942 with the approval of the Kremlin. YAK was eventually disbanded in November 1948; members of its management were arrested and brought to trial in 1952. Extensive anti-Semitic purges were carried out in the USSR in the years 1949-1953, accompanied by an aggressive smear campaign in the press; the culminating point was to be the trial of Kremlin physicians accused of conspiring against their high-ranking patients. After the death of Stalin in March 1953, however, the case was dropped.

The events described above also found resonance in the Soviet Union’s satellite countries, notably Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the GDR. Accusations of Zionist sympathies went hand in hand with accusations of Trotskyism, Titoism, and collaboration with foreign intelligence services. This made it possible to carry out purges within local communist parties and to eliminate political rivals. The pretext for the wave of persecutions was the arrest in May 1949 in Prague of Noel Field, director of the Unitarian Service Committee, who was suspected of spying for the United States.116 Field was handed over to the Hungarian authorities ← 230 | 231 → in Budapest, where he was tortured. His testimony was then used as evidence in the trial of the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, László Rajk, in September 1949. Another element of the campaign was the show trial in 1952 in Prague of the secretary-general of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Rudolf Slánský, and 13 other party and government officials, the majority of whom were Jewish. Other, lower-ranking members of the party also suffered persecution.117 In August 1950, the East German SED expelled a former member of its politburo, Paul Merker, who had publicly advocated that Germany pay compensation to Jewish Holocaust survivors.118 Merker was arrested in 1952 in connection with the Slánský affair. In a secret trial conducted after the death of Stalin, Merker was denounced as a “Zionist agent” and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in 1955. Faced with the prospect of anti-Semitic purges, many Jews and people of Jewish origin emigrated from the GDR. In Poland, the “anti-Zionist campaign” took on a more moderate form, although here, too, purges were carried out in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the Polish Army during the 1949-1951 period.119 Arrests were made of Israeli embassy employees and representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The “struggle against Zionism” also found an outlet in the Polish media. Despite preparations, show trials following the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian examples did not take place, however.

The change in attitude towards the Jewish population in Eastern bloc countries also affected the way in which the history of the Second World War was presented. Many historians agree that, by 1948 at the latest, the subject of the Holocaust had become almost completely taboo in the Soviet Union and in other socialist countries.120 Although, as Zvi Gitelman notes, the extermination of the Jewish population was never completely denied, its unique character was questioned in light of the other atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War, ← 231 | 232 → particularly the murder of Soviet citizens.121 Somewhat telling in this regard is the history of the Black Book, prepared by YAK in cooperation with Jewish organisations in the USA and Palestine, which was to document the extermination of Jews in territories occupied by the Third Reich after 22 June 1941. With the Kremlin’s consent, the gathering of materials for the Black Book commenced in 1943; its editors were the celebrated Soviet writers and war reporters Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman. During the course of their work, Ehrenburg and Grossman were pressured by the censors to make substantial cuts to the text. Among other things, they were ordered to delete all documents and personal accounts which pointed to the complicity of the Soviet population in the murder of Jews. In October 1947, publication of the Russian edition of the Black Book was halted and all existing copies were confiscated. The principal criticism of the book was that it gave the impression that it was only, or almost only, the Jews who had suffered persecution at the hands of the Nazis. The Black Book affair was also used as evidence during the YAK trial in May–July 1952.

Whereas during the Second World War YAK had managed to put on a photographic display devoted to the Holocaust, by the second half of the 1940s the subject was no longer tackled in historical exhibitions. The Jewish Museum in Vilnius, to which Ehrenburg had passed the materials for the Black Book, was closed down in 1948. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, countless monuments that had been erected after the war by Soviet Jews to commemorate Holocaust victims were either dismantled or remodelled to conceal the victims’ identities. Although in 1946 a project arose to honour the victims of the mass executions at Babi Yar near Kiev, it was never implemented. A huge monument to the victims of the massacres was finally built in 1976, but this, too, failed to mention that the place was connected with the Final Solution. One of very few extant examples of post-war Holocaust remembrance in the Soviet Union is the memorial to the victims of the Minsk Ghetto, which was unveiled in 1947. Although, as Thomas C. Fox notes, even between the various Soviet republics there were major differences in the way the subject of the Holocaust was handled, by the late 1940s and early 1950s it had become taboo in almost all countries of the Eastern bloc.122 It is in this context that we should consider the changes that occurred in Poland, and especially at the Auschwitz Museum, during that time.


1     Krzysztof Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice 1500-1800, Cambridge UK–Cambridge Mass. 1990, p. 44.

2     “Traumatic places,” writes Assmann, “differ from sites of memory in not yielding to attempts to lend them a simple, affirmative meaning. Religious and national memory abounds in blood and sacrifice, yet these recollections are not of a traumatic character, for they are branded with a normative imprint and help to make sense of individual and collective fate” (Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, München 1999, pp. 328-329).

3     Zofia Żorecka, “Wiedza oświęcimska”, Odra, 29 Aug. 1948.

4     Ruth Klüger, Still Alive. A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, New York 2003, p. 67.

5     Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau, pp. 55-57, 421-422; Overesch, Buchenwald und die DDR, pp. 106-109; Perz, Die KZ-Gedenkstätte Mauthausen (chapter I).

6     Schwarz, Steppen, “Entstehung der Nationalen Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück”, p. 219.

7     Knigge, “Opfer, Tat, Aufstieg”, pp. 9-13; Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau, pp. 170-173, fig. 17.

8     Cornelia Brink, Ikonen der Vernichtung. Öffentlicher Gebrauch von Fotografien aus nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern nach 1945, Berlin 1998, pp. 58-78.

9     Quoted after: Knigge, “Opfer, Tat, Aufstieg”, p. 13.

10   Brink, Ikonen der Vernichtung, pp. 84-93. Cf. also: Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau, pp. 59-64.

11   Director of the PMM, Antoni Ferski, to the chairman of the PKWN, Edward Osóbka-Morawski, 12 Nov. 1944, APMM, AZ I/1. Document published in: Powstanie Państwowego Muzeum na Majdanku, pp. 11-14.

12   Photograph of the interior of an exhibition barrack, APMM, Fotografie, Kolekcja nr 6 (Wydarzenia w Muzeum 1944-1948),

13   Jerzy Wyszomirski, “Majdanek przeobrażony”, Tydzień, 6 Oct. 1946.

14   “Oświęcim w krwi i walce”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jun. 1947. Cf. also: Planning principles of the museum in the former concentration camp in Oświęcim, no date (przed 14 Jun. 1947), AAN, PZbWP 13.

15   Wanda Kragen, “W dniu otwarcia muzeum w Oświęcimiu. Obóz koncentracyjny przekształca się w muzeum”, Robotnik, 16 Jun. 1947 (cited after: Lechandro, Zburzyć i zaorać?, pp. 213-220).

16   Stanisław Stomma, “Problem Oświęcimia”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 6 Jul. 1947.

17   Kazimierz Koźniewski, “Drażliwy problem”, Przekrój, 12-18 Sep. 1948.

18   Tadeusz Korczak, “Czy zburzyć i zaorać? W odpowiedzi na drażliwy problem”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Nov. 1948.

19   Minutes from the conference of the Expert Committee of the ROPWiM, Oświęcim 19-21 Nov. 1948, APMM, AZ I/14.

20   “Bez ogródek. Szybciej decydować” (jas.), Tygodnik Powszechny, 10 Oct. 1948.

21   “Słuszny artykuł” (r.m.), Kuźnica, 26 Sep. 1948.

22   Jerzy Krygier, “Czy zburzyć i zaorać? W odpowiedzi na ‘Drażliwy problem’”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-30 Oct. 1948.

23   Eugenia Kocwa, “Oświęcimskie krzyże”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 5 Mar. 1950.

24   Jan Paweł Gawlik, “Uwagi o muzeum zbrodni”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 25 Sep. 1949.

25   Jacek Lechandro notes that the theory that Auschwitz I had been a “model camp” has no basis in historical documentation. The main camp was only ever visited by one delegation of the International Red Cross. The “orderly” appearance of the camp was due to the fact that it had been created in buildings dating from before the First World War, which had served as military barracks in the inter-war years. Lechandro, Zburzyć i zaorać, p. 222.

26   Konstanty Przybysławski, “Jeszcze raz ‘drażliwy problem’”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 12 Dec. 1948.

27   Wincenty Hein, “Czym jest Muzeum Oświęcimskie”, Dziennik Polski, 19 Nov. 1948.

28   Tadeusz Korczak, “Czy zburzyć i zaorać? W odpowiedzi na drażliwy problem”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Nov. 1948.

29   Perz, Die KZ-Gedenkstätte Mauthausen, pp. 114-116.

30   Ibid., p. 117.

31   “Wenn das Mahnmal Mauthausen sprechen könnte”, Linzer Tagblatt 7 May 1949. Quoted after: Perz, Die KZ-Gedenkstätte Mauthausen, p. 115.

32   Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau, pp. 173-181.

33   Wincenty Hein, “Czym jest Muzeum Oświęcimskie”, Dziennik Polski, 19 Nov. 1948.

34   Jonathan Webber, “The Future of Auschwitz. Some Personal Reflections”, Religion, State and Society, 1, 20 (1992), p. 84

35   On this subject, see: Zbigniew Mazur, “Upamiętnienie w latach 1945-1948 ofiar niemieckiej okupacji”, Przegląd Zachodni 4 (2004), pp. 134-136. Cf. also: Grzesiuk-Olszewska, Polska rzeźba pomnikowa, pp. 13, 24.

36   Photographs from the commemorative events of “Majdanek Week” 1945-1948, APMM, Fotografie, Kolekcja nr 6 (Wydarzenia w Muzeum 1944-1948), file no.:, 36, 41, 48;,12;;, 27, 34.

37   Information note by the PZbWP for FIAPP, no date (before 20 Sep. 1947), AAN, PZbWP 52; BŻAP 94/342, 22 Sep. 47; Society for the Care of Majdanek to the Provincial KŻ in Lublin, 28 Aug. 1948, AŻIH, CKŻP, Wydz. Kultury i Propagandy 303/XXIII/218.

38   Programme of events for the opening of the Auschwitz Museum 14 Jun. 1947, APMAB, Projekty ramowe, założenia ogólne Muzeum Oświęcimskiego 1946-1947. For a description of the events, see: Stanisławski and Rawicz, “Podniosłe dni Oświęcimia. Otwarcie Muzeum Martyrologii Polskiej”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Jul. 1947; “Świadectwo zbrodni. 14 czerwca 1947 r. w Oświęcimiu” (hs), Nasze Słowo, 20 Jun. 1947.

39   Photographs from the celebration of All Saints’ Day at Majdanek, 1 Nov. 1944, APMM, Fotografie, Kolekcja nr 6 (Wydarzenia w Muzeum 1944-1948), file no.:,,; PMOB to the PZbWP, 13 Sep. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 52; “Święto zmarłych w obozach koncentracyjnych”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Nov. 1947.

40   Mazur, “Upamiętnienie”, pp. 152-153.

41   Circular no. 8/48, 9 Jul. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 14.

42   Mazur, “Upamiętnienie”, pp. 141-146.

43   Ibid., p. 142.

44   See photographs: APMAB, nr neg. 03438; AŻIH, Dział Graficzny, Album „Muzeum żydowskie w Majdanku” 1946, Album 15 nr 38993912 (A/31).

45   During the First Zionist Congress in Basle (1897) the Star of David was accepted as the emblem of the Zionist movement; after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 it was included on the national flag. In the Third Reich and occupied territories the Star of David was the symbol used to stigmatise Jewish victims.

46   On this subject, see: Insa Eschebach, Öffentliches Gedenken. Deutsche Erinnerungskulturen seit der Weimarer Republik, Frankfurt am Main 2005, pp. 48-56, 108-116.

47   Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau, fig. 7. The church was demolished in 1964 (ibid., pp. 222-225, figs 2, 42).

48   Ibid., pp. 189-192.

49   Ibid., pp. 230-237, 266–271, 282–286, figs 2, 43, 63, 64. When comparing the ways in which different Nazi camps were commemorated, however, it is important to remember that unlike Auschwitz or Majdanek, Dachau was not an extermination camp where the mass murder of Jews was carried out; it was “only” a concentration camp. Moreover, a particularly large group of Catholic, and also Protestant, clergy were interned in Dachau.

50   Eschebach, Öffentliches Gedenken, pp. 48-49.

51   Jerzy Wyszomirski, “Majdanek przeobrażony”, Tydzień, 6 Oct. 1946.

52   J.P. Gawlik, “Uwagi o muzeum zbrodni”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 25 Sep. 1949.

53   Photograph of the cross in front of the ruins of the crematorium in Birkenau, Dziennik Polski, 4 Apr. 1947. Later documents also mention the cross erected on the ruins of crematorium IV in Birkenau. See: Director of the PMOB, Stefan Wiernik, to the CZM (official copy), 26 Oct. 1953, AAN, KC PZPR, Wydz. Kultury 237/XVIII/81; Note regarding the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, no date, AAN, KC PZPR, Wydz. Propagandy 237/VIII/356.

54   Photograph: APMAB 03441. See also the description of the exhibition: Zofia Rozensztrauch, “Oświęcim po raz drugi... (Od naszego specjalnego wysłannika na pola Oświęcimskie)”, Nasze Słowo, 18 Mar. 1947.

55   Klaus-Peter Friedrich, “‘Die Mehrheit der im Lager zu Tode Gequälten waren Katholiken...’ Frühe Bestrebungen für eine ‘Katholisierung’ des ehemaligen NS-Lagers Auschwitz”, Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung 54, 2 (2005).

56   “Lagier oświęcimski” (GTS), Tygodnik Powszechny, 13 Jun. 1948.

57   Zofia Żorecka, “Wiedza oświęcimska”, Odra, 29 Aug. 1948.

58   “Bez ogródek. Projekt” (gaw.), Tygodnik Powszechny, 9 Oct. 1949.

59   J.P. Gawlik, “Uwagi o muzeum zbrodni”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 25 Sep. 1949.

60   Eugenia Kocwa, “Oświęcimskie krzyże”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 5 Mar. 1950.

61   Report by Zofia Rozensztrauch from her official visit to the site of the former camp at Auschwitz, 7 Jan. 1947, AŻIH, CKŻP, Tow. Krzewienia Sztuk Pięknych, Korespondencja krajowa 1947 r. 61.

62   This is also mentioned by: Mazur, “Upamiętnienie”, p. 156.

63   Official letter from the Department of Propaganda and the Press at the KC PPR to the ZG PZbWP, 12 Feb. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 40.

64   Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

65   Designs for provisional memorials in honour of the Soviet Army (at the entrance to Auschwitz) and in memory of the victims of the camp (at Birkenau) sent in by H. Matysiak to the Dept of Propaganda at the KC PZPR, 26 Oct. 1950, AAN, KC PZPR, Wydz. Propagandy 237/VIII/55.

66   Photograph: APMAB, 16053.

67   Director of the PMOB, Stefan Wiernik, to the CZM (official copy), 26 Oct. 1953, AAN, KC PZPR, Wydz. Kultury 237/XVIII/81.

68   Minutes of a meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 24 Oct. 1949, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/18. On the subject of the monument in Płock, its history, and its form, see: Ryszard Bielawski, “Po nich ja płaczę”, Słowo Żydowskie 5-6, 17-31 Mar. 2005, p. 16.

69   Scenario of the exhibition at the PMOB—Block 4, “Zagłada milionów” (The Extermination of Millions), no date (probably 1950), AAN, MKiS, Gabinet Ministra 110.

70   On the subject of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument see, inter alia: Grzesiuk-Olszewska, Polska rzeźba pomnikowa, pp. 41, 252; Natan Rapoport, “Memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument” in The Art of Memory; James E. Young, The Texture of Memory. Holocaust Memories and Meanings, Yale 1993, pp. 155-184.

71   Konstanty Gebert, “The Dialectics of Memory in Poland. Holocaust Memorials in Warsaw” in The Art of Memory, pp. 122-123.

72   Grzesiuk-Olszewska, Polska rzeźba pomnikowa, p. 38.

73   Umschlagplatz (reloading point)—the point from which the Nazis deported Jews to Treblinka during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.

74   Gebert, The Dialectics of Memory, p. 123.

75   BŻAP 95/205, 26 Aug. 1946.

76   BŻAP 81/561, 25 Oct. 1949; Minutes of a meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 24 Oct. 1949, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/18. See also: Bielawski, “Po nich ja płaczę”, p. 16.

77   BŻAP 35/411, 20 Apr. 1948.

78   “Setki osób przybyło na otwarcie wystawy ‘Zbrodnie niemieckie’” (Iw.), Życie Radomskie, 24 May 1948; BŻAP 47/422, 3 Jun. 1948.

79   Iwona Gousse, “Wystawa ‘Zbrodnie niemieckie’”, Życie Radomskie, 27 May 1948.

80   Director of the PMM, Stanisław Brodziak, to the Lublin Military Region Command regarding the preparations for the commemorative events of “Majdanek Week” (3 Sep. 1946) in Państwowe Muzeum na Majdanku w latach 1944-1947, p. 183. Photographs: Symbolic handover of the barracks to the nations in Field IV, APMM, Fotografie, Kolekcja nr 6 (Wydarzenia w Muzeum 1944-1948), file no.:

81   BŻAP 106/216, 20 Sep. 1946.

82   Ibid.

83   Album “Muzeum Żydowskie w Majdanku”, 1946, AŻIH, Dział Graficzny, Album 15 nr 38993912   (A/31). Cf. also: Description of the Jewish pavilion at Majdanek drawn up by the Provincial KŻ in Lublin, 17 Sep. 1946, AŻIH, CKŻP, Wydz. Kultury i Propagandy 303/XXIII/218.

84   I am grateful to Monika Polit for her help in identifying and translating the quotation.

85   Official letter from the Provincial KŻ, Dept of Culture and Propaganda, to the CKŻP, Dept of Culture and Propaganda, 27 Nov. 1946, AŻIH, CKŻP, Wydz. Kultury i Propagandy 303/XXIII/218.

86   Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 24 Mar. 1948, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/9.

87   This was the camp inmate mentioned by Jan Sehn in the GKBZNwP study: “In the winter of 1942/1943, a giant Jew terrorised Block 11 and the penal company; his specific task was to kill people. He did not work, he was well fed and well clothed, and he stood in the place where the inmates worked, leaning on a long, thick bar, and shouting incessantly: ‘Bewegung’. If he took a dislike to one of the prisoners, he would call him over and, striking him with the bar on the back of the neck, kill him” (“Obóz zagłady w Oświęcimiu”, Biuletyn GKBZNwP, Vol. 1 (1946), p. 98).

88   Provincial Jewish Historical Commission (ŻKH) in Katowice to the CŻKH, 22 Oct. 1946, AŻIH, CŻKH, Oddz. w Katowicach 349.

89   Director of the PMOB, Tadeusz Wąsowicz, to the GKBZNwP, 15 Nov. 1946, AŻIH, CŻKH, Oddz. w Katowicach 430.

90   M. Bitter and J. Łazebnika to the GKBZNwP, 12 Dec. 1946, AŻIH, CŻKH 106.

91   Zofia Rozensztrauch to the CKŻP Presidium, 7 Jan. 1947, AŻIH, Żydowskie Tow. Krzewienia Sztuk Pięknych, korespondencja krajowa 1947 r. 61.

92   Planning principles of the museum in the former concentration camp in Oświęcim, no date (before 14 Jun. 1947), AAN, PZbWP 13. Cf. also: “Oświęcim w krwi i walce”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jun. 1947.

93   Planning principles of the museum in Oświęcim—official copy, no date (probably before 14   Jun. 1947), AAN, PZbWP 13.

94   Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 19 May 1947, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/7a.

95   Minutes of the meeting of the committee tasked with organising an exhibition on the martyrdom of the Jews in Auschwitz, Katowice 14 May 1947, AŻIH, CKŻP, Tow. Krzewienia Sztuk Pięknych, korespondencja krajowa 01.-10.1947 61.

96   Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 24 May 1947, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/7a; Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 6 Jun. 1947, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/7a.

97   CŻKH (Kermisz, Blumental) to the CKŻP, 30 May 1947, AŻIH, CŻKH 109; Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 10 Jun. 1947, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/7a; CŻKH (Kermisz, Blumental) to the CKŻP, 30 May 1947, AŻIH, CŻKH 109; “Muzeum Martyrologii Polskiej. Ogólnopolski Zlot b. więźniów w Oświęcimiu”, Dziennik Zachodni, 31 May 1947; “Muzeum w Oświęcimiu”, Opinia, 16 Jun. 1947.

98   For a description of the exhibition, see: BŻAP 57/305, 17 Jun. 1947; BŻAP 60/308, 27 Jun. 1947; Józef Kermisz, “Na największym cmentarzysku narodu żydowskiego”, Opinia, 12 Aug. 1947.

99   “Świadectwo zbrodni (14 czerwca 1947 r. w Oświęcimiu)”, hs, Nasze Słowo, 20 Jun. 1947.

100 Memorandum of the CŻKH sent to the Dept for Museums and Monuments of Polish Martyrdom, 14 Jul. 1947, AŻIH, CŻKH 109.

101 Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 5 Jan. 1948, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/9.

102 Minutes of the meeting of the CKŻP Presidium, 26 Feb. 1948, AŻIH, Prezydium CKŻP 303/I/9.

103 BŻAP 23/399, 3 Mar. 1948.

104 Minutes of the meeting of the ROPWiM, 23-24 Mar. 1948, AAN, MKiS, CZM, Wydz. Muzeów i Pomników Walki z Faszyzmem 1A.

105 Minutes of a meeting of the Auschwitz Museum Historical Commission, 7 Dec. 1948, APMAB, Materiały, t. 56 (Protokoły z posiedzeń Komisji Historycznej Muzeum w Oświęcimiu 1948-1949).

106 Repository of Records of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim (SkAPMAB), korespondencja 4.12.1948-19.12.1949: Jan Sehn to the director of the ŻIH, Nachman Blumental, 4 Dec. 1948; Nachman Blumental to Jan Sehn, 13 Dec. 1948.

107 Minutes of a conference of the Expert Committee of the ROPWiM, Oświęcim 19-21 Nov. 1948, APMM AZ I/14; Minutes of a meeting of the Auschwitz Museum Historical Commission, 31 Jan. 1949, APMAB, materiały, t. 56 (Protokoły posiedzeń Komisji Historycznej Muzeum Oświęcimskiego 1948-1949).

108 The form of the exhibition may be recreated on the basis of: Minutes of a conference of the ROPWiM, the Expert Committee, and representatives of the MKiS, the Auschwitz Museum Historical Commission, and the directorate of the PMOB, Oświęcim 2-3 Apr. 1949, APMM, AZ I/14; Scenario for the exhibition in Block 4, “Zagłada milionów”, PMOB, no date (on the file 1950), AAN, MKiS, Gabinet Ministra 110; APMAB, Fotografie, Wystawa sprzed 1955 r.

109 Minutes of a meeting of the Auschwitz Museum Historical Commission, 31 Jan. 1949, APMAB, Materiały t. 56 (Protokoły posiedzeń Komisji Historycznej Muzeum Oświęcimskiego).

110 Official letter, signature illegible, 14 Nov. 1949, AAN, KC PZPR, Wydz. Kultury 237/XVIII/81.

111 Minutes of a meeting of the Auschwitz Museum Historical Commission, 10 Oct. 1949, APMAB, Materiały, Vol. 56 (Minutes of meetings of the Auschwitz Museum Historical Commission, 1948-1949).

112 Minutes from a conference of the commission appointed by the MKiS at the request of the KC PZPR to establish the programme of the Auschwitz Museum, 20 Aug. 1950, AAN, ZBoWiD 2/271.

113 Official letter from S. Fiszgrund and B. Mark to J. Bogusz, 18 Oct. 1950, AAN, KC PZPR, Wydz. Propagandy 237/VIII/55.

114 Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową”, p. 424.

115 On the subject of the “anti-Zionist campaign” in the USSR and other countries of the Eastern bloc, see: Lustiger, Czerwona księga, pp. 237-322, 328-361 and the collection of articles and documents: Terror. Stalinistische Parteisäuberungen 1936-1953, Hermann Weber and Ulrich Mählert (eds), München-Wien-Zürich 2001.

116 On the subject of the Field affair, see the collection of documents: Der Fall Field. Schlüsselfigur der Schauprozesse in Osteuropa, Bernd-Rainer Barth and Werner Schweizer (eds), Berlin 2005.

117 Karel Kaplan, František Svátek, “Politische Säuberungen in der KPÈ” in Terror. Stalinistische Parteisäuberungen 1936-1953.

118 Hermann Weber, Geschichte der DDR, München 1989, pp. 184, 200.

119 Szaynok, “Walka z syjonizmem w Polsce”, passim; idem, Z historią i Moskwą w tle, pp. 165-177, 206-244; Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm, pp. 199-201.

120 On the subject of the memory of the Shoah in the USSR and other countries of the Eastern bloc, see, inter alia: Lustiger, Czerwona księga, pp. 141-150, 213-226; Zvi Gitelman, “History, Memory and Politics: The Holocaust in the Soviet Union”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 5, 1 (1990); idem, “The Soviet Politics of the Holocaust” in The Art of Memory; Al’man Il’ja, “Shoah: Gedenken verboten. Der weite Weg vom Sowjettabu zur Erinnerung”, Osteuropa (Kluften der Erinnerung. Russland und Deutschland 60 Jahre nach dem Krieg) 55, 4-6 (2005); John Klier, “The Holocaust and the Soviet Union” in Dan Stone (ed.) The Historiography of the Holocaust, Hampshire–New York 2004; Thomas C. Fox, “The Holocaust under Communism”, ibid.

121 Gitelman, “History, Memory and Politics”, p. 26.

122 Fox, “The Holocaust under Communism”.