Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Entrance to Auschwitz I, May 2006
|Established||April 1946, confirmed by an act of the Polish parliament on July 2, 1947|
|Visitors||1,72+ million (2015)|
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (Polish: Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau) is a memorial and museum in Oświęcim (German: Auschwitz), Poland, which includes the German concentration camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It is devoted to the memory of the murders in both camps during World War II. The museum performs several tasks, among them research into the Holocaust.
On July 2, 1947, the museum was founded by resolution of the Polish parliament. The area covers 191 hectares, twenty of them in camp Auschwitz I and 171 in camp Auschwitz II. Since 1979 the former concentration camp has belonged to the World Cultural Heritage and more than 25 million people have visited the museum. From 1955 to 1990 the museum was directed by one of its founders and former inmates, Kazimierz Smoleń.
The areas of remembrance are Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the train ramp between Auschwitz and Birkenau, which was used as a "debarkation-stop" between 1942–1944. The three kilometres between Auschwitz and Birkenau are within walking distance. The museum is situated in several original buildings.
The number of visitors has been increasing year by year. In 2006 more than one million people from 94 countries visited: from Poland (341,000), U.S. (96,000), UK (57,200), Italy (51,000), Germany (50,200), France (39,100), Israel (37,200), South Korea (35,400), Norway (30,600), and Spain (23,300). There were 1.3 million visitors in 2009 and 1.38 million in 2010. In 2011 more than 1.4 million people from 111 countries visited: from Poland (610,000), United Kingdom (82,000), Italy (78,000), Israel (62,000), Germany (58,000), France (56,000), United States (52,000), Spain (46,000), South Korea and Czech Republic (43,000 each).
After the Soviet Union handed over the camp to Poland in 1947, the parliament declared the area to be a museum on July 2, 1947. Simultaneously the first exhibition in the barracks was opened. In Stalinist Poland, on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the first deportation of Polish captives to camp Auschwitz, the exhibition was revised under assistance of former inmates. However, this exhibition was influenced by the Cold War and next to pictures of Jewish ghettos, photos of slums in the USA were presented.
After Stalin's death, a new exhibition was planned in 1955, which is basically still valid today. In 1959 every nation who had victims in Auschwitz received the right to present its own exhibition. However, victims like homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Sinti and Roma and Yeniche people did not receive these rights. The state of Israel was also refused the allowance for its own exhibition as the murdered Jews in Auschwitz were not citizens of Israel. In April 1968 the Jewish exhibition, designed by Andrzej Szczypiorski, was opened. A scandal occurred in 1979 when Pope John Paul II held a mass in Birkenau and called the camp a "Golgotha of our times".
In 1962 a prevention zone around the museum in Birkenau (and in 1977 one around the museum in Auschwitz) was established in order to maintain the historical condition of the camp. These zones were confirmed by the Polish parliament in 1999. In 1967 the first big memorial monument was inaugurated and in the 1990s the first information boards were set up.
The national exhibitions
Since 1960 the so-called "national exhibitions" have been located in the former concentration camp Auschwitz I. Most of them were renewed from time to time, for example those of Belgium, France, Hungary, Netherlands, Slovakia, Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union. The German exhibition, which was made by the former GDR, has not been renewed since.
The first national exhibition of the Soviet Union was opened in 1961 and renewed in 1977 and 1985. In 2003 the Russian organizing committee suggested to present a completely new exhibition. The Soviet part of the museum was closed, but the reopening was delayed as there were differences in the questions of the territorial situation of the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941. The question of the territories of the Baltic countries, eastern Poland and parts of Romania could not be solved.
In 1978 Austria opened its own exhibition, presenting itself as a victim of National Socialism. This one-sided view motivated the Austrian political scientist Andreas Maislinger to work in the museum within the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP) in 1980/81. Later he founded the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service. The Austrian federal president Rudolf Kirchschläger had advised Maislinger that as a young Austrian he did not need to atone for anything in Auschwitz. Due to this disapproving attitude of the official Austrian representation, the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service could not be launched before September 1992.
The museum has allowed scenes for three films to be filmed on the site: Pasażerka (1963) by Polish director Andrzej Munk, Landscape After the Battle (1970) by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and a television miniseries, War and Remembrance (1988). Permission was denied to Steven Spielberg for the construction of film sets on the grounds of the museum, for shooting scenes for Schindler's List (1993) onsite. A "replica" camp entrance was constructed outside the infamous archway for the scene in which the train arrives carrying the women who were saved by Oskar Schindler.
In 1979, the newly elected Polish Pope John Paul II celebrated mass on the grounds of Auschwitz II to some 500,000 people, and announced that Edith Stein would be beatified. Some Catholics erected a cross near Bunker 2 of Auschwitz II where she had been gassed. A short while later, a Star of David appeared at the site, leading to a proliferation of religious symbols, which were eventually removed.
Carmelite nuns opened a convent near Auschwitz I in 1984. After some Jewish groups called for the removal of the convent, representatives of the Catholic Church agreed in 1987. One year later the Carmelites erected an 8 m (26 ft) tall cross from the 1979 mass near their site, just outside Block 11 and barely visible from within the camp. This led to protests by Jewish groups, who said that mostly Jews were killed at Auschwitz and demanded that religious symbols be kept away from the site. The Catholic Church told the Carmelites to move by 1989, but they stayed on until 1993, leaving the cross behind. In 1998, after further calls to remove the cross, some 300 smaller crosses were erected by local activists near the large one, leading to further protests and heated exchanges. Following an agreement between the Polish Catholic Church and the Polish government, the smaller crosses were removed in 1999, but a large papal one remains.
Liberation day anniversaries
The 50th anniversary of the liberation ceremony was held in Auschwitz I in 1995. About a thousand ex-prisoners attended it. In 1996, Germany made January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, the official day for the commemoration of the victims of National Socialism. Countries who have also adopted similar memorial days include Denmark (Auschwitz Day), Italy (Memorial Day) and Poland (Memorial Day for the Victims of Nazism). A commemoration was held for the 70th anniversary of the liberation in 2015.
UNESCO name change
The Polish Foreign Ministry has voiced objections to the use of the expression "Polish death camp" in relation to Auschwitz, in case the phrase suggested that Poland rather than Germany had perpetrated the Holocaust. In June 2007, the United Nations World Heritage Committee announced that their new name for the site was "Auschwitz Birkenau," with the subtitle "German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)."
Arbeit macht frei sign theft
Early in the morning on December 18, 2009 the Arbeit macht frei ("work makes you free") sign over the gate of Auschwitz I was stolen. Police found the sign hidden in a forest outside Gdańsk two days later. The theft was organised by a Swedish former neo-Nazi, Anders Högström, who reportedly hoped to use proceeds from the proposed sale of the sign to a collector of Nazi memorabilia, to finance a series of terror attacks aimed at influencing voters in upcoming Swedish parliamentary elections. Högström was convicted in Poland and sentenced to serve two years eight months in a Swedish prison, and five Polish men who had acted on his behalf served prison time in Poland.
Högström and his accomplices badly damaged the sign during the theft, cutting it into three pieces. Conservationists restored the sign to its original condition, and it currently is in storage, awaiting eventual display inside the museum. A replica hangs in its original place.
Iranian visit not allowed
In February 2006, Poland refused to grant visas to Iranian researchers who were planning to visit Auschwitz. Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller said his country should stop Iran from investigating the scale of the Holocaust, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed as a myth. Holocaust denial is punishable in Poland by a prison sentence of up to three years.
Czechoslovakian Jew Dina Babbitt imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943-45 painted a dozen portraits of Romani inmates for the war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele during his medical experiments. Seven of the original 12 studies were discovered after the Holocaust and purchased by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 1963 from an Auschwitz survivor. The Museum asked Babbitt to return to Poland in 1973 to identify her work. She did so, but also requested that the Museum allow her to take her paintings home with her. Officials from the Museum led by Rabbi Andrew Baker stated that the portraits belonged to the SS and Mengele, who died in Brazil in 1979. There was an initiative to have the Museum return the portraits in 1999, headed by the U.S. government petitioned by Rafael Medoff and some American comic book artists. The Museum rejected these claims as legally groundless.
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