Auschwitz museum launches fascinating photo album to coincide with 75th anniversary
A photo album illustrating the history of the Auschwitz Museum has been published to coincide with its 75th anniversary this month.
The album '75 years of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial' is divided into six chapters: the creation of the museum, survivors at the memorial, the preservation of authenticity, education and remembrance, visits and caretakers of the memorial.
Photographs illustrating events in the museum's history are accompanied by quotations from letters and entries in the memorial book, mainly by leaders of states and international organisations, which highlight the role and importance of the site.
The album closes with a calendar of the most important events in the museum's history.
Summing up the museum’s 75 years, director Piotr Cywiński wrote in the album: “It is a history that has been discovered, researched, explored, disseminated, and retold with the development of documentary research and the emergence of ever-new testimonies, memoirs, and accounts.
“It is a history that has also repeatedly had to be defended against various distortions, falsifications, revisionism, and denial.”
The first permanent exhibition at the museum on the grounds of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp opened on 2 July 1947.
Opened on the initiative of former prisoners, some of whom had moved back to live at the camp after the war, they believed that the traces of genocide must not be forgotten.
Opening the museum before July 1947 was not possible because the camp had been controlled by the Soviet authorities since its liberation on 27 January 1945.
In April or May 1945, the Soviets set up transit camps for German prisoners of war in the former main camp and in Birkenau.
Polish citizens from Upper Silesia and the Opole region who had signed the volksliste during the occupation were imprisoned in Birkenau.
The Soviet prison in the main camp existed until autumn 1945, and in Birkenau until March 1946. In addition, there was another camp operated by the State Office of Public Security for people considered dangerous to the new system. Many of them died.
It was also thanks to the prisoners that a lot of evidence of genocide from the camp was saved.
When the Germans decided to evacuate the camp at the end of 1944, the SS tried to cover up their crimes. They started to burn camp documents, they blew up the crematoria and gas chambers II, III and V, and set fire to the warehouses containing the property stolen from Jews.
Some of this was saved by prisoners. This was the case, for example, with the photographs of the new arrivals at Auschwitz.
A group of prisoners assigned to burn them by the SS men flooded the furnace with water, even though they could have paid for it with their lives. A total of 40,000 photographs were saved in this way. Some of the daily registers kept by the Germans were saved in a similar way.
There were also many traces left by prisoners with the hope that someone would one day find them and learn what happened in Auschwitz.
This is how, for example, after the war, near one of the crematoriums, records were found of Sonderkommando members who saw with their own eyes the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
The destruction of evidence continued after the camp’s liberation when it was under the control of the Red Army.
Soviet soldiers dismantled some of the barracks and equipment in the industrial facilities and confiscated documents.
A lot of property was treated as war booty and taken to the Soviet Union. Some soldiers dug up the soil and ashes of the victims at Birkenau looking for valuables.
Soviet soldiers adapted many of the buildings for their own use. For example, in the spring of 1945, they arranged a dance ground on the roof of the gas chamber and crematorium I in the main camp.
It was only by chance that the Arbeit macht frei sign, removed from above the gate and prepared for transport, survived. It was spotted by Eugeniusz Nosal, an employee of the Oświęcim Municipal Authority, who bribed a guard and took it from the wagon. The inscription was restored to its original place during the establishment of the museum.
After the site had been handed over to the Polish authorities, the ministry for rebuilding decided to demolish most of the wooden barracks and to send the materials to places in Poland that had suffered during the war.
In 1946, even before the camp opened, 100,000 people visited the site of the former camp. The ashes of the victims and other traces of the crime were visible in many places.
At the time, the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland was working at the site of the camp, collecting evidence in connection with the trials of first Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess and then a further 40 SS members.
In 1947, the first exhibition opened in the main camp in several post-camp blocks, depicting the history of the extermination and the living conditions of the camp prisoners.
In 1955 a new exhibition was opened, which, with some changes, has survived to the present day.
At the beginning, the museum could only be visited if accompanied by a member of staff, who was also a guide. The staff usually showed groups of several dozen people around.
In Birkenau, it was possible to see the barracks of the women's camp, the ruins of the crematoria and the incineration pits, while in the latter it was possible to see the gate with the inscription ‘Arbeit macht frei’, block 11, in the basement of which the standing cells were reconstructed, and the courtyard with the reconstructed Wall of Death.
At Birkenau, efforts were made to maintain the former camp in a condition close to the original. The only major new element introduced to this part of the camp was the International Monument to the Victims of the Camp, unveiled in 1967.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is, along with the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute and the US United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the best known and most important institution in the world dealing with this subject.
The museum covers an area of almost 200 hectares, more than 150 buildings and about 300 ruins, including the remains of the gas chambers and crematoria blown up by the Germans.
It is home to collections, archives and the largest collection of artworks dedicated to Auschwitz in the world with some 6,000 works.
The Germans established Auschwitz in 1940 to imprison Poles. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was established two years later. It became the site of the extermination of Jews.
There was also a network of sub-camps in the camp complex. At Auschwitz, the Germans exterminated at least 1.1 million people, mainly Jews, but also Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and people of other nationalities.
The Polish-English publication is available electronically HERE.