This transcript has been edited for clarity
SPECIAL ENVOY ELLEN GERMAIN: All right. Well, welcome everyone and good afternoon. I’m Ellen Germain, the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues. And on behalf of the State Department and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I’d like to welcome you all to this special commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
I really want to thank the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, its director Sara Bloomfield, and her whole team, especially Wendy Cohen, for their partnership in this event and for all they do every day to preserve the memory and the history of the Holocaust and to confront hate and promote human dignity. Auschwitz of course, holds a unique place in history as a symbol of the depths of evil to which humanity can descend. Auschwitz shows the horrors that can result from unbridled antisemitism and hatred of those who are different.
Its importance as a place of accurate and truthful commemoration and education cannot be overstated. We’re very honored to have with us today the director of the Auschwitz Museum, Dr. Piotr Cywinski, who has done so much to honor the victims and survivors of Auschwitz, to preserve their history, and to guard against distortion and denial of the Holocaust. We are also very grateful to have with us two survivors of Auschwitz, Ruth Cohen and Irene Fogel Weiss.
Both were born in what was then Czechoslovakia and were deported to Auschwitz in 1944. I am deeply moved by their presence here as well as by the presence of other survivors. Thank you all for being here. We have a short and I hope interesting program to honor our special guest, Dr. Cywinski, before we move to the reception. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is giving Dr. Cywinski a well-deserved award, and then we’ll have the chance to hear him talk about his work during a short conversation with Sara Bloomfield.
But first, it is my great pleasure to introduce Karen Donfried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs to start us off.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KAREN DONFRIED: Good afternoon to all of you, and thank you, Ellen. It is my sincere honor to welcome all of you to the State Department for this important occasion to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. And we are simply delighted to be honoring its director, Dr. Cywinski, for his accomplishments in preserving the Auschwitz-Birkenau site and ensuring its international stature is one of the world’s most moving and most important historic sites.
I also want to thank the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its partnership in this event. The preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau is critical to ensuring that the historical fact of the Holocaust is made tangible to new generations, and that its lessons continue to be taught and understood. It is thanks to dedicated people such as Dr. Cywinski that Poland continues to do important work on Holocaust commemoration.
His leadership of this mission truly has been extraordinary. Auschwitz and Birkenau should never have existed, so why are we so keen to preserve this place of unspeakable horror? Would it not be reasonable to erase it from the landscape, remove the very thought of what it represents from our minds, recognize it as the cemetery it is, and then let the grass grow over it and leave it to the dead?
Our answer to these questions is no. We must not forget such evil. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland ensures that we remember. More than 75 years after the crematoria ceased their deadly work, the State Museum continues to ensure the site is preserved in perpetuity. Backed by enormous support from the Polish government and international donors, this site is maintained to help future generations understand that such cold-blooded cruelty and systematic mass murder must never happen again. And to stand as irrefutable evidence of the Holocaust to any perverse persons who may deny it took place.
The United States is among the site’s proud supporters, and since 2010 has contributed $17 million to the Auschwitz-Birkenau foundation. I am especially pleased our colleagues from the Polish Embassy are joining us here today. As allies and partners Poland and the United States have stood together through many challenges. We are doing so again today as we and so many other countries around the world have together called on the Russian government to stop its unconscionable war against Ukraine.
The very ideals that bind the United States and Poland — freedom, tolerance, democracy, peace, security — are under threat across Europe as never before, certainly not since the Second World War and the Holocaust. It is particularly appalling that the Kremlin has exploited the history of the Holocaust to further its geopolitical aims against Ukraine and other countries in the region. In supporting the preservation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, we stand in eternal solidarity with survivors.
We must safeguard your testimony, their testimony, so that truth will never die. The world must never forget. The world must never deny. The world must never downplay the Holocaust. We must remain ever on guard, and we must do far more to teach the lessons of the Holocaust and apply them in our own time. We must counter hate and lies with tolerance and truth. And we must stand up for human dignity and freedom wherever they are imperiled. Thank you so much and congratulations and thank you for your important work.
MS. GERMAIN: Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary Donfried. And I’m now pleased to introduce Adam Krzywosadzki, Deputy Head of Mission of the Polish Embassy here in Washington.
MR. ADAM KRZYWOSADZKI: Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honor to represent the Embassy of the Republic of Poland at this important event. My boss, Ambassador Marek Magierowski, is out of town this week, but he wanted me to convey his warmest regards to all of you. I want to express my special thanks to the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Ms. Ellen Germain, and her office as well as to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for organizing today’s ceremony.
I also want to join others in recognizing our special guest, Mr. Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Since its establishment in June 1947, the museum has played an indispensable role in preserving the memory of the Holocaust and disseminating the facts surrounding this barbaric time in human history. Thanks to the tireless work of its staff, millions of people have witnessed first hand the truth about the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp, and have glimpsed into the horrors of the Shoah.
For the past 16 years under the leadership of director Cywinski, the museum has broadened the scope of its commemorative efforts and its outreach to wider audiences. And the director himself is widely recognized for his energy, professionalism, and impartiality. As a Pole I’m truly proud to observe the profound respect with which various interlocutors, like Madam Secretary Donfried as well, from different countries refer to the museum, rightly treating it as one of the most important Holocaust Memorial institutions in the world.
Unfortunately, the Herculean task that the museum and its leadership have been entrusted with will never be completed. In fact, one can argue that in time it will only grow in its complexity and significance. With the diminishing number of the last survivors, the most important voices that spread knowledge about the Shoah will soon be lost. This, in turn, will likely amplify the narratives of deniers and make fighting indifference even more difficult.
And as we have witnessed time and time again in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Burma, and most recently Ukraine, the risk of history repeating itself is not at all elusive. Since February 24, the suffering of the people of Mariupol, Bucha, Kramatorsk, and so many others has served as a stark reminder of the wicked side of human nature. But this should not lead us to despair. Instead, this realization should serve as a call to double down on our efforts in the quest for collective memory.
And to rally around institutions such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Poland has been and is committed to supporting these efforts as evidenced by Polish governments over the years have dedicated substantial resources for maintaining, preserving, and protecting places of Jewish Heritage in Poland. Such sites include the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa the street in Warsaw, the museum in Majdanek, and the Radegast Railway Station at the former Litzmannstadt ghetto today in Lodz, just to name a few.
In doing so Poland has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to ensuring that important Jewish sites, monuments, and places of cultural significance are cared for and preserved. I stand here today to affirm once more that Poland will continue to preserve the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust. May we all recognize this common duty and instill this urgency in this great task in the future generations of Americans and Poles alike.
And I have no doubt that under the skilled leadership of director Cywinski, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum will continue to play an absolutely indispensable role in this crucial endeavor. Thank you, Mr. Director and thanks to all of you.
MS. GERMAIN: Thank you very much, Adam. And now, I’d like to ask a man well-known to probably all of you, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, Chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council to come to the podium to present the award.
AMBASSADOR STUART EIZENSTAT: Thank you, Ellen. Let me begin by thanking my dear friend, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, whose family had its own Holocaust history, and the State Department for hosting this important event and for their strong and continuing commitment to Holocaust memory and education. This is embodied today by our distinguished Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Karen Donfried, from whom you’ve heard, and by our host and moderator and my colleague, Ellen Germain, who provides stellar leadership for the Office of Holocaust Envoy Issues every day of the week.
Although I have served and continue to serve the State Department for several decades, I stand here today as Chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and whose creation in the Carter administration I played a direct role. I’m inspired every day as Chair by working with Sara Bloomfield who for 24 years has given remarkable leadership to our museum. Today, our museum pays tribute to your museum, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
But it’s much more than a museum. It’s a historic site. It’s the site of a watershed event in human history, an iconic symbol the world over of human evil. It’s also the largest Jewish graveyard in the world. Auschwitz remains our most potent reminder of the dangers of antisemitism, intolerance, abandonment of the rule of law, and hatred. It remains one of our strongest bulwarks against Holocaust ignorance denial and distortion, which are unfortunately intensifying rather than receding with the passage of time.
That’s why it’s my privilege on behalf of our museum to recognize the long-standing esteemed leader of the Auschwitz State Museum, Dr. Piotr Cywinski, who has led the museum since 2006. Under his remarkable leadership, the Auschwitz Museum has expanded and transformed itself in multiple ways, always respecting the meaning and authenticity of the site while also enhancing its educational impact.
Piotr has built a strong foundation that will secure the camp’s long-term future. He has overseen the modernization of the country pavilions and advanced the preservation of thousands of artifacts and archives by building state of the art conservation laboratories. He undertook a major project to preserve the fragile barracks while maintaining their original construction. He grew visitation to the camp, which before COVID was more than 2.3 million a year from over 40 different countries.
During his tenure, numerous educational elements of this massive site have been further enhanced, and new commemorative elements added to Birkenau, so visitors could better understand the horrific events that happened there. This is impressive, but Piotr has never been complacent and rested on his laurels. With his relentless drive and determination, he’s built a new education center and a visitor center is now underway.
He brings enormous vision and innovation to the grave responsibilities he bears. He also brings rigor, sensitivity, and a unique ability to stay rooted in the past, and at the same time focused on the future, carefully preserving history while also creatively ensuring its relevance to new generations. And may I say with you here and with the Chargé, we’re all inspired that Poland has absorbed the lessons of the Holocaust by taking in willingly millions of Ukrainian refugees — a great burden on your population, but it’s done so willingly based on the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
This is very inspirational. Born in Warsaw, Piotr has spent part of his youth in Switzerland and in France where his family lived as exiles from communism. He earned his PhD at the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences. And in addition to numerous publications, he is active in Polish Jewish and Catholic Jewish dialogue. And has been honored by several nations– Poland, Belgium, Greece, France, and Monaco.
Today, it’s my pleasure to honor him with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s National Leadership Award in recognition of his stellar leadership of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and his singular contributions to advancing the cause of Holocaust memory and education in Europe and throughout the entire world. Piotr, on behalf of all of us at the Holocaust Museum, I want to express our most profound and heartfelt gratitude for all that you’ve done and will continue to do, and for being such a cherished friend and important partner to our museum. Please come forward to accept our highest award.
You’re a genuine inspiration.
DR. PIOTR CYWINSKI: Dear survivors, ladies, and gentlemen. Yes, 75 years ago, the Memorial was created. So, we are speaking about the post-war history, the history of the remembrance. And the story of the remembrance was still not described by historians. The real story all around the world in different countries, in different communities, in different perspectives, in different educational systems is something that is still before us.
The evolution of this memory and of this education was totally different in so many different parts of the world until now. And since the ’90s there’s a very, very deep cooperation between our memorials and museums. Between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was very, very deep and very, very strong. And I would like to thank Sara Bloomfield for this. And of course, the whole team of your collaborators.
It was a history of a deep trust, of an understanding of the past, and of I really think a community of values. And this is something absolutely incredible. If two institutions in different parts of the world can really understand us so well together and to cooperate in so many different levels and so many different projects. But when you are speaking about the 75 years of Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, we are speaking about also today our today’s responsibility.
And the question of the responsibility is a question of the role of this memory. I have a deep feeling that if we place this memory, this history, this past only in history books– that means we have failed to understand the truth about humanity it reveals, really. To win against the deniers is just the beginning of our way. And in the post-war times, if you look at the global level in our culture, our social norms, of our legal evolution, or political, or diplomatic evolution, of our understanding of ethics or religious dialogue — I think we can’t comprehend ourselves without a deep understanding of the dehumanization, the exclusion, the anti-Semitism, all what was in Auschwitz and during the whole German Third Reich. I think that now we have to really understand. And with this terrific war of Russia in Ukraine, we understand certainly better that remembrance must become clearly a part of our identity. This is our world 75 years after those first steps that the survivors did by the creation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
I would like to thank the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Sara Bloomfield and all the team, and of course, Stuart Eizenstat for this recognition to me and of course, to my closest collaborators, my friends from the Memorial who sometimes give clearly the entire life for this remembrance and for the next generation. Thank you.
MS. GERMAIN: Thank you so much, Piotr, and thank you, Stu. And now I’d like to invite Sara Bloomfield, Director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to join Dr. Cywinski for a short conversation about the Auschwitz Museum.
MS. SARA BLOOMFIELD: Can you hear me? Yes. Well, congratulations, partner.
DR. CYWINSKI: Thank you.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: It’s been a great relationship as you can tell. So, I think there’s a part of the history of the camp that a lot of people don’t know about. And I want you to go back for a minute to of course, the Soviet liberation happens in 1945, and it doesn’t become a museum until 1947, but talk about under communist Poland the propaganda around Auschwitz and how it played such an important role in that communist propaganda.
DR. CYWINSKI: It was two different periods. It is a period ’45 to ’47. There was a long discussion, mainly between survivors, what to do with those remains. And many of them were saying that, yes, nobody will understand that. Those who are not going through Auschwitz, they will not understand in the future what it was, so it has no sense. But the majority wanted the creation of, let’s say, an institution, a museum, or something like this in order to save the remembrance.
When there were some big groups of survivors in Poland, let’s say the Communist was not touching too much this history. However, during Stalin’s time it was very interesting until 1956. For them, Auschwitz was a symbol of the Western capitalism and imperialism. Now, this was let’s say the logic of the Stalin’s time. After Stalin died, until ’68 it was a normalization of the situation.
The Jews appear in this history from time to time, but after ’68 when the Communist anti-Semitism arrived to Poland, the Jews disappear completely for the history — at the state level, let’s say at a propaganda level. And it was like this until solidarity in 1980 when of course, the truth reappears. And the decadence of the system of course, after it changed. It changed a lot after ’89 or ’90, let’s say, a normalization arrived.
But what that means? That means that this place such as Auschwitz must be very, very far from politicians, from politics, from political narrative. With our sacred ground, we cannot enter in politics with Auschwitz, and we cannot let politicians enter to Auschwitz to do politics.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: Yes, my first trip there, the victims were victims of fascism. Nobody was a Jew.
DR. CYWINSKI: There were victims of fascists from 27 or 28 countries. This was the official Nazi propaganda at that time.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: So speaking of the Russians, there was just a publicized incident. Is it right the Russians waged a bit of cyber warfare with some fake graffiti that they said, well—
DR. CYWINSKI: Completely fake graffiti, as you know, it never happens. We are observing through monitoring, through visions, through our guards, white guides, nothing happened like this. So, it was some Photoshop, let’s say, pictures prepared in Russia apparently saying that, yes, all Russian must go to the gas for Ukraine– I don’t know what. It was a provocation, but it was very easy to prove that it’s a provocation.
It happened from time to time that Auschwitz is used as a very good provocative place because it’s something that touch– some people are very moved when they see that something happened in Auschwitz. So, our role is also to say no, stop. It’s just an awful provocation where Auschwitz is only used for some very, very awful, let’s say, goals.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: Well, just like Putin has of course, used this so-called denazification as his rationale for Ukraine. Do you see this directly tied or—
DR. CYWINSKI: For me, it’s very clear. Is the same, let’s say, source of inspiration.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: Yes. So, I want to go back to what was mentioned by many of our speakers today, which is the size of the camp. I’ve tried to think about how many times I’ve been there– probably 25. And every time I’m there the scale of it hits me like a bolt of lightning. It’s just– no one can grasp that enormity. And you have the responsibility of preserving the enormity of that site, the mass of collections.
We showed a picture of the barracks. Talk a little bit about the preservation challenges you faced and a few things you’ve been able to do.
DR. CYWINSKI: Yes. It’s something enormous and I realized it after I took this position. 200 hectares, 155 buildings, more than 100,000 shoes, thousands of suitcases, tens of thousands of pictures, of documents, of items– it’s something absolutely incredible because it was created just two years after the war. If it would recreate it 20 years after, maybe nothing will stay until that. But yes, and all those buildings, or nearly all those buildings were not created for a long time.
Just a tiny — it’s a brick or wooden buildings for the time of the war. Fortunately, we were able to create the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation with the help of some 40 countries, among them the United States. Thank you, a lot. And with that help, with the founding of this foundation we are now able to really connect some very, very good and deep preservation works. And yes, there’s a small, or even a quite bigger every year, light at the end of the tunnel.
I think that the most difficult building in Birkenau, especially in the woman camps, will be really preserved and saved. They will not collapse like it was looking 10 years ago or 15 years ago.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: Can you give us a sense of just how big the site is, the entire site?
DR. CYWINSKI: 200 hectares. I don’t know what it is in the American system, but it’s– Birkenau it’s something like one kilometer long and one kilometer large, something like this. It’s absolutely enormous.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: Right. So, let’s talk about the educational part and who comes, and it was already mentioned — the mass of visitation from all over the world. It’s way beyond Europe now, which is just terrific. I just wondered if you could say a little bit about if you know who your visitors are, the specific countries they come from. Do you know why they come, what they take away from their visit? I’ve heard you tell a few anecdotes about your visitors.
DR. CYWINSKI: They’re mainly coming from Europe, North America, Israel, and the far Asia, South Korea, Japan, Australia also. For me, it’s more interesting to see from where they are not coming. The Africa, the South America, some part of the Asia. This is my biggest, let’s say, center of interest to try to reach those people who are not coming to Auschwitz. 60% are young people, so they are coming in general with some programs, school, or other educational programs.
But let’s say, my main goal I think is not to know who is entering to Auschwitz. My main goal is to know who is leaving Auschwitz. This is a sense of this education on the remembrance. My hope is that the people who are leaving Auschwitz after three, four, five, eight hours — it depends on the program they took– they are going out with not only some facts, some empathy, or some reflections about the past, but also with a moral anxiety about their choice in today’s world. Because this is a sense of the never again.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: I just was with you at Auschwitz. You told an anecdote about you walked up to an Asian visitor. Can you tell that anecdote.
DR. CYWINSKI: It was 15 years ago. I was really at my beginning. And there was 40,000 people from South Korea coming to Auschwitz. They were every time asking me, why 40,000 people from South Korea? It’s enormous if you compare to 3,000 people from Austria, for example. So I was walking through Auschwitz and I’ve got some keys in my hand. It was a big error because if you have some keys that it means you have some rights, some power.
And somebody asked me, I don’t know, a question where are some facilities, from South Korea. And yes, it’s the same direction, we can walk. We walked and I ask him, why are you coming here? It’s my company who give me seven days in Europe as a recognition. But why did you not choose Paris, or Rome, or Venice, or I don’t know, London? Why did you decide to come to Auschwitz? And he looked at me very, very surprised that I asked him why. And he answered me very, very clearly. For a long time I wanted to understand Europe.
Yeah. This is something that I will remember until the last day of my life. He is coming to Auschwitz because you want to understand Europe.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: Yes. Very powerful. So, if you were just speaking to anyone, why should people visit Auschwitz?
DR. CYWINSKI: As I tried to say just before, I think there are two levels of reasons. The one is, of course, the past and the history. A history that is denied, history that is subject of distortions. A history that is used even in an anti-Semitic way that is incredible. But the other, let’s say, level is we cannot understand that today’s world without a deep referring to the history of the Second World War, of the Holocaust, and of Auschwitz as a symbol.
You cannot. You cannot really imagine your role, the dangers that are occurring, and what can be your role in the very early, let’s say, prevention or the very early reaction in your life if you do not refer to the remembrance. Only in the remembrance you can find some solutions or some motivation to act. And you cannot imagine the future if you do not understand the past. The past of as a part of today’s time, of our today identity is something very important.
A past not as something that was and we don’t know when, but as something that is still in our heart. So, I think that you cannot be an adult prepared to confront today’s time without a deep understanding that the past, even the most cruel past, is a part of your today’s identity and you must understand it.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: I think there’s something about the standing on that ground that you just realize that the unthinkable really is possible. You cannot escape it standing there in that sacred horrific ground. Piotr, I just want to conclude by sharing with our guests today a very famous iconic photograph. Yes. This very powerful photograph that you know well and it’s actually placed at Auschwitz exactly—
DR. CYWINSKI: At Birkenau.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: Yes, I’m sorry. At Birkenau, exactly where it was taken. Exactly where this happened, you can see it today. This picture is happening at a time when the world knew about what was happening at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And shortly after this photo was taken what happened?
@StateSEHI: No words. Auschwitz survivor Irene Weiss points to her 2 brothers & mother in a 1944 photo near the Birkenau crematoria. They don’t know they’re in the “last half hour of life,” as @AuschwitzMuseum director Cywiński said. What kind of monster takes such a picture-and kills?
DR. CYWINSKI: We are in May 1944 close to the gas chambers and crematorium number five in Birkenau. As you can see, there are only mothers, small kids, and old people. So, it’s after the selection and it is the last, I don’t know, half an hour of life of those people. It’s terrific because those are pictures taken by the SS. We don’t know why really, maybe a sort of documentation. But they are the only pictures that we have of direct victims of the Holocaust in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
MS. BLOOMFIELD: Well, and I end with the victims because that is why you do your remarkable work, you and your wonderful colleagues. It’s why all of us are here. We pay special tribute to all the survivors I see here. It is for you and your loved ones who were lost in tribute to these victims. So, on behalf of the Museum and the State Department, thank you and congratulations.
DR. CYWINSKI: Thank you, Sara. Thank you, everybody.
MS. GERMAIN: Thank you so much, Piotr and Sara, for that really moving and illuminating conversation. And now, I’d like to invite everyone out to a reception in the foyer just outside the auditorium. Thank you all for being here.