Photo by Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau
The key thing in driving the improvements is to work hard and on a daily basis. This means that we should educate not only opinion-formers but also the masses of visitors that tour the Museum every day.
In conversation with Piotr M.A. Cywiński, PhD, Head of the Auschwitz Memorial and State Museum
What can we do to counteract mendacious terminology such as “Polish camps”, which is perpetrated by the foreign media?
In my view, there are two measures that have been successful and must be continued. Firstly, the Polish diaspora should cooperate with the Polish foreign service on a regular basis. In many cases, the grass roots can put a lot of pressure locally on particular newspapers. Secondly, there must be consistent educational programmes that are designed to produce more sustainable effects.
The Auschwitz Memorial and State Museum lays a lot of emphasis on educating journalists. What are the effects of this?
The seventieth anniversary of Auschwitz liberation, which is the most publicised event in the Museum’s entire history, has also brought the opportunity to create a website to assist journalists. We are also happy to collaborate with journalists throughout the world on a daily basis, and we send them regular news items. I am sure that, by taking part in the project, they are now able to avoid a lot of unnecessary mistakes. We have also created an app called “Remember”, which fishes out terms such as “Polish camps” and suggests more suitable alternatives. The app helps us to publicise the whole affair.
These measures attract media attention, but the key thing in driving the improvements is to work hard and on a daily basis. This means that we should educate not only opinion-formers but also the masses of visitors that tour the Museum every day. I do pin my hopes on these visitors, especially as the Museum attracts young people in huge quantities. I do hope that the situation will start to show a significant improvement over time. Some things just cannot change overnight or with one decision.
Have you noticed any improvement over the last ten years since you took over as the Head of the Auschwitz Memorial and State Museum?
In my opinion, the awareness of World War II and concentration camps is growing. The journalists who address the issue on a regular basis usually realise the gravity of the issue, and they know that German camps should never be called “Polish”. Ten years ago or so, they would look at you with disbelief if you pointed out the mistake. A growing number of journalists are now able to admit their mistakes or inaccuracies. Unfortunately, these mistakes will still be perpetuated in the fast-moving world of the contemporary media, whose focus is on instant effect without suitable verification or proofreading. That being said, we are doing everything in our power to prevent these mistakes from happening.
Photo by Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau
I have also been asked how we, the Polish staff of the Auschwitz Memorial and State Museum, can handle the fact that our grandparents perpetrated these atrocities. This only shows how much work needs to be done.
In conversation with Andrzej Kacorzyk, Head of the International Centre for Education About Auschwitz and the Holocaust
Do foreign visitors to the Auschwitz Memorial and State Museum actually know the history of this place?
The Museum attracts people whose knowledge about the Holocaust, World War II or the German occupation of Poland, varies significantly. Europeans and Israelis are more aware of the history – that’s for sure. The majority of Europeans, especially from the countries afflicted by the tragedy of World War II, know quite a lot about history. The sad thing, however, is that these same Europeans still do not know who was responsible for all this. I have also been asked how we, the Polish staff of the Auschwitz Memorial and State Museum, can handle the fact that our grandparents perpetrated these atrocities. This only shows how much work needs to be done.
How does the Auschwitz Memorial and State Museum educate the visitors to discriminate between the victims and the perpetrators?
It is essential that our guides are prepared thoroughly. They must be both knowledgeable and have a passion for teaching. We go out of our way to provide guides who can both pass on their knowledge of history and answer all the queries or dispel the doubts.
We are also striving to provide stories that are based on facts and are in the mother tongue of the visitors. Our guides speak a total of 18 different languages, so we can reach out to the majority of the visitors in their own language. We are also extremely particular about accuracy. That is why we tend to use the original German terminology. These words demonstrate who the camp personnel were and who should be held responsible for the atrocities. We also point out to our guides that their language cannot be impersonal – they must be precise and keep their message true. And so we would never say that “gas was thrown into a gas chamber” because the sentence provides no information on the perpetrators. We make it clear that particular people – the SS personnel – threw lethal Zyklon B into the chambers.
What other measures do you take to raise the awareness of Auschwitz?
One such way will be to build a new venue for the International Centre for Education About Auschwitz and the Holocaust. We are really keen to create a site that summarises your visit with a stop at a Holocaust memorial. We do not want our visitors to switch from the gas chamber back to simple entertainment. We do not want to provide an experience that is emotional only. We also need a place that encourages discussion and gives our visitors an additional time for reflection, to understand more and for the experience of Auschwitz to sink in.
We go out of our way to increase our visibility in the world and to reinforce our position as educators. The Internet is a very powerful tool in this respect, as it helps us to reach out to our new target audiences. For example, people from South America visit the Auschwitz Memorial and State Museum only rarely, but they do often browse our website.
Why is it that despite all these measures the term “Polish camps” is still in use?
I think that most of the time people are just ignorant. There was a camp in Poland, so a lot of people simplify things and say that the camp was Polish. I think that the stereotypical representations of Polish anti-Semitism have also played a part in this. However, people who fall prey to these stereotypes must realise that Hitler created the Holocaust network in Poland not because we were anti-Semites complicit in the German doings, but because a large Jewish minority lived in Poland. Prior to World War II, the Jews accounted for over 10% of Poland’s entire population.
Photo by Ryszard Waniek/Fotorzepa
New people, not necessarily well educated or sensitive enough, begin to work as journalists. To add insult to injury, people can post whatever they please on the Internet.
In conversation with Jerzy Haszczyński, Head of the Foreign Desk at the “Rzeczpospolita” daily.
Over ten years ago, you and the “Rzeczpospolita” daily started a campaign to eliminate the term “Polish death camps”, which often crops up in the foreign media. Roughly at the same time, the Polish diplomatic service started to respond to each usage of the term in politics or journalism. Has anything changed since then?
The most recognised titles use the term such as “Polish death camps” much less frequently than before. In the United States, a media market that is key to the assessment of the World War II legacy, the usage of the phrase is prohibited in the journalistic manuals in many newspapers and the Associated Press, which is the world’s largest press agency.
However, this does not mean that the term has disappeared completely. These words do crop up from time to time. New people, not necessarily well educated or sensitive enough, begin to work as journalists. To add insult to injury, people can post whatever they please on the Internet. Some people defend the usage of this mendacious phrase by saying that “Polish” refers to the geographical coordinates only. However, if you have a minimum awareness of what happened during World War II and aspire to be a serious journalist, you will never use phrases as ridiculous as “Polish camps”. After all, nobody says Guantanamo is a Cuban prison.
So why people started to call the German camps Polish?
When the global debate on the World War II legacy was reaching its conclusion, Poland was still under Communist rule and her voice remained barely audible. We entered this market of ideas in the 1990s, when all the cards had been dealt already. Additionally, Poland’s reaction was far from impressive. It was not until the beginning of the 21st century and the emergence of both the Internet and faster access to the global media that we were able to realise the issue’s gravity.
Germany has never made a similar mistake.
Right from the outset they were very keen to improve their publicity. Their success is due to effective policies and millions of German marks spent on the country’s promotion. Additionally, Hollywood productions such as Schindler’s List have also driven a message that not all the Germans were bad. Some people began to speculate that the Germans could not be held responsible for everything and that other people were also complicit in their doings. People ceased to call the perpetrators of the genocide German, and the stateless and nationless Nazis came onto the scene. Germany began to disappear from historical accounts, and “Polish camps” were soon to be embraced by the media.
How can we drive our point home to the international public that the camps were not Polish?
The best and most successful way is through mass culture. It is worth creating a feature film or TV series that would attract large audiences. Take Turkish historical TV serials for example or the German series Generation War, which was purchased by TV stations in somewhere about 100 different countries. This is a very difficult task to do, however. To date, the Polish films that straighten the historical wrongs have been far from successful. The officials and politicians are not able to create a motion picture that speaks to global audiences. We need a new Spielberg to do this.
Photo by Andrzej Romański
The most important thing is that we are present and visible in places that are frequented by both politicians and journalists.
In conversation with Krzysztof Mikulski, President of the Polish Historical Society
Foreign media perpetuate the term “Polish camps” almost every other day. What can we do to fight historical lies more effectively?
Our core duty is to react strongly to every single use of the term. In most instances the phrase “Polish camps” is used due to basic historical ignorance. Each time we point out these mistakes we offer educational value, and that activity should always be on the Polish historical policy agenda. However, you need to bear in mind that journalism is changing quickly these days, and new people are constantly entering the profession. We need to focus more on prevention to really reduce the phenomenon and eliminate the use of the term “Polish camps” in the news.
What kind of prevention?
The most important thing is that we are present and visible in places that are frequented by both politicians and journalists. By “places”, I also mean the most popular Internet sites in each country. If you are planning to say or write something about World War II, you are bound to use an encyclopaedia site like Wikipedia. We need to watch these websites on a daily basis and make sure that they provide true information and explain a variety of problems, for example why the term “Polish camps” has nothing to do with historical truth. We need to help people who know little about history to get on the right track and use trusted sources.
So we haven’t paid enough attention to the problem before?
Some people wonder whether we did everything we could to reach our target audience with suitable information. Please bear in mind that it is not a one-off activity. You have to be on alert all the time and check if there are any distortions on the Internet, add interesting information, translate both academic papers and scientific papers for the general public into other languages and publish them on the sites that guarantee good readership.
Is it enough to eliminate the term “Polish camps”, which has been perpetuated for years now?
I am sure that consistent action will sooner or later bring really positive results. If we want to fight mendacious information on “Polish camps”, we should do something more than just educate journalists. We should also harness a variety of events and anniversaries to promote our values. For example, the Third Congress of Polish History will be held in Kraków in 2017. This provides a great opportunity to reach out to foreign researchers, who serve as the ambassadors of our history, and make them more sensitive to the problem of “Polish camps”.
What do you think about an idea to create a big-budget feature film to promote Polish history?
Any activity that fosters historical awareness is welcome. This, however, is not only about making a good film, but also about attracting large foreign distributors to make sure that it can reach wide international audiences.