Last summer, approximately 25 intellectually curious, soon-to-be-colleagues from all over the world converged on the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum for the Auschwitz International Summer Academy. I was privileged to be among them, thanks to financial support I received from my school’s Clough Center for Global Understanding.
I’m a veteran secondary school teacher at the oldest public school in the United States, Boston Latin School. I’m a Museum Teacher Fellow and Regional Museum Educator for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. I’m a Master Teacher Fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation. Before teaching, I was an art museum curator, so I have a keen appreciation for the challenges that museum staff face. I first visited the site in the summer of 2001, with a group of educators led by resistance fighter and Holocaust survivor Vladka Meed. Plus I have been bringing groups of 50 students and faculty since 2001 to the site annually, so Auschwitz was hardly new to me. I was well versed in the literature and have met with many survivors of the camp.
In short, I thought I knew quite a bit about not only the Holocaust in general but about Auschwitz specifically. Or so I thought.
I was wrong.
The Auschwitz International Summer Academy taught me that you can never fully “know” Auschwitz. The program was a collaboration between the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust and the Institute of Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University. Superbly coordinated by Adelina Hetnar-Michaldo of the Memorial’s Education division, the program fused detailed explorations of the site with an array of talks from Memorial scholars and staff as well as outside specialists in the field.
It was striking to see how many young, well-trained, capable scholars and staff, many of whom were trained at Jagellonian University in Krakow, were so dedicated to their work at the site. Virtually all of them arrive at the Memorial at 7H each day and rarely leave before 18H. The talented Adelina Hetnar-Michaldo is a sign of the promise that this new generation of Memorial staff have to shape the future of the Auschwitz site. The centerpiece of the Academy for me was unquestionably the lengthy site immersions in the Auschwitz I Stammlager and Auschwitz II-Birkenau sites over several days. To do both sites justice requires many hours and kilometers of walking with superbly trained guides. We were able to explore all of the gas chamber-crematoria complexes at Birkenau in extensive detail, along with the sites of many mass graves. We walked the periphery of the site at Birkenau and conducted something of a virtual archaeology—looking for evidence of structures and sites that were either repurposed or demolished.
Among the most engaging sessions within the Memorial was an immersion in the KL Auschwitz archives, hosted by Szymon Kowalski of the Memorial’s Archive. We were able to explore documents preserved there. Another eye-opening opportunity was a walkthrough of the Preservation department with conservator Margrit Bormann; there is remarkable work going on in Preservation, all the more impressive given the limited staff and a seemingly immense “to do” list.
Equally revelatory were visits with Mirosław Obstarczyk from the Exhibitions department of the Memorial to areas at Auschwitz I not open to the public: Block 10, the Blockführenstube, and one of the guardtowers. Block 10, the medical block managed by Doctors Clauberg and Wirths, was the site of unspeakable medical experimentation, including sterilization. Though the building is potentially going to be opened to the public at some future date, the condition of the building seems to be little changed from 1945. Seeing it was unquestionably one of the most horrific and unforgettable aspects of the week.
Memorial historian Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz’s talks bookended the seven-day Academy. Lecturing both on the German occupation of Poland as well as offering an all-too-brief two-hour, eye-opening visit to a portion of the remains of Buna-Monowitz, Setkiewicz was generous with his time and clearly well-acquainted with extant portions of Buna. He alluded to many of the sub-camps that Michael Challoner has documented so thoroughly; during the week, we had the opportunity to visit only two: Jawischowitz and Budy, with Dr. Jacek Lachendro from the Memorial. Midway through the week, Setkiewicz lectured again on Auschwitz as a concentration camp and center of genocide within the Nazi system.
Many key members of the Memorial’s staff or local scholars/researchers joined us for the week. Tomasz Michaldo discussed the issues with the growing number of visitors to the Memorial and the development of a corps of skilled guides. Teresa Wontor-Cichy from the Memorial addressed the experiences of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Soviet POWs at the site. Małgorzata Kołaczek from Jagellonian University focused on the persecution of the Roma.
Especially significant for our group was a talk given by Alicja Białecka, who outlined plans by a coordinating team from the Memorial for the reconfiguration of the Museum at Auschwitz I, a plan that was approved in March 2015 by the Polish education ministry in a letter of intent and is to be financed by the Polish government. It is anticipated that it will be completed in the mid-2020s.
Given that the Memorial is open 363 days a year, the reconfiguration will be jigsawed, with some buildings undergoing conservation and repair, all on their ground floors. A new exhibition will focus on the facts surrounding events at Auschwitz, commemorations of the victims, evoking reflection and exploring the significance for Auschwitz today as well as the site’s inherent moral message. The plans call for Blocks 4 and 5 to be dedicated to the Auschwitz camp as an institution—its construction and expansion, the perpetrators and who they were, the first prisoners and the creation of a center for mass murder and deportation, the mass murder of Jews, from selection to killings and the attendant plunder in KL Auschwitz in Blocks 6 and 7, the camp experiences of prisoners in Block 8 and 9, Blocks 10 and 11 will be opened to document the medical crimes that took place there, as well as the resistance movement and punishment. Once completed, this promises to be a significant re-think of the exhibitions that have been in place, essentially, since the early 1950s with some modifications in the decades since.
The group spent a full day in Krakow, visiting the Institute for Jewish Studies and hearing about Jewish life in Poland before and after the Shoah from Dr. Edyta Gawron, touring the museum that now sits on the site of Schindler’s factory, and touring the former Krakow ghetto and the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz with historian Paulina Fiejdasz.
On the final day of the Academy, the group visited Marian Kołodziej’s Labyrinths exhibition with Paweł Sawicki from the Memorial. Installed at a Catholic center dedicated to Maximilian Kolbe, the countless works of art created by Kołodziej chronicled his experience at Auschwitz as a pictorial inferno. The images conveyed horrors that overlayed the sites we had visited. It was a fitting end to a dense and emotional week.
On a personal note: one of the highlights of the week for me was a late-night meeting with the Auschwitz Study Group, who happened to be in Oświęcim when I was there.
Thanks to the Auschwitz Study Group, I was already a fan of Michael’s, but to meet him and see first hand his remarkable research, particularly on the numerous sub-camps and converted structures in the region around Auschwitz was staggering. What an erudite and impressive scholar.
This picture (right) aptly captures, I think, how I often felt during the seven days we were together at Auschwitz. We stayed across from Auschwitz I at the Hotel Olecki. We were a motley crew, folks from around the world with various degrees of interest and knowledge of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among them were two US congressional aides. A gifted PhD candidate from University of Virginia. A children’s book writer and a retired auto salesman. Dedicated organizers of Holocaust remembrances from Milwaukee. An Italian scholar and author. An Austrian educator. A Brazilian educator and activist. A Scottish teacher. A Los Angeles educator. A British employee of Buckingham Palace. A cadre of Norwegian global educators who led regular and frequent tours to Auschwitz. Staffers from the Macedonian Holocaust Centre. A Japanese researcher. And those are only a few. It was a privilege to be with them.
I think it’s fair to say that all of us processed this weeklong immersion in the camp, as offered by the Memorial staff, differently. For me, I was incredibly impressed with the dedication and work ethic of many of the Museum’s staff. I was riveted by “inside” look at preservation, closed buildings, and little-visited corners of the site.
Like many of my fellow participants, we were both amazed and horrified by the crowds of visitors and the endless stream of selfie-takers, babies in strollers, and inappropriate behavior at the site.
I found time to conduct research in the Archives on the history of the exhibitions at the site (in blocks 4-7), from the Memorial’s creation in the late 1940s through the Communist and post-Communist era, a project inspired by my experience visiting the Memorial in April 2015 with two remarkable guides Wojchech Smoleń and Agnieszka Kocur-Smoleń.
Wojchech is the son of longtime Memorial director Kazimierz Smoleń, grew up in Oświęcim, and his reflections on the evolution of the Museum intrigued me and led to my research, something I hope to continue.
I rethought and reconfigured the experience I want my students to have when they return to Auschwitz-Birkenau this coming April and I have been haunted in my nightly dreams about what I saw for the past 3+ months.
I sincerely hope that the Memorial continues to offer these summer Academies. I know it was a profound experience for me and I would absolutely return to participate in future Academies.
You can find out more about the Auschwitz Summer Academy by visiting: auschwitz.org