On Monday, November 17, the 16th session of the International Auschwitz Council was held at the Chancellery of the Council of Ministers in Warsaw. The Subject of the session was, above all, the finances of the Memorial Site, as well as the definition of some conservation priorities.
Those present held a minute of silence in memory of a former Auschwitz prisoner, a long-time member of the Council, and an internationally known artist—Professor Józef Szajna. Premier Donald Tusk nominated Dr. Piotr Trojański, a historian from the Pedagogical Academy in Cracow and the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, as well as a highly respected expert on the Holocaust, to fill the vacancy on the Council.
Tomasz Merta, Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Culture and General Conservationist of Monuments, addressed the Council with an explanation of the recently approved provisions of the third stage of the Government Strategic Oświęcim Project, and also discussed cooperation between Poland and UNESCO experts on planning work on the Administrative Plan, for objects inscribed on the World Heritage list. He also provided information about the shifting of the planned S1 high-speed traffic route away from the silent zone at the site of the Birkenau camp.
Members of the IAC listened to a report by the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński presented a digital image of the sites of both camps, scanned by helicopter in the spring, which provides a more precise map of the Memorial than ever before. He discussed the program of investment for the preservation of the collection, archives, and recently acquired historical objects, the completion of conservation work, and the publication of books. The director discussed at length the purchase of the Oświęcim Motor Transport and Shipping Enterprise (PKSiS) facility located immediately adjacent to the Stammlager. Thanks to the extraordinary aid of the Ministry of Culture, a parking lot and a new reception base for visitors will be built there. He also presented the state of progress on the work to secure the ruins of gas chamber III in Birkenau, and showed the Council certain objects discovered during this work (for instance, a pattern apparently used for cutting Stars of David sewn in the ghetto).
The director drew the attention of the members of the IAC to the continuing high attendance levels. More than 1.1 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2008, according to preliminary estimates. This places the Museum in first place in terms of attendance among all museums in Poland, and also makes it by far the most frequently visited memorial at the site of any German camp in all of Europe.
The director also emphasized the increasingly improved communication between the Museum and the Oświęcim public, citing as an example the monthly magazine Oś published in cooperation with other institutions that work in Oświęcim, as well as the use of local television. He also presented the new Museum website, which has been in preparation for many months, and which was opened during the meeting by the chairman of the Council, Professor Władysław Bartoszewski.
In connection with questions on the adaptation of the Old Theater building for the Education Center, the director noted that it has not yet proved possible to obtain permission from the mayor of Oświęcim for the commencement of the required work. However, new expert and legal opinions indicate that this investment should be classified as being for the public good, and that this will make its realization possible. The Museum has submitted the complete plans to the mayor for re-examination. The director stated that the verdict by mayor Janusz Marszałek will be a test of his will.
Many IAC members, and especially those from Poland, expressed concern over plans by the Ministry of National Education for the history teaching curriculum in intermediate school (gimnazjum) to end with the 19th century, without treatment of many subjects including the Second World War and, within this topic, the Nazi German concentration and death camps. Deputy Minister of Education Professor Zbigniew Marciniak was present at the meeting and defended his ministry’s plans, arguing that they are intended to raise the level of student’s knowledge about the tragedy of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He stated, however, that the MNE will organize a meeting on this issue with the experts who are preparing the curriculum.
The most important part of the meeting was a discussion of the finances of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Director Cywiński analyzed budgetary calculations from recent years, which show that fixed costs are rising steadily, financial support from abroad has fallen dramatically, and appropriations from the government budget have remained practically unchanged for years. Taking into consideration, as well, the fact that the economic crisis is already having a tangible effect, as reflected in a fall in the revenues generated by the Museum itself in such areas as book sales and guide services, the Museum will find itself in a difficult financial situation as early as 2009. The members of the IAC therefore issued an appeal to the Ministry of Culture, calling for consideration of the idea of compensation for the inadmissability of selling tickets. The compensation, for the museum institutions charged with the care of the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Stutthof Holocaust Memorials, would be tied to attendance levels. The members of the Council also call for the establishment of permanent funding for the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, established in 2005, as well as for the most important long-term exhibition project now underway, the creation of the new permanent main exhibition including the addition of an introductory exhibition and art exhibition at the Auschwitz I-Stammlager site.
The Council also expressed its approval of the plans by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum for the establishment of a so-called “emergency fund” for absolutely essential conservation work. The fund, made up of donations from private individuals, companies, governments, and the European Union, would generate annual revenue of more than 10 million zloty to rescue Auschwitz and Birkenau objects, as well as the archives and collections of the State Museum. Without these funds, many priceless relics will be lost irretrievably within the next few years. The members of the IAC committed themselves to supporting the idea of establishing this fund in all international institutions and bodies to which they have access, out of a sense of the responsibility that would bear down upon the conscience of Europeans if the most important objects at the Memorial ceased to exist as a result of their own neglect. The members of the IAC also intend to address an appeal to the European Parliament, calling for a special session devoted to the need to save Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The members of the Council also took note of information about the need to cut down the desiccated elderly poplar trees growing along the camp boulevard in the Stammlager, and their replacement with new trees, with respect for the historical landscape and the need to inform visitors in an appropriate way. The IAC also approved the principle of the primacy of conservation over the attachment to certain forms of exhibition arrived at after the war. For example, it is necessary to disentangle the symbolic clump of eyeglasses on display in block no. 5, in order to carry out essential conservation work. Furthermore, the IAC passed a motion on the regulation of matters connected with works of art in the Museum collections.
The International Auschwitz Council familiarized itself with plans for the regulation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum art collections. The Council supports the position that the only works that should remain on the inventory are: (a) those created legally or illegally in the camp, (b) post-Auschwitz or postwar works thematically connected with the camp and created by authors who were prisoners, and (c) works created by eyewitnesses to the functioning of the camp, or to its liberation. The Council supports the view that the inventory should include only those objects of the greatest importance to the history of Auschwitz. Through this position, the Council expresses the intention of indicating clear priorities for the conservation of the collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in the awareness that it is not possible to provide effective conservation and security for large numbers of items that do not meet the criteria listed in points (a), (b), and (c).
The next session of the IAC will be held in the first half of 2009.