A European Union summit of delegations from 46 counties, including non-members, has been held in Prague as part of the Czech presidency. The conference was devoted to the problem of property plundered during the Holocaust and World War II. The final declaration, as approved, took particular note of the integrity and authenticity of Memorials. The Polish delegation included the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński.
In his opening remarks, Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel said that “the 20th century will not be remembered for all the technological progress, the trip to the moon, or even for Hiroshima. If it is remembered at all, it will be for Auschwitz.”
The delegations from 46 countries met in order to reach a common position on the subject of property stolen from victims of the Third Reich. The final declaration acknowledges the need to regulate the ownership of property that was nationalized or formally confiscated by the Third Reich or postwar administrative decisions, as well as during the common plundering that accompanied military action, by restitution or compensation. In the case of Holocaust victims or other victims of the German camps, the principle of restitution could, however, threaten the integrity of Memorials founded on the ruins of the camps. In connection with this, the final declaration, on an initiative from Poland, included a paragraph strongly reinforcing the protection of the authenticity and integrity of Memorials connected with the Holocaust and concentration camps. The countries in attendance at the summit declared that:
As the era is approaching when eye witnesses of the Holocaust (Shoah) will no longer be with us and when the sites of former Nazi concentration and extermination camps, will be the most important and undeniable evidence of the tragedy of the Holocaust (Shoah), the significance and integrity of these sites including all their movable and immovable remnants, will constitute a fundamental value regarding all the actions concerning these sites, and will become especially important for our civilization including, in particular, the education of future generations. We, therefore, appeal for broad support of all conservation efforts in order to save those remnants as the testimony of the crimes committed there to the memory and warning for the generations to come and where appropriate to consider declaring these as national monuments under national legislation.
These provisions are important at a time when concrete claims are being made on the remains of the camps. An example is the desire to deprive the Auschwitz Memorial of 7 watercolors that a prisoner, Dina Babbitt-Gotliebova, painted on orders from Dr. Joseph Mengele. These watercolors depict the faces of Roma people who, after the portraits were completed, died within the framework of the SS doctor’s pseudo-scientific experiments. The International Auschwitz Council has already denied these claims on two occasions, indicating that the paintings cannot be considered within the category of individual works of art. The basis of their worldwide significance is the fact that they are part of Dr. Joseph Mengele’s pseudo-scientific archive, and represent an undeniable memento of the suffering and death of Roma victims in Auschwitz.
The passage in the Prague declaration about the fundamental value of the authenticity and integrity of the “movable and immovable remnants” of the camps is consonant with the position of the International Auschwitz Council. The wording of the declaration indicates that claims and the restitution process cannot be allowed to call into question the integrity of the Memorial and all the items in its inventory. As the head of the Polish delegation, Prof. Władysław Bartoszewski, noted in his remarks, “concern for the victims does not consist only of the provision of material aid. This concern also extends to the preservation of their heritage.”
During his remarks, Bartoszewski also emphasized the Polish victims of the Third Reich, the Nazi process of deliberately destroying the Polish intelligentsia, the murder of thousands of priests and nuns, and the suffering of Poles under Stalinist terror after the war. He acquainted the delegates with a profile of his fellow prisoner from Auschwitz, Captain Witold Pilecki, who was held after the war in a cell on the same corridor in the Rakowiecka prison in Warsaw as Bartoszewski.
Museum Director Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński participated in the preparations and work of the Polish delegation at the summit. “Previously, the integrity of the original items from Auschwitz has featured almost exclusively in Polish legislation. This is the first time that two fundamental values in the commemoration of the victims, the preservation of the authenticity and integrity of the Memorial, have been acknowledged on such a wide scale. The representatives of 46 states have accepted this provision, and it is a very strong reference point in the face of all unwelcome actions intended to fragment the remaining original items not only from Auschwitz, but from all similar memorials. At a time when our civilization is characterized by increasingly frequent and pointed restitution demands, the European and international consensus that Polish diplomacy has managed to achieve on the integrity of Memorials has fundamental significance,” said Cywiński, adding that the summit was also an excellent occasion to promote the Polish proposal for maintaining the authenticity of the site of the camps through the new Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.