The Auschwitz Memorial has made an appeal to Germans and Austrians to donate to researchers any documents they may have from the Nazi era. As survivors become fewer, documents and objects become witnesses to history.
Auschwitz Museum Director Piotr Cywinski believes that a number of interesting letters, photos and diaries from the days of National Socialism are still to be found in the attics of houses across Germany and Austria.
“8,000 Nazis worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the number of people they wrote letters to must be far greater,” Cywinski tells DW. “In those days, decades before the internet, people wrote letters and sent photos.” The director assumes that some of those letters and photos have survived, and are still in the possession of the families of those who received them. And the museum would very much like to have them.
A unique request
Just ahead of the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi’s largest death camp, the director of the Auschwitz Museum is asking Germans and Austrians to make such documents available to researchers.
“The history of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau is not yet fully understood,” reads the appeal on the museum’s website. “Without a more comprehensive analysis and understanding of the motivation and mentality of the perpetrators, our efforts to wisely counsel future generations will only remain intuitive.” Cywinski guarantees donors that their identities will remain anonymous.
Following the war, very few documents from SS members were discovered: Among them, a small number of photographs, private letters and diaries. The museum, founded in 1947, mainly possesses official administrative documents, among them, personnel cards handed out to SS members working at Auschwitz.
New perspectives help us understand
Cywinski, 45, has been the museum’s director for 10 years. He thinks it is important to learn more about the camp from the perspective of the perpetrators. He says that will allow us to better understand “the influence of populism and mechanisms of hate on individuals.” And he is convinced that documents and objects stemming from perpetrators could be of great help in that regard. Time plays an important role. Visitors should be made cognizant of the fact that more time must be invested in explaining the dangers of populism and radicalism to younger generations.
Until now, the story of the Holocaust, and thus also that of the Auschwitz concentration camp, has largely been told from the victims’ perspective. Cywinski and his team think it is important to add a new dimension to the existing narrative. Yet, Cywinski wants to be clear: This is not about retelling the story or looking at the crimes committed during the Holocaust from a new angle. It is simply hoped that the new documents will provide the opportunity to look more closely at the everyday reality of those responsible for the atrocities.
“For me, it is important that we analyze the effects of Nazi propaganda and its psychological mechanisms to gain a deeper understanding of how it worked,” says the director. He says he wants to know, “What were perpetrators’ relationships towards each other like? How did the crimes, which became their daily bread, influence family life?” Very interesting questions, not just for historians. Cywinski believes that, “If it is possible to closely examine such documents, we will be able to complete the story of Auschwitz.”
‘Time’ as the motto for a day of remembrance
For the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1.1 million people were murdered, the museum will present an exhibition entitled “Archaeology.” For the first time, personal possessions, discovered during archeological excavations conducted near the Birkenau crematorium 50 years ago, will be presented. These were the things that victims kept with them until the moment they were forced into the gas chambers to die.
The museum’s team of historians hope that the moving exhibition will underscore its public appeal to Germans and Austrians by showing the strength that authentic mementoes can have. At some point, such objects bear witness to the history of their time. The number of living survivors is rapidly decreasing each year. Only about 100 survivors are expected to attend this year’s commemoration.
26 January 2017