Auschwitz-Birkenau, Memorial and Museum

From liberation to the opening of the Memorial

From January 17 to 21, 1945, the Auschwitz administration evacuated about 58 thousand prisoners into the depths of the Reich. At the same time, the SS were burning the camp records. On January 20, they blew up crematoria and gas chambers II and III in Birkenau. Just after the end of the evacuation, on January 23, they set fire to Kanada II, the warehouse full of property plundered from the Jews. Three days later, they blew up gas chamber and crematorium V. When Red Army troops entered the grounds of the camp on the 27th, they found about 7 thousand prisoners there, most of them sick and at the limits of physical exhaustion.

The first years of the Memorial

Aushwitz KL
First years of Memorial

In April 1946, the Ministry of Culture and Art (Ministerstwo Kultury i Sztuki – MKiS) sent a group of former prisoners, led by Tadeusz Wąsowicz, to Oświęcim to protect the site of the Auschwitz camp and set up a museum there.At the beginning of 1947, Ludwik Rajewski, the head of the Department of Museums and Monuments in the MKiS, presented an organizational plan according to which the Museum would be a “historical document.”

It was planned to present the extermination of the peoples conquered by the Germans and to highlight the fact that the German atrocities were committed on a mass scale, while steering clear of “the macabre” and using only suitable visual elements. It stressed that the killing of the Jews should be presented in a special way, and that it was necessary to cooperate with the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce – CKŻP) to establish the number of Jewish victims, broken down by country.

The exhibition was planned to consist of three parts: a general section showing the story of prisoners in the camp, an international section devoted to the wartime situations of the countries whose citizens were deported to Auschwitz, and a third section presenting the other German concentration camps. The exhibition was to be located in 12 blocks at the site of the main camp, named here in the order suggested for visitors to follow: the history of Polish-German relations (block 15); the structure and nature of the SS origins of the concentration camps, categories of prisoners, and attitudes of the SS to the prisoners (16); life, labor and death inside and outside the camp (17 and 18); the Destruction of the Jews, officially named “The Extermination of Millions,” since it would also cover the extermination of people from other groups (4); property belonging to the Jewish victims (5 and 6); the history of the camp and the resistance movement in the camp (7); the state of a block in 1940 (8) and in 1944 (9); experiments on prisoners and the life of women in Auschwitz (10); and the interior of the “Death Block” (11). Block 11 and the adjacent courtyard were to be a mausoleum. The remaining blocks were to be placed under the protection of the countries whose citizens died in Auschwitz, or to be used to display information about other Nazi camps.

In this project, Birkenau was supposed to be transformed into a kind of cemetery-park in which it was planned to erect a mausoleum on the ruins of crematorium III. A vocational school with dormitories, in turn, was to be opened in the buildings of the so-called Lagererweiterung, erected near the main camp in 1943-1944. This school would, above all, educate the orphans of former political prisoners. The sites of the sub-camps in Rajsko, Harmęże, and Pławy would be turned into farms that would generate money for the upkeep of the Museum.

On April 25, 1947, there was a conference in Oświęcim of officials from the (CKŻP), including the director of the Central Jewish Historical Commission (Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna – CŻKH), Natan Blumental. The Jewish delegates conferred with the head of the Department of Museums and Monuments in the MkiS, Ludwik Rajewski, and Museum head Tadeusz Wąsowicz, on the role of Jewish institutions in setting up the Museum. After inspecting the plans for the exhibition, the Jewish delegates asked for blocks 4 and 10 to be put at the disposal of the CKŻP. This request was approved. The CKŻP representatives undertook to prepare one of the exhibits in block 4, with its installation entrusted to Jewish painters and sculptors from the Art Cooperative in Łódź.

The official opening of the Museum was held on June 14, 1947. Only part of the organizational work was completed by that date, and only a part of the planned exhibition was open to visitors.

Memorial timeline

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was created by an act of the Polish parliament on July 2, 1947, and includes the grounds of two extant parts of the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camps. The Museum grounds cover 191 hectares, of which 20 are at Auschwitz I and 171 at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. On the museum grounds stand several hundred camp buildings and ruins, including the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, over a dozen kilometers of camp fence, camp roads, and the railroad spur (“ramp”) at Birkenau. In 1979, the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was entered on the UNESCO international list of world heritage sites.

As early as 1947, the first exhibition, expanded in 1950, was opened in several camp blocks at the Auschwitz I concentration camp site. It presented the history of extermination and the conditions in which the prisoners lived. A new exhibition was opened in 1955. With some changes, it is still in use today. After 1960, some of the camp blocks contained the so-called “national exhibitions,” created at the initiative of former prisoners from various countries who are associated in the International Auschwitz Committee. They primarily portray the fate of the citizens of those countries who were deported by the Nazis in transports to Auschwitz concentration camp.

Source: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Memorial and Museum

Additional links: