Auschwitz-Birkenau museum suffers wave of abuse following new law

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 14.05.2018
Holocaust speech legislation leads to online attacks and vandalism
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland has been suffering from an “unprecedented wave” of abuse following a bill passed earlier this year that criminalises accusations that the Polish state or people were complicit in the Holocaust.

A spokesman for Auschwitz-Birkenau, Pawel Sawicki, said the concentration camp museum had been the “collateral” victim of a heated debate sparked by the legislation, which passed in February and has been criticised as an attempt to stifle discussion of Poland’s history during the second world war.

In the weeks following the introduction of the law, the museum and its director Piotr Cywiński became targets of a sustained campaign of “lies, manipulations and hatred”, Sawicki confirmed.

The abuse occurred mainly online, where Polish nationalists and right-wing media outlets falsely accused the museum of misrepresenting the country’s involvement in the Holocaust, and argued that only Poles should be employed to act as guides at the site in order to regain control the narrative.

Fake news reports claimed that the museum did not allow the Polish flag to be flown at its annual March of the Living event in April, and that educators were deliberately downplaying the extermination of non-Jewish Polish prisoners at the site. One of the site’s educators was accused of refusing to admit that any of the SS guards at the camp were German, in an incident later proven to be false.

At the height of the abuse, an Italian guide had the door to his flat vandalised with nationalist graffiti; another incident saw footage posted online of a nationalist politician and a group of his supporters hectoring a guide on a tour of the camp.

Sawicki said that the museum had been aware in advance that the politician was visiting and knew the tour would be contentious, describing it as an isolated incident.  “It is not the case that our guides are under attack,” he said.  

He added that the museum had worked closely with police following the vandalism incident, and had handed evidence of the most hateful comments, tweets and emails over to the police. The museum has also proactively sought to counter the attacks online, publishing a number of statements to rebut the false claims.

Sawicki said that while the campaign of abuse had been a “serious, extremely sad and painful” experience for the museum and its staff, it had not deterred visitors or prevented the guides from doing their work.

“This was an unprecedented wave of abuse intended to destabilise the work of the memorial, but it is not something that disturbs our work in any way,” said Sawicki. “We are not part of politics and don’t want to be part of politics.”

Sawicki said that the online attacks had not yet come to an end but had subsided in recent weeks. 

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is one of eight Holocaust sites in Poland protected and supported by central government. The government’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage released a statement in February reiterating its support for those working at the sites.

It said: “All employees and directors of martyrdom museums in Poland deserve to be applauded for their dedication to documenting and educating on the truth about the Holocaust.

"While most of the critics of their activities get themselves involved in this topic only occasionally, those people sacrifice their entire professional life to witnessing the truth and at the same time soothing all disputes and acts of aggression through their reliable information and the educational work they provide every day.”

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has a stated interest in reclaiming control of the country’s second world war narrative, as it believes that Poland has been erroneously held responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust.  

The government won a court ruling in January that will enable it to take over the newly opened Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk and alter the content of its permanent exhibition, following the sacking of the museum’s director Pawel Machcewicz last year.