Category Archive: Holocaust Centers and Museums

Around Auschwitz, Holocaust items rescued from oblivion

Poles dedicated to preserving history are finding and saving thousands of artifacts that originated in Nazi death camp

aushwitz-copyBRZEZINKA, Poland (AFP) — When the war ended, returning, destitute residents had nothing, so they scavenged what they could from the camp that the Nazis had built where their village once stood.

In doing so, tens of thousands of items from Auschwitz-Birkenau — from a roller used by prisoners to build roads, to plates from a SS dining hall — escaped destruction, and now, more than 70 years later a group of Poles dedicated to preserving history, are rescuing these artifacts from oblivion.

Several members of the group, called the Foundation of Memory Sites Near Auschwitz-Birkenau (FPMP), are sifting through a small wooden cabin located near the barbed wire fence surrounding the former Nazi German death camp.

“This metal container must have been a washbasin for the camp’s inmates,” explains 43-year-old Dag Kopijasz, a diving instructor who devotes himself to local history in his free time.

“There’s also a stool, hangers, an ammunition box and dishes.”

There are also dishes embossed with two lightening bolts, the insignia of the SS, the notorious armed wing of the Nazi party.

“These here are plates from a set of dishes from the SS dining hall,” he says.

“The SS dining hall wasn’t far from here, and behind us, 200 meters (650 feet) away, there was the Birkenau camp.”

One million European Jews died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland in 1940 and which became Europe’s biggest death camp.

More than 100,000 others including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters also died there.

In order to build the camp, the Nazis cleared all the residents out of the village of Birkenau and razed most of its houses.

“When the previous residents returned after the war, they had absolutely nothing so they took items they found at the site,” Kopijasz adds.

Three years ago, Kopijasz set up the Foundation of Memory Sites Near Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose goal is to collect items related to the death camp and save them from oblivion.

“No one was interested even though there are still tons of objects at homes in the region… Often people don’t know what to do with them,” he says.

Such was the case with 55-year-old Zbigniew Gierlicki, who agreed to hand over the cabin to the foundation after his parents died.

“From what I was told, it seems my grandfather built it out of planks from a dismantled camp barracks. There was a ton of stuff — German uniforms, soap, army stretchers — but it’s all lost now,” he told AFP.

“My grandparents took it all from the camp, like everyone else here. At the time we had nothing, not even building material,” Gierlicki says.

“But my grandmother never used these plates. Ever.”

Inside the hut, the number C652 can be seen through the peeling white paint, suggesting the planks were scavenged from what was once the camp’s clinic, Kopijasz says.

Andrzej Kacorzyk, a historian and deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, is not surprised that so many objects are still being found.

“You mustn’t forget that some 100,000 men — inmates, the SS — lived here, so there was an enormous amount of all sorts of goods, which still resurface today,” he told AFP.

Efforts to preserve the site and objects found there began two years after the end of the war when Poland set up the museum in the southern city of Oswiecim.

“We’re delighted that history buffs also manage to find items,” Kacorzyk adds. “What’s most important is for these items to be preserved.”

Once empty, the cabin will be dismantled, plank-by-plank, and taken to a warehouse belonging to the foundation, which has already dismantled 15 others and filled up three small exhibition halls with the objects found.

At the foundation’s headquarters in the nearby village of Budy-Brzeszcze, visitors can see a wide range of artifacts.

Among the items on display is a large concrete roller used by inmates to pave roads which had been used for years by a nearby football club to level its pitch.

There is also a porcelain Mickey Mouse figurine that once belonged to a child killed at the camp, as well as a tiny wooden clog charm which was hidden between bricks in an attic where prisoners once slept.

“We don’t know who made it or to whom it was given,” says Kopijasz.

“We’ll probably never know.”


Schindler’s Czech Factory, Used to Save More Than 1,000 Jews During WWII, to Become a Museum

The decision to convert the building comes after years of controversy

PRAGUE – After years of disuse and political controversy, a textile factory in the Czech Republic once used by Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist known for rescuing more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis during World War II, will finally be given new life as a Holocaust memorial and museum.

“Our aim is to restore the building to its original condition, including the watchtower,” Jaroslav Novak, head of the Shoah and Oskar Schindler Foundation, which previously bought the building, told Agence France-Presse.

Schindler is credited with saving at least 1,200 Jews from Hitler’s concentration camps by convincing the Nazis to allow them to work at his textiles, enamelware, and munitions factories in Poland and Czechoslovakia as skilled workers. He died in 1974.

His story was famously portrayed in the 1994 Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, as well as Tom Keneally’s Booker Prize-winning 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark.

However, while Schindler’s factory near Krakow, Poland, would go on to become a monument, his other facility in the small town of Brněnec, a village about 130 miles southeast of Prague, would face a protracted legal battle over ownership that resulted in the building falling into disrepair.

For years, the building, which had been later used as a factory for Ikea and local car maker Škoda Auto, was unmarked and uncared for; the had roof fallen in, graffiti was on the walls, and the thick forests of Bohemia had crept in to take up residence in the unassuming factory, obscuring its remarkable history.

Meanwhile, the absolute appropriation of both public and private buildings during the Communist rule of the Czech Republic left some buildings, like Schindler’s Czech factory, in a tug of war between title claimers.

But legalities were not the only issue. Some Czechs have questions about the man himself.

Jitka Gruntova, a former Communist MP and author of a deeply critical book about Schindler, has branded Schindler “a traitor and a war criminal.”

“I have found no evidence of Schindler saving prisoners. I’ve come to the conclusion he was only saving himself—mostly by writing a postwar synopsis of his alleged activities,” she told The Guardian.

Her view is not a totally out of left-field in the country, as many other public figures have expressed doubts about the veracity of Schindler’s deeds. Novak has said that now that the legal red tape has been cut, the museum, which will host an exhibition about Schindler’s life, is due to open in 2019. At least, if it can raise the money.

According to The Guardian, the building still faces an uphill battle in the form of finances. The conversion costs for the Brněnec site have been estimated at 140 million Czech Koruna, or $5.5 million, while elements of structure, such as the roof, are in grave danger of becoming irreparable.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that there were no Holocaust memorials in the Czech Republic, which is untrue.


Facebook exec, Rwanda survivor among 5 tapped for Holocaust memorial council

Congress established council in 1980 to commemorate Holocaust, raise money for Washington museum

A Facebook vice president and a human rights advocate who survived the Rwandan genocide are among five people appointed to the US Holocaust Memorial Council.

schrage-wamariyaElliot Schrage, the vice president of communications and public policy at Facebook, and Clemantine Wamariya, also a student career consultant, will be returning to the council, the president announced in a statement Friday. Also returning is Howard Unger, a private equity firm founder.

Two newcomers are attorney Irvin Shappell and former hospice care director Susan Levine.

Wamariya, who has served as a tutor for the Yale Refugee Project, and Unger were appointed in 2011. Schrage, who has also worked at Google and as an adjunct professor at Columbia University and its law school, was named in 2012.

“I am grateful that these talented and dedicated individuals have agreed to take on these important roles and devote their talents to serving the American people. I look forward to working with them,” Obama said of his appointees, according to a statement.

Congress established the Holocaust Memorial Council in 1980 to commemorate the Holocaust and raise money for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Its 68 members include presidential appointees, who serve five-year terms, along with senators and representatives and members of the education, interior and state departments.


Holocaust Museum Opens in Seattle

The Holocaust Center for Humanity, the first museum dedicated in the Pacific Northwest to the Holocaust, opened in Seattle, Washington.

The $3.4 million museum, which includes artifacts from local Holocaust survivors, opened Sunday. It includes classrooms and office space that will be open for students and the public. The center is expecting 16,000 visitors in its first year of operation.

The building is dedicated in honor of Henry and Sandra Friedman of Seattle. Henry Friedman survived the Holocaust hiding in the barn of a Ukrainian family and tells his story to local audiences.

Founded in 1989 by local Holocaust survivors, many of whom traveled to schools throughout the state to tell their stories, the center since then has operated out of offices in the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle building, according to Crosscut, a local Seattle magazine. It has provided boxes of teaching materials, historical artifacts and teacher training to Washington schools.

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Auschwitz ‘Showers’ Highlight Challenge of Balancing Tourism and Memory

Auschwitz 'Showers'(JTA) – Pawel Sawicki gets to his desk every morning by 7, but he works no regular office job.

Sawicki is an information officer at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum, the sprawling complex in southern Poland that encompasses the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp. More than 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there.

“I look out my window and see barbed wire and barracks,” Sawicki told JTA. “It’s never just a job. You have to find ways to deal with the emotions.”

Auschwitz is a place where history, commemoration and, increasingly, mass tourism collide. The iconic symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz is also a major tourist attraction — the most-visited museum in Poland. Its complex identity — Auschwitz is also a sacred site of martyrdom for Catholic Poles — has made it an emotional, and sometimes political, battleground of memory since the end of World War II.

The latest instance erupted last week, when the museum’s effort to help visitors during an extreme heat wave by installing misting showers provoked outrage among those who felt they invoked the fake showers at Birkenau that spewed poison gas.

Facing a storm of criticism, the museum defended its actions. “Something had to be done” to help visitors cope with the sweltering temperatures, museum officials wrote in a Facebook post. The museum also pointed out that the Nazi gas chamber showers where nearly 1 million were killed by Zyklon B poison gas looked nothing like the misting sprinklers.

“Zyklon B was dropped inside the gas chambers in a completely different way – through holes in the ceiling or airtight drops in walls,” the museum said.

As the heat wave abated, the misting showers at Auschwitz were removed.

“The site is so complicated, with so many conflicting aspects, that nothing is easy,” said Tomasz Cebulski, a historian, tour guide and educator whose doctoral work was on the museum’s political and international aspects.

Created by an act of the Polish Parliament in 1947, the memorial museum comprises two parts – the Auschwitz I camp, entered through the iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate, and the vast area of Auschwitz II, at Birkenau, about two miles away.

The museum’s permanent exhibition, displayed in several of the brick barracks in the Auschwitz I camp, opened in 1955 and has changed little since. It includes displays of original artifacts and masses of material left by victims: suitcases, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, clothing, kitchen utensils, even hair shorn from victims’ heads.

Birkenau is a memorial site, a vast open area marked by the grim ruins of the crematoria and barracks and bisected by railway tracks. At one end stands a large monument to victims erected in the 1960s; at the other, the looming entry tower and siding where trains carrying victims were unloaded.

One of the museum’s key challenges is conserving the site’s deteriorating buildings, ruins, archival holdings and artifacts. The museum is a state-run entity. The Polish government provides more than one-third of the approximately $15 million annual budget, and the European Union also contributes some funding. But more than half of the budget is generated by the museum itself through visitor fees for guides, sales of publications, onsite business concessions and other income sources.

In 2009, a special Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was established to “amass and manage” a perpetual endowment fund of $120 million whose income is specifically earmarked for long-term conservation. Some 35 states have pledged or donated funds to the endowment, including more than half of the sum from Germany alone.

The museum employs 339 staffers, including security personnel, educators, archivists, preservationists and technology specialists. They face a daunting task, said Emory University Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt.

“They are both a museum to educate and also a memorial. And they are the major site of destruction,” she said.

“There are very tough questions about preservation that are being dealt with in a most professional and sensitive manner,” Lipstadt said. For example, “the remnants of the gas chambers are collapsing. Do you go in and shore them up? Or let them collapse? Do you stop the hair from disintegrating or not?”

A dramatic upsurge of visitors in recent years has put serious strains on the fragile infrastructure at the site.

A record 1.53 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2014, up from less than 500,000 in 2000. This year, more than 1 million toured the site in the first seven months of the year.

The growing numbers of visitors prompted the museum to implement new visitor regulations and security measures in January. For the first time, there is a ban on bringing backpacks or other large bags into the site.

Basic entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau is free. But during peak hours entrance is now limited, and visitors must pay to tour the site in groups led by one of the nearly 300 guides, working in 18 languages, who have been licensed by the museum after specialized training programs, often in cooperation with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

Because of their large numbers and new regulations, some visitors must wait hours before they can enter the site. That has helped bolster visits to the nearby Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and prayer and study center established in 2000 and located about two miles away in the town of Oswiecim. Before the Holocaust, most of Oswiecim’s residents were Jews, and part of the center’s complex is located in Oswiecim’s sole remaining synagogue, Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot.

The Oswiecim center is dedicated to educating about the Holocaust and Polish Jewish heritage, and the center cooperates with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum on educational programs, including for university fellows, U.S. cadets and midshipmen, and law-enforcement personnel.

But the center at Oswiecim gets only a small fraction of the visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, according to the center’s director, Tomasz Kuncewicz.

“It is a logistical challenge – how to handle the immense numbers so that they can see the exhibits comfortably,” Sawicki said of Auschwitz-Birkenau. “With so many visitors, enhanced security measures were inevitable. We think of both the security of the site and the security of visitors.”

A $26 million off-site visitors’ center, due to open in the next two years, is expected to help, and a new education center is also planned.

The museum also has embarked on an 11-year, government-funded project to revamp its permanent exhibit in a way that will modernize the presentation and reflect current scholarship while at the same time preserve the authenticity of the site and material on display.

“I was for years very critical of mass tourism to Auschwitz,” said Cebulski, the historian. “But lately I’ve come to feel that we should see it as an opportunity. To have 1.5 million people be exposed to this original historic site, even if they spend only 10 minutes thinking of what Auschwitz is, it accomplishes something.”

Mississippi Holocaust memorial gets $25K — plus 1.5M pennies

(JTA) – A memorial in Mississippi to child victims of the Holocaust is getting a $25,000 boost from a Southern hospital network.

The planned memorial in Hernando, a city in northern Mississippi located about 30 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., will hold 1.5 million pennies donated by local schools and businesses to commemorate the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis.

The $25,000 gift to the Unknown Child Holocaust Remembrance Penny Project is from Baptist Memorial Health Care, The Associated Press reported.

Designed by architect Doug Thornton of Architectural and Engineering Resources for Construction, the memorial will feature a spiral path leading to six wall sections forming a fractured Star of David that will be covered by the 1.5 million pennies. Inside the star will be a bronze sculpture designed by Rick Wienecke called “The Unknown Child.”

The project’s anticipated cost is about $2 million.

Thornton said the project has yet to obtain the land on which to build the memorial.

“Like many things associated with Israel and the Jewish people, land always seemed to be an issue, isn’t it?” Thornton told JTA. “We’re waiting for that promised land.”

Students at Horn Lake Middle School came up with the idea for the memorial and raised the 1.5 million pennies in the 2009-10 school year while studying the Holocaust.

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Factory where Primo Levi worked becomes Holocaust museum

Primo Levi

ROME (JTA) – The paint factory in Italy where author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi worked was reopened as a museum and cultural center for Holocaust memory and civic action.

Inauguration events took place this weekend for the Train of Memory House in the Siva factory in Settimo Torinese, where Levi worked for nearly 30 years. The factory in the northern Italy town was closed down and abandoned two decades ago.

Levi, whose books include the Holocaust memoir “Survival in Auschwitz” and “The Periodic Table,” worked there as a chemist and manager from 1947 to 1975.

The new complex includes an exhibition prepared by the Holocaust memorial museum at Auschwitz and another exhibition on the plight of refugees. It will host concerts, lectures and other events. There is also an exhibit on Levi’s life located in the office he used when he worked as the plant manager.

The center was initiated by Settimo Torinese, the civic action organization Terra del Fuoco and the Train of Memory organization, which promotes Holocaust education. Over the past decade, the Train of Memory has brought 25,000 Italian high-school students on study trips to Auschwitz.

Remembering Through Poetry and Film

By Janet R. Kirchheimer

Israeli novelist and survivor Aharon Appelfeld stated, “After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to historians alone. Now comes the hour of artistic creation.” Taking this statement literally, I’m producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic film that showcases poetry written by survivors, their descendants, and modern poets, both Jews and non-Jews, encountering and struggling with the Shoah and its aftereffects.
My parents were born in Germany. At sixteen, my father was arrested on Kristallnacht and sent to Dachau. My mother was six when she was backed up against a wall at school for refusing to say “Heil Hitler,” and kids threw rocks at her. Her parents were able to get her out to a Jewish orphanage in Amsterdam, the Israelitisch Meijes Weeshuis. There were one hundred and four girls. Four survived. My mother was able to come to America with her parents and an older sister. My father’s parents, an older sister and younger brother were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. My parents both lost over ninety-five percent of their extended families in various camps.
Each Sunday morning in the summer when I was a kid, we’d pack up the station wagon and drive to the beach just like other American families. We’d sit at the same table in the pavilion and eat our lunch– my parents, brother, and me. Next to us was a large Italian family– parents, kids, grandparents, relatives and other visitors. I’d watch them from our table, that big family, mine so small. As the daughter of survivors and a poet, I’ve written about the Shoah and in 2007 my book, “How to Spot One of Us” was published. Poet Cornelius Eady says “poets write to figure out the world.” Poetry is my craft and the way I can try to come up against the Shoah and try to understand the world I was born into.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “Poetry: the shortest distance between two humans.” For all of the stories I heard from my parents, I always knew much could never be spoken. What better way to bridge that chasm between what can be spoken and what cannot than through poetry? Its power lies in what is on the page, what is not, what it hinted at, or stated outright. It is why I am making BE•HOLD. I believe that the languages of poetry and cinema can be brought together for profound and powerful results, and am caught up with the possibilities of expanding the limits of what is purely literary and purely visual.

The team behind BE•HOLD is Richard Kroehling, a two-time Emmy award winning director, who directed “Einstein” for the PBS American Masters Series, and Sundance Independent Spirit Award winner Lisa Rinzler as cinematographer. BE•HOLD grapples with some of the large questions of the Shoah, such as remembrance when the survivors are gone and the persistent presence of genocide. We feel a duty to present poems in a way that will spark conversation and urge viewers to learn more about the Shoah. The wide range of works in BE•HOLD conveys a profound literary response to the Holocaust, and the film also imparts the ongoing relevance of the Shoah: that the past is not simply in the past, but rather the past is a vital part of the present and future.
For the next generations, we need inventive ways to ensure that the Holocaust will not be forgotten. It is my hope that BE•HOLD will be an important legacy to those lost, to the survivors and their descendants, and an innovative way to remember for coming generations and the future.
For more information or to support BE•HOLD, reach Janet R. Kirchheimer at 212-779-3300 x111,, or on Facebook at BEHOLD: A Performance Film.