Pawel Sawicki
Pawel Sawicki
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At the Auschwitz Memorial, historical truth is our life’s mission

Claims that museum tweets underrepresent Jewish victims show a failure to grasp the complexity involved. And as the museum's social media manager, I take it personally

Mark Twain once said that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. Regarding the article by Ilan Manor published on his Times of Israel blog, we are dealing with the third type, spiced up with factual errors relating to the history of the Auschwitz camp and its victims.

Let us begin by rectifying some factual errors in the text.

Ilan Manor writes that 31% of Auschwitz inmates were Poles. The figure is 35%.

He says 45% of Auschwitz inmates were Hungarian. Not true. Hungarian Jews accounted for 33% of deportees to the camp, but 25,000-30,000 of them were registered in the camp (in other words, they made up about 8 percent of the registered prisoners).

The story is even more complicated here because some 25,000 Hungarian Jews who were not registered as Auschwitz prisoners (the vast majority of them women) died in the transit camps or fell victim to numerous so-called “secondary selections”; some 45,000-50,000 people (also unregistered) were deported to camps in Germany.

“84% of Auschwitz inmates were Jews,” writes Manor. This is also not true. It is the case that Jews accounted for around 85% of the 1.3 million people deported to the camp. Most of them were murdered immediately in the gas chambers after selection. Jews accounted for about 50 percent of the slightly more than 400,000 prisoners registered in the camp.

The author seems unaware of the duality of operations at the Auschwitz camp, established by the Germans in the spring of 1940 as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners (among whom were small groups of Jews) that also became a Jewish extermination center as of March 1942. In the meantime, other groups of victims were sent to the camp, the two largest being Roma and Sinti and Soviet prisoners of war. The difference between a deportee to the camp and a camp prisoner is highly relevant to understanding the camp’s history.

“Notably, the memorial often features the biographies of average Poles who were killed at Auschwitz, including city clerks, engineers, waiters and more. Thus, what the Memorial chooses is to remember the many Poles (Jews and non-Jews) that died at the Camp. What it chooses to forget is that the overwhelming majority of these Poles were Jews.”

Again, this is not true. Our social media posts include commemorations of Poles and Polish Jews deported and incarcerated in the camp. Whether we are talking about a Pole or a Polish Jew is always clearly indicated. Also of equal importance, in terms of Polish prisoners registered in the camp, is that non-Jews outnumbered Jews. Therefore, the Museum commemorates both Polish Jews, the majority of whom were murdered immediately after selection in the gas chambers, and those who were registered in the camp, and Poles who were registered in the camp without selection (these applied only to transports of Jews). To imply that the museum “chooses to forget” any group of victims is painfully unfair, to put it mildly.

Allow me to take a slightly more personal tone.

I have been involved in the Memorial’s social media since 2009. It is often a team effort, as I use the findings of historians, archivists, curators of the collections, and conservators. Ultimately, however, I am responsible for every post published, so I take Manor’s words to heart. Drawing on 140 tweets, he makes far-reaching general conclusions about my work and intentions, basing his conclusions on selective statistics and factual errors. It is difficult to write about such complex work without considering numerous facts, such as what sources are available to us.

Nevertheless, let us begin with the major problem, that of statistical representation. Every day, I publish information on Twitter about 12 people born on a given day. One tweet is therefore published every two hours. This has been going on for more than 18 months. (Some tweets about specific people are longer threads mentioning family members, references to source materials or historical studies.) Given that 85 percent of deportees to the camp were Jews, statistical representation would mean allocating 10 or 11 entries each day solely to them.

But this would not convey the complexity of the history of the German Nazi Auschwitz camp and its several groups of victims. In the text, the author focuses exclusively on Jews and Poles, altogether omitting the fact that our posts also contain information about Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, French, Czechs, Ukrainians, Slovenians, Germans, Russians, etc.

If we insist on a purely statistical approach, we will end up with the appalling absurdity of calculating the frequency with which a Pole, Roma, Czech or German may appear among the 12 people over a few days, a Jehovah’s Witness over a few months and one of at least 77 German homosexuals imprisoned in Auschwitz over a few years.

A statistical approach would also create many other problems.

I take great care to ensure that the people mentioned include Jews from different countries and of varying ages. These include those who were murdered immediately after selection and those who became concentration camp prisoners. It is only by doing so that we can speak about the global nature of the Holocaust. Statistically speaking, almost every second post would concern Jews from Hungary. However, poor archival resources pose a problem. The only available database of photographs of Hungarian Jews is from Yad Vashem. For several months last year, it was possible to search for photos in the database using date of birth as a parameter. At some point, however, this function stopped working. At the moment, I cannot access the photographs of Hungarian, Greek, Yugoslavian, Belgian or German Jews. There is also practically no database containing pre-war photographs of Polish Jews (also beyond Yad Vashem). Thus, it is extremely difficult to commemorate the two largest groups of Jews deported to Auschwitz.

On the other hand, there are excellent databases of mostly Jews deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto, predominantly Czech Jews. Photographs of Jews deported from the occupied Netherlands are also readily available. It cannot be the case, however, that the 12 tweets of those mentioned every day feature the predominant groups simply because relevant information about them can be easily accessed.

Another crucial issue is that we publish the names of people along with their photographs. That, in itself, is a limitation. In the case of the 400,000 prisoners registered in Auschwitz, approximately 40,000 contact photographs survived. Unfortunately, these are not representative of the entire history of the camp. Photographs were hardly ever taken in the camp during the period of mass deportation and extermination of Jews in Auschwitz. However, through this database, we have access to camp photographs of a particular group of Polish Jews imprisoned in the camp in the years 1940-42 (which helps a little in commemorating this group of victims as well as people of several other nationalities). As a matter of fact, it is only through this collection of documents that we can find out the declared occupation of a registered prisoner, a detail virtually impossible to find in other databases.

There are also groups of Auschwitz victims whose photographs we cannot show, primarily Roma and Sinti, and Soviet prisoners of war, the third and fourth largest groups of Auschwitz victims after Jews and Poles. In terms of registered prisoners, these are the two victim groups with the highest death rate in the camp: 93% of Soviet POWs and 91% of registered Sinti and Roma died there. It is therefore extremely important to me that they are visible and commemorated every day.

Many more problems of this kind exist. However, one cannot learn about them by hiding behind statistics and analyzing 140 tweets without all this extra context. A phone call to the museum is enough to understand how great a challenge it is to select 12 people in a way that shows the functioning of Auschwitz, commemorates all the victims of the camp, and conveys its educational value.

Manor also ignores all additional educational content published on Twitter. Every day we refer our followers to our online lessons or podcasts, which explain in great detail the particulars of the history of Auschwitz, discuss numbers, statistics, the functioning of the camp, etc. These lessons, which I recommend to all readers, including Ilan Manor, can be found at lesson.auschwitz.org. Our podcasts can be found at auschwitz.org/podcasts.

Ilan Manor also touches upon various political issues and tries to analyze the social media work of the Memorial from this perspective. As an educator, however, I felt a certain discomfort when our factual statements that Poland was the first victim on the war trail of Nazi Germany; that the brutal Nazi occupation terrorized the Polish population; that the Germans murdered about 3 million Polish Jews; or that the camps were German camps located on occupied Polish soil are framed as part of the “Polish digital account” and not simply historical truth.

The position of the Memorial is clear (it is also available on Twitter): the acts of Poles during the German occupation of Poland, both heroic and horrible, must be researched by historians honestly and professionally with in-depth knowledge of contexts and diverse circumstances.

I should add that in my work, I also have to contend with the views of other parties who attack the museum, for example, for speaking far too much about the Jews or belittling the suffering of the Poles. Perhaps this is the fate of an educator trying to respectfully approach the truth about the history of a very complicated and difficult place.

The Auschwitz Museum and Memorial does not take part in political discussions and tries to protect the memory of the victims from political attacks. In a political dispute, there is little room for nuance and the pursuit of truth. Unfortunately, the black-and-white vision of the world usually presented by the extreme sides of political conflicts makes the work of educators such as myself more difficult.

The discussion of history in very blatant and extreme categories destroys much of what I, the several hundred people working at the Auschwitz Memorial Site, and thousands of people around the world in museums and memorial sites are trying to achieve. For many of us, the protection of historical truth is not just our job, it’s a life mission. This mission includes commemorating all the victims of Auschwitz and protecting their memory from political manipulation from all sides. And it must remain that way.

About the Author
Paweł Sawicki is press officer and social media manager at the Auschwitz Memorial
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