Poland’s ruling party and a veterans’ association demand that Polish victims of Auschwitz be better commemorated. They claim that non-Jewish victims are ignored due to the main focus on remembering the Holocaust.
The wooden barracks, mountains of shoes, suitcases and locks of prisoners’ shaved hair lying on the former concentration camp grounds are reminders of what went on in the German death factory where over a million people were murdered in the 1940s. The exhibition in the former concentration camp is aimed at informing visitors that Auschwitz, founded in 1940 in occupied Poland and later a symbol of the Holocaust, was initially intended for non-Jewish Poles. During Germany’s occupation of Poland between 1939 and 1945, Polish citizens could end up in a concentration camp for committing the smallest of offences.
Poland’s victims were not just its Jews
Poland lost six million people during the Second World War, more than one-sixth of its population. Half of them were Polish Jews. In percentage terms, the country suffered the largest human loss of all countries affected by the Second World War.
In the Auschwitz Memorial, however, remembrance mainly focuses on the one million Jews who were systematically murdered there — and who make up more than 90 percent of the camp’s victims. The Auschwitz Memorial’s head, Piotr Cywinski, has for years been accused by Poland’s national conservative circles of not adequately remembering non-Jewish Polish victims and heroes of Auschwitz.
Cywinski is accused, for example, of trying to play down the role of Polish officer Witold Pilecki, who voluntarily entered the concentration camp in order to gather information on Nazi crimes for the Allies. This is the allegation made by the Association of Families of Polish Concentration Camp Victims (SRPOOK), to which former prisoners and victims’ descendants belong. In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation, the ruling PiS demanded Cywinski’s dismissal because he had not sent a personal invitation to the Polish officer’s descendants. Outraged PiS politician and later Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said at the time, “It’s a scandal not to commemorate Polish heroes.”