Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Edit profile
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (Polish: Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau) is a memorial and museum in Oświęcim, Poland (German: Auschwitz), which includes the German concentration camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It is devoted to the memory of the murders in both camps during World War II. The museum performs several tasks, among them research into the Holocaust.

The museum

On July 2, 1947, the museum was founded by resolution of the Polish parliament. The area covers 191 hectares, twenty of them in camp Auschwitz I and 171 in camp Auschwitz II. Since 1979 the former concentration camp has belonged to the World Cultural Heritage and more than 25 million people have visited the museum.

The areas of remembrance are Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the train ramp between Auschwitz and Birkenau, which was used as a "debarkation-stop" between 1942–1944. The three kilometres between Auschwitz and Birkenau are within walking distance. The museum is situated in several original buildings.

The number of visitors has been increasing year by year. In 2006 more than one million people from 94 countries visited: from Poland (341,000), U.S. (96,000), UK (57,200), Italy (51,000), Germany (50,200), France (39,100), Israel (37,200), South Korea (35,400), Norway (30,600), and Spain (23,300).


After the Soviet Union handed over the camp to Poland in 1947, the parliament declared the area to be a museum on July 2, 1947. Simultaneously the first exhibition in the barracks was opened.

On the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the first deportation of Polish captives to camp Auschwitz, the exhibition was revised under assistance of former inmates. Though, this exhibition was influenced by the Cold War and next to pictures of Jewish ghettos, photos of slums in the USA were presented.

After Stalin's death, a new exhibition was planned in 1955, which is basically still valid today. In 1959 every nation who had victims in Auschwitz received the right to present an own exhibition. On the other hand victims like homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Sinti and Roma and Yeniche people did not receive these rights. The state of Israel was also refused the allowance for an own exhibition as the murdered Jews in Auschwitz were not citizens of Israel. In April 1968 the Jewish exhibition was opened - designed by Andrzej Szczypiorski. A scandal happened in 1979 when Pope John Paul II held a mass in Birkenau and called the camp a Golgotha of our times.

In 1962 a prevention zone around the museum in Birkenau and in 1977 one around the museum in Auschwitz was established in order to contain the historical condition of the camp. These zones were confirmed by the Polish parliament in 1999.

In 1967 the first big memorial monument was inaugurated and in the 90s the first information boards were set up.

The National Exhibitions

Since 1960 the so-called "national exhibitions" are located in the former concentration camp Auschwitz I. Most of them were renewed from time to time, for example those of Belgium, France, Hungary, Netherlands, Slovakia, Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union. The German exhibition which was made by the former GDR has not been renewed since then.

The first national exhibition of the Soviet Union was opened in 1961 and renewed in 1977 and 1985. In 2003 the Russian organizing committee suggested to present a completely new exhibition. The Soviet part of the museum was closed, but the reopening was delayed as there were differences in the questions of the territorial situation of the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941. The question of the territories of the Baltic countries, the Eastern Poland and parts of Rumania could not be solved.

In 1978 Austria opened its exhibition, presenting itself as a victim of national socialism. This one-sided view motivated the Austrian political scientist Andreas Maislinger to work in the museum within the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP) in 1980/81. Later he founded the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service. The Austrian federal president Rudolf Kirchschläger had advised Maislinger, that as a young Austrian he does not need to atone anything in Auschwitz. Due to this disapproving attitude of the official Austrian representation, the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service could not be launched before September 1992.


The museum has allowed scenes for three films to be filmed on the site: Pasażerka (1963) by Polish director Andrzej Munk, Landscape After the Battle (1970) by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and a television miniseries War and Remembrance (1978). Permission was denied to Steven Spielberg to film scenes for Schindler's List (1993). A "mirror" camp was constructed outside the infamous archway for the scene where the train arrives carrying the women who were saved by Oskar Schindler.

Religious disputes

In 1979, the newly elected Polish Pope John Paul II celebrated mass on the grounds of Auschwitz II to some 500,000 people, and announced that Edith Stein would be beatified. Some Catholics erected a cross near Bunker 2 of Auschwitz II where she had been gassed. A short while later, a Star of David appeared at the site, leading to a proliferation of religious symbols, which were eventually removed.

Carmelite nuns opened a convent near Auschwitz I in 1984. After some Jewish groups called for the removal of the convent, representatives of the Catholic Church agreed in 1987. One year later the Carmelites erected a 8 m (26 ft) tall cross from the 1979 mass near their site, just outside Block 11 and barely visible from within the camp. This led to protests by Jewish groups, who said that mostly Jews were killed at Auschwitz and demanded that religious symbols be kept away from the site. The Catholic Church told the Carmelites to move by 1989, but they stayed on until 1993, leaving the cross behind. In 1998, after further calls to remove the cross, some 300 smaller crosses were erected by local activists near the large one, leading to further protests and heated exchanges. Following an agreement between the Polish Catholic Church and the Polish government, the smaller crosses were removed in 1999, but a large papal one remains.

Liberation day

The 50th anniversary of the liberation ceremony was held in Auschwitz 1 in 1995. About a thousand ex-prisoners attended it. In 1996, Germany made January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, the official day for the commemoration of the victims of National Socialism. Countries who have also adopted similar memorial days include Denmark (Auschwitz Day), Italy (Memorial Day) and Poland (Memorial Day for the Victims of Nazism).

Iranian visit not allowed

In February 2006, Poland refused to grant visas to Iranian researchers who were planning to visit Auschwitz. Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller said his country should stop Iran from investigating the scale of the Holocaust, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed as a myth.Holocaust denial is punishable in Poland by a prison sentence of up to three years.

UNESCO name change

The Polish Foreign Ministry has voiced objections to the use of the expression "Polish death camp" in relation to Auschwitz, in case the phrase suggested that Poland, rather than Germany, had perpetrated the Holocaust. In June 2007, the United Nations World Heritage Committee announced that their new name for the site was "Auschwitz Birkenau," with the subtitle "German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)."

"Arbeit macht frei" sign theft

Early in the morning on December 18, 2009 the Arbeit macht frei ("work makes you free") sign over the gate of Auschwitz I was stolen. The theft was organised by the Swedish former Nazi, Anders Högström. The sign was later recovered and returned to its original place.

Temporary closures

It was closed for a while in May 2010 due to the 2010 Central European floods and for a couple of days after the Arbeit macht frei sign theft so that police could investigate the theft.