(JTA) — As the head of Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Piotr Cywiński and his staff rarely intervene in matters that don’t concern their imposing institution.
They even sit out debates that do concern them, such as Poland’s controversial outlawing in 2018 of rhetoric that blames the country for Nazi crimes.
But Cywiński decided to speak out this week about the controversy surrounding Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to appoint as its head Effi Eitam, a hawkish retired general and politician who, a growing number of critics say, has used racist rhetoric against Arab Israelis and Palestinians.
“I am concerned about the future of this institution,” Cywiński told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Yad Vashem in a telephone interview last week.
Cywiński, a 48-year-old historian who is not Jewish and has headed the Auschwitz state museum since 2006, is not alone in expressing concern about Yad Vashem.
Hundreds of Holocaust survivors and scholars have protested the plan, which was made known in August, to have Eitam, a former leader of the settler movement in Israel, succeed Avner Shalev, a former general and government cultural official who is retiring after serving in the role since 1993.
Opponents of the appointment, including 750 scholars who signed a petition protesting it, have cited what they call the “hateful rhetoric” of Eitam, a 68-year-old hero of Israel’s 1973 war and the famous Entebbe operation in Uganda.
Eitam’s advocates cite his managerial and leadership credentials, and the fact that Yad Vashem has had controversial heads in the past, including the late secularist politician Tommy Lapid, who had said that “lying comes easier to women” and that Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet was a “Judenrat,” the name for the Jewish governing councils of Nazi ghettos that is often used to imply Jewish collaboration with anti-Semites.
In Eitam’s case, the hate speech allegations refer to a speech Eitam made in 2006, in which he said about West Bank Palestinians that “some of them may be able to stay under some conditions, but most will have to go away.” He also said: “We will need to make a decision, which is to expel the Arab Israelis from the political system. We have raised a fifth column, a group of classic traitors.”
He also said in a 2011 interview that “de facto autonomy” for Arab Israelis is “an existential threat characterized by stealth. And stealthy threats by nature are like cancer.”
Last week, Eitam responded for the first time to his critics, saying he does not wish to see Palestinians driven out of the West Bank, though he added that he could see such an expulsion happening over the course of the conflict.
“If war is declared on us by people, publics or groups who seek to make Israel into an arena for terrorism, there we will fight with all of our strength and there we will prevail,” he said. “Expulsion of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria is not a goal, it is an outcome.”
He also said: “When the allegations against me are false and baseless, there’s no need to respond. My connection to the Holocaust is deep and alive. It’s how I grew up and raised my children, grandchildren and soldiers.”
Cywiński called the leadership of Yad Vashem “an internal Israeli decision” and declined to name specifically Eitam, whose mother survived the Holocaust as a fighter in the Red Army but lost her parents in the genocide in what is now Latvia. Still, Cywiński said that whoever succeeds Shalev needs to “maintain Shalev’s achievement of positioning Yad Vashem as an international research authority, rather than merely a national museum, and as an international center for education on the Holocaust.”
The outcry over Eitam’s appointment is making Cywiński doubt whether Eitam is the man for the job, he conceded.
“I am hearing the voices of many different institutions around the world. I don’t want to focus on any names and focus instead on what the problem is, the reason it was very criticized by some very important partners in such a fashion,” he said.
The protest “shows that maybe the roadmap to choosing the right person is not exactly understood,” he added.
The decision to speak out about Yad Vashem is part of a growing willingness on Cywiński’s part to intervene in matters outside his professional purview, said the father of three, who divides his time between Warsaw and the museum near Krakow, some 150 miles south of the capital.
Earlier this year, Cywiński took another bold step, heading an international activist campaign for the first time. It was on behalf of Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old Nigerian boy sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Muslim Sharia court for things the boy had allegedly said during a conversation with a friend who reported him to the authorities.
In an open letter to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who had visited Auschwitz in 2018, Cywiński wrote that Farouq should be released. If that’s impossible, Cywiński added, then he and other activists volunteered to divide the sentence between them and serve it for Farouq.
As the director of a Polish state museum built on a Nazi camp where “children were imprisoned and murdered, I cannot remain indifferent to this disgraceful sentence to humanity,” Cywiński wrote at the time.
None of it came to fruition, but it was unusual for Cywiński to speak out on the issue, especially because he is known to believe that Holocaust museums should generally stay narrowly focused on their subject.
In speaking to JTA, Cywiński singled out for criticism Belgium’s Kazerne Dossin Holocaust museum, which is facing flak for its universalist approach to its subject member. This year it also endorsed a prominent promoter of the boycott Israel movement.
Cywiński also disapproves of the recent decision by the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Florida to include an exhibit about George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white policeman in Minnesota earlier this year.
“It’s not the best way,” Cywiński said. “We have to stay very, very strongly on the basic message of all those institutions. It’s not an issue to compare everything, it’s not the issue to introduce everything in everything.”
The Holocaust “informs our knowledge about other tragedies,” Cywiński said, but “museums about it shouldn’t be about creating a melting pot of everything in one place.”
His growing tendency to speak out on issues beyond his museum’s scope are “perfectly in line” with this view, he said. “I’m not saying Holocaust historians shouldn’t speak out about what happens in the world, on the contrary. Just that Holocaust museums aren’t the appropriate place to deal with things that are not part of the Holocaust.”
Cywiński has opted for more activist approaches because “the world is becoming more and more difficult. And our level of responsibility and cooperation must grow accordingly,” he said.
Shalev’s ability to make Yad Vashem an international center “for education against hatred against this background is also why I admire what he has done,” Cywiński said.
Immediately after his appointment, Shalev founded Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, a pioneer institution whose programs for educators from all over the world have set the standard in the field. He has also advanced the collection of individuals names of Holocaust victims by Yad Vashem, reaching five million of them that are now accessible on the memorial’s website in six languages.
The collection of the names of rescuers of Jews, the Righteous Among the Nations, also received a major push under Shalev. A third of Poland’s 7,112 Righteous were recognized under Shalev, as well as nearly half of Ukraine’s 2,659 rescuers. (This push has had its own controversy — critics said some recipients of the honor should never have received it, and other rescuers were left out of the process, despite ample evidence of their heroism.)
At Auschwitz, Cywiński has also placed a focus on education. He has also headed massive restoration efforts, ranging from fixing decaying barracks to old suitcase buckles, obtaining many millions of dollars for these projects from multiple governments and donors. Under Cywiński educational projects have expanded dramatically, thanks to the opening of new training programs for historians, teachers and most recently even journalists.
Back in Israel, some critics of Cywiński believe he is neglecting to speak out on issues that are central to Auschwitz’s mission, including the legislation by Poland’s government — which is ultimately Cywiński’s employer, since the museum is state owned — that bans blaming the Polish nations for crimes against humanity. One of the justifications put forward for this law was the mislabelling of Auschwitz, which the German built, as a “Polish death camp.”
Under Cywiński, the Auschwitz museum took on a key role in correcting journalists and others on this issue, chiefly through the museum’s Twitter account, which has more than a million followers.
But the law meant to address this problem provoked an outcry, including by Yad Vashem historians, who said that the legislation by Poland’s right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice, “risks Holocaust distortion,” is an impediment to free expression and research about the Holocaust, and prevents a free exchange of ideas about thousands of Polish Nazi collaborators.
After several weeks of silence on this matter, Cywiński issued a carefully-worded statement that paled in comparison to the scathing criticism levelled at the legislation abroad. To stamp out the “hideous term ‘Polish camps,’ this law must be understood primarily abroad,” he said.
“Otherwise, we are creating a tool that will be ineffective by definition,” Cywiński said.
He has also sat out the debate on a controversy surrounding another Polish state museum on the Holocaust, at Sobibor. The museum has decided to build a monument on grounds littered with human remains, and scholars say the area may also contain archaeological findings that are in danger of being damaged by the construction.
“It would behoove the director of the Auschwitz museum to stay out of debates outside Poland and focus on issues inside it, and chiefly the dangerous limits placed on Holocaust education and civil rights by his employer,” Rabbi Avraham Krieger, the director of Israel’s Shem Olam Holocaust Institute for Education, Documentation and Research, told JTA.
Krieger, whose institute focuses on religious life in the Holocaust, defended Eitam’s appointment as “no less worthy than any other,” characterizing the opposition to it as “fear that Yad Vashem will return to its rightful mission of examining what the Holocaust has meant to the Jewish People, its victims, and not be converted into some shapeless universal value.”
Cywiński defended his decision to stay out of the Holocaust legislation debate.
“I was not consulted about the law, I had no part in the law. Now why do I have to take the museum into a political decision that it had no hand in creating?” he said. “It was not an educational project, research project, it is strictly a political project. I don’t want to enter in politics with the museum.”
Why, then, is Cywiński wading into the Yad Vashem controversy?
“I’m not trying to influence any decision, this is something for Israelis to decide,” he reiterated. “All I am saying, is that Yad Vashem, under the leadership of Avner Shalev, has achieved a status, which it didn’t always have, of being an international authority on the Holocaust. Now Israelis need to decide if it stays this way or goes back to being an entity that is limited to Israel’s national perspective.”