U.S. honors Auschwitz-Birkenau museum leader

Piotr Cywiński has dedicated his life to preserving Holocaust memory while encouraging others to learn about its history.

“If we place the memory of the Holocaust only in the history books, it means that we have failed to understand the universal truth about humanity it reveals,” said Cywiński, who has served as director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland since 2006.

The “biggest crime of the 20th century” should not be forgotten, the Warsaw native has said.

Cywiński was honored with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s National Leadership Award in a July 13 ceremony at the State Department.

Man gesturing while talking to another person (© U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Cywiński attends a July 13 program where he received a national leadership award in Washington. (© U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

During his tenure as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum director, Cywiński:

  • Led restoration efforts that preserved the site’s architectural integrity.
  • Expanded educational opportunities for students, academics and journalists to study the Holocaust and stop Holocaust denial and distortion.
  • Spearheaded efforts to build a new education center and a visitor center, which is currently under construction.
  • Made the facility accessible to more than 2 million visitors annually.

Stuart Eizenstat, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, praised Cywiński for his “unique ability to stay rooted in the past and at the same time focused on the future.”

The event at the State Department marked the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Wide view of gate in front of old buildings (© Markus Schreiber/AP Images)
A view of the gate of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oświęcim, Poland, in 2020. (© Markus Schreiber/AP Images)

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest concentration camp and extermination center run by the Nazis during World War II. An estimated 1.1 million people were killed in the camp. Among the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, 3 million were Polish.

The museum’s grounds cover 191 hectares and include several hundred camp buildings and ruins, including the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria.

Eizenstat called the museum “our most potent reminder of the dangers of antisemitism and hatred.”

Woman pointing at old photograph projected on screen (© U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Irene Weiss, a volunteer for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, points to the part of a photo that shows her mother and two little brothers sitting near a crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (© U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Preserving Holocaust memory is paramount because of ongoing attempts to alter history and dismiss survivor stories as untrue.

“Under Dr. Cywiński’s leadership, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has supported accurate history and education about the Holocaust and has guarded against Holocaust distortion and denial,” said Ellen Germain, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues.

Cywiński also champions human rights in other areas. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation that he founded recently launched a grant program to fund projects combating racism, antisemitism, and discrimination against migrants and members of the LGBTQI+ community.

“What culminated in the Holocaust began with seemingly inconspicuous forms of discrimination,” Cywiński said earlier this year when the grant program was launched. “The hard truth is — bystanders facilitate discrimination and that is exactly what hatred needs to grow.”