The director of the Polish Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Piotr Cywiński, had no doubts about whether a full-scale war would break out in Ukraine or not. He also explained why he believed that the invasion would take place even earlier. The expert also shared his thoughts on how important it is to collect, document and keep the testimonies of eyewitnesses who became war victims...
“The Ukrainian world will not be the same as it was because that world has been re-written anew”
Did you know that the war would begin? How did you feel when you heard the news about the beginning of the active stage of russia’s armed hostilities against Ukraine?
To be honest, I was convinced that that war would happen sometime in October 2021. At that time, the dissolution of the international Memorial in russia began by a political decision of the kremlin. This Society, which existed for more than 30 years, dealt mainly with two topics.
Firstly, it documented the crimes of the NKVD and the KGB, documented the fates of the GULAG victims, and carried out brilliant and enormous educational or awareness-raising work. And secondly, it recorded, analysed and made known to the public war crimes of the russian army during the wars in the Caucasus, during the invasion of part of Georgia, etc. Obviously, that first historical and educational activity line was not the reason for closing down the Memorial.
The second line of activity signalled that there would be a war, and that that war had already begun in the kremlin’s plans as a criminal war.
In my opinion, the abolishment of the Memorial Society, its winding-up, would make it more difficult for citizens and russian society to collect evidence. And when I realized that the events trended to the closure of such a respectable international institution, which is the Memorial Society, I also realized that the war was really looming, and that it would be a criminal war.
I thought it would start earlier. I predicted then that it would be in the end of January, given the fact that there were obvious logistical constraints in those territories in the spring, such as flooding, water, mud and so on. I was quite surprised that this happened by the end of February. I remember how I woke up in the morning, and as it usually happens to everyone else, you watch the first news. And I saw what broke out.
We felt our duty, anticipating that a lot of mass media would ask us about a certain position, about some analysis of at least those propagandistic elements that Putin or the kremlin in their statements linked to the Second World War and to Nazism. In just a few hours – closer to the noon – we released a statement. We posted this statement on social networks and during the first week it got up to 11 million views/references – the media quoted us quite often.
As everyone else, I tried to understand then how long the war would last, what territory it would cover, what would be the reactions, both internationally and inside russia itself. As it was not clear from the beginning how it would be developing.
I think that in the early days, only few people in the world believed that Ukraine would be able to resist so successfully. Many believed that the strength of the russian army was incomparably greater than what it actually turned out to be. Only over some time, when we learned about the lack of weapons, motivation, and military logistics – then the world began to understand that the situation was a little different from expected.
After all, it was quite astonishing for many people and I would like to highlight that russia was so convinced that it was a matter of a few days – the occupation of Kyiv and the change of leadership, and did not even prepare anything that is immeasurably important for the morale of the fighting army, that is, some symbols of that war.
An army always follows a certain banner, a certain symbol. And only a few days later, soldiers themselves began to use the letter Z, as that was how they began to identify themselves. The propaganda machine did not even create any symbols because they thought that they would win in three days and it was not worth stuffing their heads with it.
This means that neither their army nor society were fully prepared to call this attack or invasion in some symbolic manner. They indeed thought that they would have it resolved in a few days.
This is surprising because russia and moscow have a really deep tradition of operating with propaganda but here they did not prepare even that. That is, they were prepared neither in a militarily sense, nor logistically, nor even in terms of their propaganda.
From day to day, the reaction of the [Ukrainian] army and the Ukrainian society, politicians, and state authorities excited bigger and bigger surprise. I must say it very clearly – it was frantic. From the beginning, I had the impression that I was observing a unified organism living one common life. This rarely happens in modern conflicts that are different from World War II.
Here, in the information domain, Ukraine was ahead from the beginning. For many years, russia has been preparing its troll farms in many countries of Europe and in the USA. And a small step was actually enough, which I saw in Poland as well, that is, to disable the possibility to leave comments. The next day, all this lost its meaning – those trolls had no chance, they could not manifest themselves. This shows a deep misunderstanding because they put a stake on disinformation, which was turned off in one click.
How will russia’s war against Ukraine change the Ukrainian nation? How will this war change the world?
This is the war that has enormous significance on many levels. The Ukrainian world will not be the same as it was because that world has now been re-written anew.
Ukraine had quite a complex history, and the joint Polish-Ukrainian history is difficult and painful one. Yet Ukraine also had its own history with russia, Lithuania, and the Tatars. These lands have always had rather “soft borders” – geographically, culturally, and religiously. These borders have solidified very much.
The fact is that the greatest price was paid by those territories or lands that were closer to Russia – where the russian language was spoken, where mixed families lived, and so it continued. Now it is no longer the case. Experience shows that the assessment of such things requires unambiguity, and this will continue for generations. It will be passed on from grandchildren to great-grandchildren.
Well, and the second point is that the positioning or the place of russia in the world has changed significantly. New states that join NATO, certain threats regarding gas supplies – all this motivates Europe to be united.
For decades, there were debates about the search for new sources, internal conflicts, and it was impossible to move ahead with one single voice. However, there is such a unity now. The master line of the various EU structures and elements has never been so clear-cut.
It is very interesting how things will be developing further in russia. The fact that they strangled the opposition, many of whom moved even to Poland, and I have such acquaintances too. Also, in the future, we will see the escalation of the internal conflict. The question will arise why young men from the Buryat Republic were sent to the war while young men from Moscow, St. Petersburg or Nizhniy Novgorod did not go. This will trigger some centrifugal trends. It is unclear what will happen when the system breaks down and the ban on criticism ceases to be in effect.
Why is it important to collect the stories of civilians who suffered from the war?
Collecting people’s testimonies is a very important work. Taking into account the evolution of trauma, we can see that such testimonies are easier to obtain immediately after some hard life experiences or much later then.
Many victims cannot speak out immediately after undergoing torture. They cannot tell anything, and this is a natural human response everywhere in the world. After some time, the elements of post-traumatic memory tend to be forgotten. I mean, in fact, it is imprinted and forgotten. The brain throws it to some of its peripheral, marginal areas because it is scary. And the brain retrieves it much later. In many cases, maybe not always but often – it is difficult to remember.
After a few years, memory may have certain retrievals – people recount or share what they experienced, what they came through. In such a complex post-traumatic situation, there is a phenomenon of not so much retrieving some facts, but rather the way of describing and interpreting them, etc.
In this regard, the early records are especially important and valuable not only for historians or teachers, but also for lawyers who will soon be dealing with this conflict.
What is extremely important, and what Europe did not realize immediately after World War II, what is immeasurably important is to have such memories or recollections not only from the world of the victims, but also from the world of the perpetrators. We have a huge archive of victims’ testimonies here in Auschwitz, as well as in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and in various archives, but there are very few testimonies from SS soldiers. This is very bad because it complicates the anthropological analysis, and there is a big anthropological question not to the victims – they lived somewhere and then somebody came to them, took them, beat them, raped them, and murdered their families... The anthropological problem is on the side of the perpetrators.
There is a big question to a human being here – how could it be done? What were the mechanisms of this evil?
This is what is missing very much among historians now – we have very few narratives from SS or Gestapo soldiers. I believe that what Ukraine really needs are records of war prisoners, where they could say what motivated them, what they were thinking at that time. This is covered in the media very superficially, but this is very important information that will play a huge role in the future analysis.
Can the crimes of the russian army against Ukrainian civilians be called genocide of the Ukrainian nation?
With all due respect to the situation and the human dramas that unfolded all the time and continue to unfold until this moment in the territory of eastern Ukraine, we should realize that we are in a paradigm of different concepts, and where the concepts are of legal nature, it is not for a historian to address such questions. And not even so much for a lawyer, but rather for a court.
And I would like to wait and really see the situation when the international court in The Hague takes a position on defining and calling those crimes committed in Ukraine by their proper name. Because war crimes are something different – in the light of what we already know.
I suppose that it is absolutely clear that war crimes are on the agenda in connection with what the russian army is doing to the civilian population. Whether they are guilty of crimes against humanity – here I also believe (and I speak as a historian, not as a judge and not as a lawyer) that we deal with crimes against humanity.
Something different is the crime of genocide codified after World War II in international treaties and UN documents. So, is every crime against humanity genocide? Without a doubt, no, it is not. Every case of genocide is a crime against humanity. But is a crime against humanity genocide? The tribunal court should therefore condemn it.
In my opinion of a historian (I reiterate – not a lawyer and not a judge), a real in-depth study of this situation should consider not only specific cases or orders carried out by the russian army, such as torturing of civilians, children, raping of women, theft and so on. This should be also considered together with what the masterminds of these actions say. What the politicians say, those who outlined the direction of this war.
And if they say that Ukrainians are not a separate nation and that Ukraine has no right to exist, it means that the intention is to destroy – physically or at least in the minds of people – the entire Ukrainian nation. Together with the committed atrocities, this gives grounds at least for the consideration of the genocide case by the international court in The Hague.
Because there should be an intention and actions that follow it. In my opinion, the situation is as it is. This question arises in connection with what the top figures in the kremlin say. But I reiterate – this is the matter to be addressed by courts. We should not plainly replace the court in a public, somewhat amateurish discussion. Historically or publicistically, we should not misemploy legal concepts or definitions – they are to be used by courts.
The portal of the online Museum of Civilian Voices already has more than 35,000 stories of people who suffered from the war. How do you assess the mission of the Museum, which is to collect stories of civilians during the war in Ukraine?
Without a doubt, I am saying this with a heavy heart, those 35,000 are only the beginning. There will be more, unfortunately. And now, based on the experience of Auschwitz or other places, when I was asked, for example, about Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, I believe that all human resources should now be engaged in searching for memories, testimonies, materials, etc.
Nowadays, everyone has a phone and everyone can record a video. In three years, a person’s mobile phone will break down. And all this should be collected, not even analysed yet. The time for the analysis will come too. Generations of historians will be working on it. There will be books, movies and materials.
We live in a different time though, not like in Rwanda or Cambodia. Then it was not possible to record a video on the phone – only to document [evidence]. This has a huge significance – every photo now has a location and a time mark – there will be a lot of traces and evidence. It is not even like it used to be with analog photos.
Nevertheless, to record testimonies, to preserve what has already been recorded – this is the most important thing now. It is not only evidence of a crime, as it has value in moral and educational assessment too – Ukraine and the world will still be looking for mechanisms to demonstrate this. It could be different some 20 or 30 years ago but now everyone has a phone with them, as well as phone records. And the quantity and quality of this material will play a huge role in the future.
What should a modern museum be like so that the memory is preserved by contemporaries and future generations?
It all very much depends on what kind of conflict we are talking about here. If we are talking about Jewish colonies or German concentration camps, then most of those testimonies collected before the 90s were either handwritten or typed. We are currently scanning and indexing them, although it is quite painstaking.
In the 1990s, collections of stories shot on a video camera appeared. In the past, people also recorded sound for radio. However, storing such information is much more difficult because storage media get damaged or worn out. For example, paper documents in the archive, if hidden from light and kept at the right temperature, will be duly preserved. And the archive from Los Angeles, for example, which includes several tens of thousands of films with survivors, changed the media several times – diskettes, servers, discs. It changes once every few years. It is necessary to make copies because it is quite easy to lose what is on a digital medium – for instance, like the case with a video from a phone. At least 2-3 copies should be in different places so that, for example, an earthquake does not destroy everything at once.
As for the development and trends, we have come a long way here over the last decade or two. We enrich our collections and archives with people’s narratives.
Narrated or recounted stories are evolutionary for sure. As people wanted to look for these stories.
However, a problem arises here – subjective, to a certain extent, nature of a story. And what someone said is not necessarily a fact. There should be at least two independent verified sources. Only in this way, a historian will recognize it as a fact, and not as a historical thesis. Therefore, there should be a historical comparativistic work here.
These stories should become embedded in historical events. This is a process that keeps pace with modern times. In those stories, we learn about what happened to people.
Nevertheless, it is not the right moment for you, for Ukraine now. Currently, everyone needs to collect materials and store them. It is necessary to very convincingly ask the society of Ukraine to share everything they have in the records on the phones and send it to a specific address. In three years’ time, it will be too late – a new phone and no one will want to return to it. It should be done now, not in three years.
When and under what circumstances can russia’s war against Ukraine end?
I am not a good prophet, as I said earlier. I believed that the war would begin a month earlier. I do not know if the Olympic Games in Beijing or something else played a role here, or maybe the tension around Taiwan – I do not know, honestly speaking.
When will it end? I have the impression that this is largely a question to russia. Because one of the possible finals and the one that I would most like for russia, Ukraine and the rest of the world is to see a serious internal change in russia.
Serious and deep does not mean unipersonal. It should also be a review of the values of society, the state, diplomacy, democracy, and respect for people. These are all things that russia has problems with not only now. It lingers on from the Tsar times through communism, Stalinism and is seen very conspicuously now.
Whereas, in the 21st century, it is impossible to sustain the development of a state in which corruption and fear reign for a long time, as in the times of tsarism or Stalin – there must be a very deep change here. The whole world is waiting for this – well, almost the whole world, the democratic world. There is no doubt today that the war will be won not by the number of tanks but by spirit. And looking at this war, all the generals and [military] staffs of the world understood this very well.
The fighting spirit is much more valuable than all the tanks and military equipment or warships in the Black Sea.