First works on establishing the Museum

Late in 1945 Soviet authorities began to transfer the territory of the former Auschwitz camp to Polish administration. At that time some former inmates postulated protecting the premises and setting up a museum. The initiative undertaken on 31 December 1945 by Alfred Fiderkiewicz, former inmate and the then executive director of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German (later: Nazi) Crimes in Poland was most momentous. At a session of the Polish State National Council (KRN) held on that day, he presented a proposal to set up a space commemorating Polish and international martyrdom in Oświęcim and Brzezinka. On 1 February 1946 the Commission for Culture and Art of the KRN unanimously approved the recommendation, and entrusted the details of the follow-up to a commission of experts composed of representatives of the ministries of justice, reconstruction and culture and art, and of the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners (PZbWP).

Alfred Fiderkiewicz, a physician, pre-war left-wing activist, MP. During the Nazi occupation he belonged to the Polish People’s Party (communist). Arrested in June 1943, he was deported to Auschwitz two months later, on 25 August. Here he was given prisoner number 138907, worked as a physician in the hospital sector in Birkenau (BIIf), and co-organised left-wing resistance movement. Having survived to the liberation of the camp, he soon moved to Krakow, where he was nominated mayor of the city on 5 February. When in office, he was strongly involved in aiding the liberated inmates. Later he was nominated the director of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland. On 31 December 1945, Fiderkiewicz presented a motion to set up “a memorial of Polish and international martyrdom” on the premises of former Auschwitz concentration camp, at a session of the Polish State National Council (KRN).
Source: APMA-B

Jerzy Zbrzeski, a former inmate of Stutthof, reminisced:

In the spring of 1947 I was looking for work. … I got to the Museum thanks to former inmates of Auschwitz … from the Regional Board, but this time from the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners of the Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps in Katowice. … I’m especially grateful to [Stanisław] Pawliczek, who made me psychologically ready for departure to Oświęcim, as my situation at the time was fairly difficult, and for a few months I had lived on people’s charity. Pawliczek told me that they had a very wise and good man there, director Tadeusz Wąsowicz, and that I don’t have to be a former Auschwitz inmate. It was May 1947, I arrived in Oświęcim, I was lucky, as director Wąsowicz was in. He was kind to me and asked if I were a former inmate. ‘Yes’, I answered, ‘but of Stutthof’. ‘A horrible camp’, he answered, ‘my cousin was there. All right, you will work as a guard’, and gave me a message to commander [Karol] Rydecki, to check me in, and give me my uniform and accommodation. I started working in three-shift system on 10 June 1947. With the exception of a handful of people, all staff … lived inside the Museum, having turned former SS offices into their quarters. We shared bathrooms and toilets in the corridors. … Married couples received larger rooms. Unmarried people lived in smaller ones, or shared rooms in twos. … Living together was as a rule very harmonious, verging on family life, yet it began to deteriorate after the death of Wąsowicz in September 1952, and in 1953–54 many of Museum staff left for other employers, most for ZChO [i.e. the chemical works in Oświęcim]. 1948–49, a frosty night in winter, we have service in Brzezinka: [Jan] Machałek and me. After a round of crematoria IV and V and the pyres, we went to the main sauna to warm up. We had a stove in a room on the right-hand side of the sauna, from the side of the road. We were sitting there, getting warmed up, talking—and we suddenly heard someone walking in the sauna in wooden clogs, wood against concrete. It was night and the sound could clearly be heard. I’m asking ‘Machałek, can you hear it?’‘I do, and you?’‘I can’, I answered. Machałek was not easily scared, we had torches, we had guns, we rifled through the entire sauna, and there was no one there. We returned to the stove, sat down, and wondered what it was. After a short time it came back. Distinctive: walking in wooden clogs, so we penetrated the area once again, also around, and nothing. We went on our routine round. We recollected that many times in our lives. When we talk about that moment to people we know, we are most often answered with a smile, but not always. That night still returns to me in recollections. Machałek also remembered it as long as he lived. The sound of wooden clogs on a wooden floor is what I know well and it’s not strange to me. And I even today really don’t know what to think about it.
Source: An excerpt from an account by Jerzy Zbrzeski, APMA-B, Collection of Memoirs, pp. 266, 282.

Stanisław Hantz, a former inmate of Auschwitz, prisoner number 2049, recollected:

I arrived in the camp (Museum) with the first group. … I learnt about the Museum at the Union of Former Political Prisoners. I was a trained carpenter, but I couldn’t work in my profession, because my nerves were damaged from the słupek (strappado) punishment. Once I was hanged for an hour in Auschwitz in 1940, and then again I was hanged for three hours in hourly instalments for three weeks. An hour a week. It turned out that I couldn’t much work. All my fingers were getting stiff, especially in my right hand. I wasn’t sufficiently fit for work. But I worked on different construction sites in Warsaw. … I wanted to study but I didn’t have means of sustenance, and this was that when they offered me a job at the Museum. In the beginning I didn’t want to go and stay on the premises of the former camp. They kept persuading me: who is to do it, they said, if not we. … Initially, the conditions were hard, but there was a canteen, we could organise food, well, everything was only beginning to get organised. … I worked at the Museum to the end of 1949. In the meantime I studied. I completed my secondary education. Thanks to Wąsowicz, thanks to his help. … Other than that I guided tours around the camp. You spoke about the camp with friends, and you had it returning in your dreams by night. I thought I was going crazy. I decided to quit that job. My balance gradually returned, but even now I sometimes have those dreams. Usually these are some pursuits, beatings, executions. I felt threatened somehow. … I stayed at the camp from the age of 17 to 22. And isn’t it the most beautiful period in the life of every man.
Source: An excerpt from an account by Stanisław Hantz, APMA-B, Collection of Testimonies, vol. 88, pp. 183–184.

Tadeusz Szymański, a former inmate of Auschwitz, prisoner number 20034, reminisced:

There were no defined office hours at the time. Actually all had to be present from 8am to 3pm., and after 3pm everyone who was needed was present. … At the time you didn’t ‘split hairs’ and everyone did what was to be done at a given moment. ‘There’s an important delegation coming tomorrow, so things have to be cleaned today’, and for example, leaves had to be raked. At such a job you could meet anyone who happened to have a free moment. … Everything was important, everything was urgent. To save what still could be found was mandatory, yet days were full of tasks that (as we can judge today) were less important yet sufficient to fill up your working day. There were so few of us, and we had no models. Although everyone did what they could, there was not enough time and strength, and obtaining everything that was necessary to live cost plenty of time and energy. Nobody complained on low wages and lack of supplies. There was something that was more important than every day worries, and that ‘collective’ understood it perfectly well, perhaps thanks to ‘Baca’ [Tadeusz Wąsowicz] and his collaborators.
Source: An excerpt from an account by Tadeusz Szymański, APMA-B, Collection of Testimonies, vol. 116, pp. 14, 15, 16.
First works on establishing the museum

Late in 1945 Soviet authorities began to transfer the territory of the former Auschwitz camp to Polish administration. At that time some former inmates postulated protecting the premises and setting up a museum. The initiative undertaken on 31 December 1945 by Alfred Fiderkiewicz, former inmate and the then executive director of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German (later: Nazi) Crimes in Poland was most momentous. At a session of the Polish State National Council (KRN) held on that day, he presented a proposal to set up a space commemorating Polish and international martyrdom in Oświęcim and Brzezinka. On 1 February 1946 the Commission for Culture and Art of the KRN unanimously approved the recommendation, and entrusted the details of the follow-up to a commission of experts composed of representatives of the ministries of justice, reconstruction and culture and art, and of the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners (PZbWP).

An excerpt from the shorthand minutes from the session of the State National Council of 31 December 1945, documenting the recommendation read out by Alfred Fiderkiewicz (fragment): “the High Council chooses to ratify what follows: 1) The concentration camp in Auschwitz, that is the so-called Stammlager, and the camp in Birkenau being the Vernichtungslager (the death camp) are hereby recognised a memorial of Polish and international martyrdom. 2) The territory of the camp becomes property of the Polish State, which shall manage it.”
Source: APMA-B

First works on establishing the museum

In the same month, the Cabinet commissioned the Ministry of Culture and Art with protecting the former Auschwitz concentration camp. The Board for Protection was set up to carry out the task. It consisted of four former Auschwitz inmates: Tadeusz Wąsowicz (director), Mieczysław Gadomski (deputy), Mieczysław Kościelniak (head of the Art and Propaganda Department) and Jerzy Pozimski (head of the Organisation and Administration Department). In mid-April 1946 they arrived in Oświęcim and began works aimed not only at the protection of camp territory but also at establishing the Museum. It is worth noting here that the board was composed of fairly young people, in their 30s, without major experience in working for institutions of culture. Moreover, they had no role models apart from the Museum in Majdanek set up earlier, nor, initially, any plans how to develop the institution. Nonetheless, many of the solutions they approved early on, especially concerning the organisation and route for visitors, preservation of the sites, and arrangement of the exhibitions were exactly right, and even now have significant influence on the operation of the Museum.

Tadeusz Wąsowicz, before the war a member of the faculty of the Jagiellonian University, and scouting activist. Organiser of underground scouting structures during German occupation. Arrested in May 1941, on 12 August of the same year he was brought to Auschwitz, where he was given number 20035. Employed at inmate registration office, together with Kazimierz Smoleń, Tadeusz Szymański (later members of the Museum staff) he secretly copied numbered lists of inmate transports, and sent them outside the camp. In December 1944, transferred to Gross-Rosen, and subsequently to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in April 1945. Having returned to Poland, he worked for the Polish Red Cross. In mid-April 1946 as the director of the Board for the Permanent Protection of Auschwitz Camp, he arrived in Oświęcim to set up the Museum.
Source: APMA-B

First works on establishing the museum

Members of the Board enrolled personnel for the future institution to be able to cope with the entrusted tasks. Some arrived in Oświęcim on recommendation from the Main Board of the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners, while others were persuaded by their former colleagues from the camp, usually by Tadeusz Wąsowicz. In result, a decided majority of the personnel were former inmates of German concentration camps, usually of Auschwitz. Some only returned reluctantly to the premises, yet yielded to their colleagues’ persuasions, convinced that they must carry out tasks no one else could complete. At work, they clashed against plenty of difficulties: they were not only permanently employed at a place that caused painful memories but also, due to low wages, their material situation was difficult. For that reason, some of them resigned from the employment and left the Museum. The greater the respect for those who, despite significant difficulties, continued their work, and performed it with immense devotion. The number of staff was gradually on the rise, from a handful in April 1946 to over 50 in the spring of the following year. Only six or seven of them worked on concept and content connected to the establishment of the Museum, while the rest were employed as clerks, workers and canteen staff, and over 30 were guards. Dressed in military uniforms and armed with rifles, they were the so-called Permanent Guard of the Auschwitz Camp. The only element to distinguish them from soldiers were scraps of striped uniforms with a red triangle applied on the collars. They served with plenty of dedication, thwarting thieves and people desecrating the ashes of the victims. Thanks to their commitment, in cooperation with the militia from Oświęcim, in just a few months they managed to clamp down strongly on these forms of crime.

In 1946–67 the entrance to the Museum was situated by the former Crematorium I (from the side of what today is Więźniów Oświęcimia street). The photo shows visitors entering the premises of the Museum, and a guard standing on the left-hand side of the gate.
Source: APMA-B

First works on establishing the museum

Members of the Board enrolled personnel for the future institution to be able to cope with the entrusted tasks. Some arrived in Oświęcim on recommendation from the Main Board of the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners, while others were persuaded by their former colleagues from the camp, usually by Tadeusz Wąsowicz. In result, a decided majority of the personnel were former inmates of German concentration camps, usually of Auschwitz. Some only returned reluctantly to the premises, yet yielded to their colleagues’ persuasions, convinced that they must carry out tasks no one else could complete. At work, they clashed against plenty of difficulties: they were not only permanently employed at a place that caused painful memories but also, due to low wages, their material situation was difficult. For that reason, some of them resigned from the employment and left the Museum. The greater the respect for those who, despite significant difficulties, continued their work, and performed it with immense devotion. The number of staff was gradually on the rise, from a handful in April 1946 to over 50 in the spring of the following year. Only six or seven of them worked on concept and content connected to the establishment of the Museum, while the rest were employed as clerks, workers and canteen staff, and over 30 were guards. Dressed in military uniforms and armed with rifles, they were the so-called Permanent Guard of the Auschwitz Camp. The only element to distinguish them from soldiers were scraps of striped uniforms with a red triangle applied on the collars. They served with plenty of dedication, thwarting thieves and people desecrating the ashes of the victims. Thanks to their commitment, in cooperation with the militia from Oświęcim, in just a few months they managed to clamp down strongly on these forms of crime.

A group of guards, mostly former inmates, with the banner, probably of the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners. The photo taken on the ruins of the crematorium in 1948 shows (standing left to right): Jan Kula (E-625?), Marian Bolek (55779), Stanisław Białas (311), Adam Żłobnicki (165010), Jerzy Zbrzeski (Stutthof 63107), Edward Hertig (5678), Tadeusz Bondyra, and Eugeniusz Kowalski (196732 or 197596).
Source: APMA-B

First works on establishing the museum

A memoir of Adam Żłobnicki, a former inmate of Auschwitz, prisoner number 165010:

I found a short-term employment in a private construction company in Warsaw. At a chance meeting with a colleague, I learned that people were sought to work at a museum organised on the premises of former Auschwitz concentration camp. The conditions were encouraging: I was to be given a flat, and I could use the canteen (which was a highly significant perk at the time). I intended to stay for no more than two years. This is how, on 13 June 1946, I found myself back in Oświęcim. However, I was not the first, as the first troop of former inmates arrived in Oświęcim late in April 1946. … I was first accommodated in the former building of the SS-Revier, and later in the building of SS-Verwaltung, and was then transferred to Brzezinka (the former guardhouse building).
Source: An excerpt from an account by Adam Żłobnicki, APMA-B, Collection of Testimonies, vol. 84, p. 39.

Adam Żłobnicki, a former inmate of Auschwitz (prisoner number 165010); he worked for the developing Museum since 1946, and was initially employed as a guard. Photograph taken in 1947, when guards wore military uniforms, with fragments of stripped inmate uniforms with a red triangle on the collar.
Source: APMA-B