A record number of people, 2.32 million, visited the site of the former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 2019.
The figure is around 170,000 more than a year earlier, reports the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial, a Polish state institution that manages and maintains the site of the former camp, which was created by Nazi Germany in occupied Polish territory.
Among visitors whose country of origin is known, the largest numbers came from Poland (396,000), the United Kingdom (200,000), the United States (120,000), Italy (104,000), Germany (73,000), Spain (70,000), France (67,000), and Israel (59,000).
The growing number of visitors represents a success for the museum’s mission to educate the world about the history of the camp and to commemorate its victims. Over 80% of visitors last year took a tour with one of the museum’s trained “guide-educators” in 21 different languages.
It also boosts the institution’s finances, as over 60% of its budget comes from the revenue the museum generates (most of the rest is provided by the Polish state).
However, the growth in visitor numbers also brings challenges, especially with Auschwitz increasingly becoming a destination for tourists visiting Poland as well as for school trips.
In 2017, two British teenagers were convicted by a Polish court after being caught attempting to steal historical artefacts from the former camp during a school trip. This year, a US man was charged with attempting to steal part of the infamous rail tracks that brought victims to the camp.
In 2018, prosecutors were notified after three teenage Polish girls were pictured making fascist-style salutes beneath the main gate at Birkenau. The museum has appealed to visitors to treat the site with proper respect.
When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths. pic.twitter.com/TxJk9FgxWl
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) March 20, 2019
The new visitor figures have been announced just ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz later this month – a commemoration that has been mired in controversy.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, announced last week that he would boycott a Holocaust Forum in Israel being organised to mark the anniversary. His decision was a protest against the fact that representatives of other countries – including Russia, the US, the UK, France and Germany – had been invited to speak at the event but Duda’s request to do so was rejected.
Poland's president will only attend an event in Israel to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz "if he has the opportunity to speak before or after Vladimir Putin", says Andrzej Duda's spokesman https://t.co/q2nul9JFPz
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 4, 2020
Duda argued that “as a representative of the country which had the most citizens murdered at Auschwitz, it is a necessary condition that I can speak about the suffering of Poles, including Polish Jews, and talk about the losses we suffered as a result of the Second World War”.
Auschwitz was originally set up by Nazi Germany as a camp to house Polish “political” prisoners, before later becoming primarily a site for the murder of Jews. At least 1.3 million victims were transported there, with at least 1.1 million of them killed at the camp. Around one million of those victims were Jews, most of whom were murdered in gas chambers immediately after their arrival.
Ethnic Poles were the second largest group of victims, with around 70,000 killed at Auschwitz. Many of the Jewish victims were also Polish citizens. Some, however, such as Holocaust historian Jan Grabowski, have pointed out that, contrary to Duda’s claim, more citizens of Hungary than of Poland were killed at Auschwitz (although this is a figure that also includes Jews from territories transferred to Hungary during the war).
In rejecting the invitation to the forum in Israel, Duda expressed particular concern that Russia’s Vladimir Putin would be one of the main speakers. Over the last few weeks Putin has caused a diplomatic crisis by making a number of claims about World War Two, including suggesting that Poland was responsible for causing the war and that its ambassador to Nazi Germany sympathised with Hitler’s policies towards Jews.
“A situation in which the President of the Republic of Poland will sit and listen to the lying, false words of President Putin, without having the possibility to reply, would be unacceptable,” said Duda’s spokesman.
The Auschwitz Museum will itself be organising a commemoration of the liberation on 27 January, the date on which the camp was liberated by soldiers of the Soviet Red Army in 1945. The opening address will be given by Duda, and the presidents of Israel, Germany and Austria will be among the dignitaries present. Russia is to be represented by its ambassador.
Last August, the Auschwitz Museum launched a campaign to reach 750,000 followers on Twitter by the 75th anniversary. It hit the target in November after a wave of support from prominent public figures. The museum is now hoping to reach one million followers.
Is it easy to follow @AuschwitzMuseum? No. In fact, it's one of the most heartbreaking, harrowing accounts on #Twitter. It's also one of the most important, as a reminder of one of the darkest periods in human history that we must #NEVERForget. Please follow them. https://t.co/j6vYVe5fOV
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) January 4, 2020
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.