Remembering Kazimierz Smolen

Grand Circle Foundation observes the passing of an Honorary Director

If someone’s passing can be said to be poetic, then it is that of Kazimierz Smolen. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, he passed away in the town that gave its name to that notorious complex of Nazi concentration camps (now known by its Polish name, Oswiecim) on January 27 of this year—the 67th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Soviet forces. With his passing, Grand Circle Foundation lost not only a member of its Board of Honorary Directors, but also a mentor and friend.

The road to—and from—Auschwitz
Once an obscure Polish village, Auschwitz today is virtually synonymous with Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jewish race. The three concentration camps built on the outskirts of town (Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Monowitz) became a killing factory, where only 200,000 of the 1.3 million interned there survived. Some 900,000 of those murdered were Jewish.

Mr. Smolen was one of the first prisoners to be incarcerated at Auschwitz—and one of the last to leave it. Ironically, he wasn’t even Jewish. He was born Catholic in the southern Polish town of Chorzow Stary on April 19, 1920. He became involved in his country’s anti-Nazi resistance movement, however, and was arrested by the Germans in April of 1941. He was transferred to the concentration camp in one of the first mass shipments there.

He later revealed the brutal circumstances under which he and his fellow prisoners were held. For months, he was held in a totally dark cell, where starving prisoners, weak and ill, were forced to exercise for hours and shot or beaten if exhaustion made them stop. Later, he was forced to help build the gas chambers at Birkenau, harsh physical labor with no more nourishment than a cup of tea and some bread. Every day, prisoners died of exhaustion. When his captors discovered that he could type, Mr. Smolen was transferred to the administrative offices, where he stayed until he was put on the Germans’ last evacuation transport from the camps, on January 18, 1945. Surviving the infamous "Death March," he ended up at Mauthausen, a sub-camp of Ebensee, near Linz, Austria, which was liberated by American troops on May 5, 1945. Mr. Smolen credited good health and “extreme luck” for his survival.

The founding of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Fortunately, Mr. Smolen was one of those individuals who is able to turn tragedy into triumph. Upon being freed, he returned to his native Poland and enrolled at the Catholic University of Lublin, where he graduated with a degree in law. Not surprisingly, he turned his education and skills toward the prosecution of Nazi war crimes, working for several years for the Main Commission for Investigation of Nazi Crimes. Among those convicted and hanged was Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camps. Mr. Smolen also served as a witness and expert at the war trials in Nuremberg in 1945-46 and at the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt between December 1963 and August 1965.

On July 2, 1947, two years after the camps were liberated, the Polish government established the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum at the site. Mr. Smolen served as co-founder of the museum and became its director in 1955, a position he held until 1990. Attracting 1.3 million visitors a year, the museum has become the most visited site in Poland and the biggest cemetery in the country for people of all creeds. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Additionally, Mr. Smolen served as secretary-general and deputy chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, which was founded in 1952 by survivors of the camps. The objectives of the committee were to inform the outer world about the atrocities that had occurred there, look after the interests of the survivors, and help to connect other committees from roughly 19 countries that also were dedicated to Auschwitz.

It proved not to be an easy task. Not only were there disagreements among the committees, especially as the Cold War took hold, but he also had to contend with those who denied the Holocaust ever even occurred—despite the mountains of evidence. Through it all, Mr. Smolen displayed the strength and the grace that had helped him to survive the camps.

Remembering International Holocaust Remembrance Day
After his retirement from the museum, Mr. Smolen and his wife continued to live in the apartment above the office where they had lived throughout his tenure as director. In 1992, Harriet and Alan Lewis invited him to join the Board of Honorary Directors of Grand Circle Foundation, in recognition of his lifelong dedication to fighting hatred and injustice.

His impact in imparting the lessons of the Holocaust to the world have been felt elsewhere, as well. On the day he died, Turkey aired Shoah—a nine-hour French documentary on the Holocaust—becoming the first predominantly Muslim country to air the film on public TV. And on that same day, Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway, apologized for the arrest and deportation of 772 Norwegian Jews after that country was invaded by Germany.

Named International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005 by the United Nations, January 27 is marked by annual ceremonies throughout Europe. Mr. Smolen himself often attended the memorial ceremonies held at the museum he once headed. This year, those who had gathered there observed a moment of silence in his honor, and the blue-and-white striped flag of the prisoners was lowered to half-mast—a fitting tribute to a man who turned one of the greatest travesties against humanity into a positive life lesson for the world.

“Sometimes, when I think about it, I feel that
this was some type of sacrifice; an obligation for having survived.”

— Kazimierz Smolen, former Director, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum;
Honorary Director, Grand Circle Foundation