“We not only have right-wing populist and right-wing extremist parties ... but they are deliberately taking on memory culture and historical themes,” Drecoll told me. “When it comes to historical revisionism, when it comes to the history that we want and need to explain here, we have a responsibility to speak out.”
In Poland, attempts to shift the national historical narrative have even been enshrined in law. The government last year spearheaded its so-called memory law, which made it a criminal offense—carrying hefty fines or even jail time—to suggest that Poland was culpable for the crimes of the Holocaust. (After international backlash, Poland’s government amended the law to remove the possible imprisonment.)
Read: The dark consequences of Poland’s new Holocaust law
Piotr Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, told me that institutions such as his have a responsibility to speak out about unacceptable political discourse and rising anti-Semitism—but must strike a balance to avoid being dragged into the partisan fray.
“It depends on the situation,” Cywiński said, before adding, “Sometimes our mission means that we cannot be silent.”
The role of an institution such as Sachsenhausen or Auschwitz-Birkenau “is not to be a political tool—it is to in some way show the history of that site in a way that is a fair description, a fair understanding of what happened there,” says Robert Jan van Pelt, a history professor and Holocaust scholar at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, who has curated a series of recent Holocaust exhibits. Leaders of such organizations, he told me, “are facing constant pressures—and the pressures are not only of different governments that come into power in Poland.”
Visiting the site of a former concentration camp comes with a whole range of emotions, as the students I met, a 12th-grade class from the small western-German town of Brüggen, discovered. Though those who come here have surely learned at least an overview of the history of the site, and others like it, before arriving, being confronted with physical reminders of the scale of extermination—the mountains of human hair at Auschwitz, for example, or the mass graves at Sachsenhausen—puts that knowledge in an entirely new context.
“It’s important that we get confronted with situations like this so it will never happen again,” Ada, 18, one of the students, told me as we left the memorial. “I always imagine [the victims’] feelings and their thoughts … I’m just happy that we aren’t living in a time like this.”
Whether because of increased tourism more generally or particular interest in the memorials specifically, these institutions are receiving unprecedented numbers of visitors. In 2018, 2.2 million people visited Auschwitz; five years ago, that number was 1.5 million. And more than 700,000 people came to Sachsenhausen in 2017, double the number that visited a decade prior.