Forbidden Art creates impact at UN, assembly on genocide looks to a better future

104“Denying historical facts, especially on such an important subject as the Holocaust, is just not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable to call for the elimination of any State or people. I would like to see this fundamental principle respected both in rhetoric and in practice by all the members of the international community”.

-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Updated January 27, 2015 4:00 p.m.

The thoughts of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are resounding and relevant.  The international community represented in the United Nations is keenly attune to how the lessons learned about the Holocaust can and should be applied to our modern world.  Indeed, it is a world in which people still fear persecution, and in which the threat of genocide looms ever present.

 BREAKING NEWS: “Forbidden Art” travels to the UN

For us at The Polish Mission, Holocaust awareness, and historical education on the crimes committed by the infamously oppressive Nazi German and Soviet governments, are a hallmark of our continued outreach.  The peoples of Poland, and indeed all peoples who were murdered in the name of barbarous agendas weigh heavily on those of us who work to improve our world through cultural and historical engagement.  We asked ourselves: how could we do the most good?

Click here to see exclusive photos by Polish Mission Marcin Chumiecki taken at the liberation ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Poland. 

On Wednesday, January 21, the fruition of months of careful planning became apparent in an epic moment for our future of a world free of genocide.  The Forbidden Art exhibition, created by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and presented in exclusive cooperation with The Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools, was unveiled at the United Nations, New York, made possible through the work of the Permanent Mission of Poland to the UN.

Click here to see the entire photo album from The Polish Mission’s trip to the United Nations

Forbidden Art is a three-ton series of twenty wooden panels, showing the rarest and most fragile examples of artwork created by prisoners of Auschwitz and other concentration camps.  In carefully designed form, these displays are meant to offer the viewer a deeply personal and unique glimpse into the life of a prisoner.  In addition to the panels, two replicas of the featured inmate artwork, in the form of glass sculptures, are displayed in 1:1 scale, allowing guests to appreciate the minute scale of the artwork, undertaken at extreme risk by the prisoners.  The sculptures were originally unveiled at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, in June 2014.

Since the premier of Forbidden Art in Orchard Lake, Michigan at The Polish Mission’s home campus of the Orchard Lake Schools in 2012, it has since traveled the country at select venues from UCLA in California to Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, New York.  In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden endorsed Forbidden Art, followed in 2013 by President Barack Obama. The exhibition had returned briefly to Orchard Lake in January 2014, when The Polish Mission hosted a ceremony in observation of the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, done in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee, the Holocaust Memorial Center of Farmington Hills, Michigan, and Wayne State University.

Having Forbidden Art at the United Nations symbolizes the tremendous initiative to remember the tragedy of the concentration camps, through the memory of the most recognizable and infamous one of them all.  Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of all the Nazi German concentration camps in Europe. Today, the 472-acre museum has adopted the finest scientific and educational methods to offer the best care to the original site, and to provide the most authentic and comprehensive educational program about the Holocaust.  In 1979, Auschwitz-Birkenau became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Click here for a 360-degree tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau

On January 15th, the exhibition arrived at The United Nations from its former venue at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago.  After several days of unloading, construction, and careful preparations, Wednesday, January 21st began with a panel discussion chaired by Polish Ambassador to the UN Bogusław Winid.  Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Director Dr. Piotr Cywiński was the keynote speaker, and the permanent representatives to the UN of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Rwanda, Israel, and Germany were among those who spoke.  In addition, the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Genocide, Adama Dieng, Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch and Robert Kostro, Director of the Museum of Polish History, also addressed the attentive audience.

Listen to JJ’s radio interview with Paul W. Smith (WJR 760) on January 27th, 2015, 7:05 a.m.

As each participant contributed to the discussion, a recurring theme was touched upon by nearly every one.  It was the look toward the future, which so often is only remotely brought up in Holocaust education, that was stressed by the majority.  Special Advisor Dieng brought special focus to this point by citing the genocide of 1994 in his home country of Rwanda: as distant as the tragedy of the Holocaust may seem, the systematic and gruesome attempted destruction of the Tutsi population left almost one million people murdered.  As a special note for comparison, based on minimum data available, approximately 1.3 million people were murdered in Auschwitz.   Throughout this comprehensive discussion, Auschwitz was a foundation, upon which the speakers advocated a peaceful future.

Click here to see the overview of the UN event discussing genocide and how to prevent such tragedies in the future

Later that evening, a crowd of about 200 people gathered for the invitation-only evening gala which would mark the opening of Forbidden Art.  At 6:30 pm, Maher Nasser, United Nations Acting Head for Communications and Public Information declared the exhibition open, and brief addresses were then given by Ambassador Winid and Dr. Cywiński.  Though the exhibition had attracted a large number of guests, quiet prevailed after the speeches were done, as the majority of guests were quickly taken in by the powerful images of Forbidden Art.

It is upon Auschwitz that the international community today builds and maintains an aggressive program of education and activism that will serve to stop genocide from happening.  It is only through this most authentic memorial of the past, that we gain the perspective that allows us to build a better future— the actual brick-and-mortar barracks at Auschwitz; the preserved killing grounds there; the testimony of those who were there; the traces of “forbidden” art they left for us.  These realities allow us to confidently change the world for the better, which is why we at The Polish Mission pledge to continue our work in earnest with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Forbidden Art will remain on public display at the United Nations until March 10.

Click to see the original opening of Forbidden Art at The Polish Mission in 2012