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This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Paweł Sawicki, 42, has spent the last 16 years working at one of the most depressing places on earth: Auschwitz, the largest of Germany’s concentration and extermination camps during WW2. Located in what was then occupied Poland, more than 1.1 million people died in this camp between 1940 and 1945. 
Sawicki, who used to be a journalist, is responsible for the memorial and museum’s social media accounts – he also gives guided tours and conducts interviews with survivors. We asked him what he thinks of people who take selfies at the site, why the memorial avoids TikTok and how he deals with Holocaust deniers.
Paweł Sawicki. Photo: Paweł Sawicki
VICE: How many neo-Nazi comments do you have to read during your average work day?
Paweł Sawicki:
Every day, thousands of people visit the Auschwitz memorial, and we have over two million followers [across all social platforms]. Very few behave disrespectfully online or when visiting us. 
There are about 5,000 new online comments every day, and I read every single one of them. Only a small few are from neo-Nazis or antisemites. In the last 24 hours, I’ve reported and blocked two Holocaust deniers. On a normal day, I’ll block between five and 20 accounts. These aren’t only Nazis, but often bots asking for money or if you want to get to know them. 
Above all, I always notice how positive the comments usually are. People often just comment with emojis, like hearts. These are small gestures, but they show that people are still deeply moved by the fate of the people in Auschwitz.
Does everyone behave that well when they visit?
Most of them do. But a lot of people visit us every year. In 2019, there were 2.3 million visitors. With so many people, it’s not surprising that some don’t behave appropriately. 
Sometimes, visitors simply don’t have enough awareness of the history of this place. Some smoke and throw their cigarettes on the floor. But when I tell them not to smoke they stop. A few years ago, some visitors posted photos of themselves balancing on the train tracks. We publicly asked them not to take such photos because it’s disrespectful.
Some teenagers who visit the memorial can’t or don’t want to show that the experience touches them, so they pretend it doesn’t affect them, because classmates might otherwise interpret their grief as weakness. There are so many things to consider before jumping to conclusions, and I want to avoid that at all costs.
What do you think of people who pose or take selfies during their visit?
If someone posts a selfie with a thoughtful and respectful caption, I think that’s OK. Selfies are a visual expression of our time. I think it’s quite normal that people also want to document the places they visit in this way. But when I see visitors fooling around and making funny faces while taking photos, I don’t think that’s good. So I remind them of where they are. 
On the other hand, there are also visitors who take professional photos with expensive cameras and then write an inappropriate caption. When I see those posts, I report them. There are more than 500,000 photos on Instagram under the hashtag #Auschwitz. Most of them are very respectful and show that visitors have really engaged with the place. I generally think it’s good when photos of Auschwitz are shared and I often use these for lectures. 
Are there any stories that really stick out?
Once, I published a photo of a young man who had died in Auschwitz. He was wearing the pin of the Spanish football club Real Sociedad on his jacket. I hadn’t noticed, but our followers did. People started doing research and I was eventually told that there was a football club for German Jews in Prague in the 1920s. The club went to play San Sebastián and for the return leg, the San Sebastián players visited Prague, where the young man must have received the pin. This is not insanely emotional, but I think it’s great to see how much commitment and interest our followers show, and how we can unravel more and more history with their help.
What was your most successful post?
For the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I had planned to break the 750,000 follower mark on X [formerly known as Twitter]. We called for people to follow the Auschwitz memorial account and famous actors such as Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, shared our account. An incredible number of people joined and we ended up with over a million followers. Again, it was great to see how people can create something so beautiful together.
Has your work changed since Elon Musk, who calls himself a free speech absolutist, bought X?
Compared to the other platforms on which we are active, X has the highest number of problematic users. This is where I have the most work to do.
Since Elon Musk, I have to fight more against antisemitic comments or those that deny the Holocaust. Holocaust denial is forbidden according to X’s guidelines and I always report such comments, but usually nothing happens.
I have also publicly criticised X for this poor moderation. I don’t think it’s right that this social platform allows people to spread hate speech – because that is exactly what Holocaust denial is, it has nothing to do with facts. In such moments, however, our followers also help us and report these accounts. 
Why aren’t you on TikTok?
Studies show that TikTok polarises its users. The algorithm is programmed so that it’s more likely than other apps to display radical content again if you’ve previously been interested in such content. The Auschwitz memorial is not a topic that should drive people to extremes.
How much does your work drag you down emotionally?
Sometimes, very much. Every day, I see photos of people who were murdered. I look at the faces of children and babies. I’m a father of two sons and I can’t understand how anyone could do anything to such defenceless beings. 
In September, I wrote a post congratulating survivor Sam Weinreich on his 104th birthday. Just three days later, I had to inform our followers in a new post that he’d passed.
So I’m frequently confronted with death on many levels. But I am also honoured to be responsible for keeping the memory of these people alive. In fact, every two hours, I post a photo on X of a victim of Auschwitz who would have had a birthday that day.
What lessons do you think we can still learn from the memorial and take into the future?
I am convinced that we should understand Auschwitz as a warning for all of us. When I guide visitors through the memorial, many ask how the Germans could have allowed so much suffering. You can’t imagine being capable of something like this. But they weren’t monsters. It would be far too easy to label them this way. 
People who worked in Auschwitz sat in their offices all day and went home to their families in the evening. They petted their dogs, taught their children to swim and greeted their neighbours. The challenge is to realise that even normal people can be capable of terrible actions when they are part of such an ideology. It was part of the Nazi ideology to dehumanise Jews; that is why they were able to commit such crimes. 
We need to understand this so that something similar doesn’t happen again in the future. The Auschwitz Memorial is here to re-humanise the victims of the Holocaust and keep their stories alive.
How has the recent violence in Israel and Palestine affected what you do? Does it resonate with the message you’re trying to bring to the world?
The Memorial fulfills its mission of commemorating the victims and educating about the history of Auschwitz, regardless of changing international contexts. We do hope that memory and the lessons of this tragic human experiences can become a realm where one can seek keys to solving the most complex problems in our contemporary world.
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