Metro Views: Authentic and accessible

As we mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we must preserve and protect the site, both as a witness and as a Jewish cemetery.

January 24, 2010 16:36
3 minute read.
Auschwitz sign 248 88 AP

Auschwitz sign 248 88 AP. (photo credit: )


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For many nations, January 27 has become the date to commemorate the Holocaust and its victims. The date marks the Soviet army's 1945 liberation of Auschwitz.

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Auschwitz. Here is the single word that conjures the ineffable. But if we are not resolute, Auschwitz will become the unimaginable. This is not because of the horrors that were committed there, but because the physical remnants of the Nazi extermination camp will have so decayed that they will no longer be able to bear witness to the atrocities after the survivors of Nazi brutality have died.

There was enormous consternation last month over the theft of the infamous sign at the entrance of Auschwitz - "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work brings freedom"). "The theft of such a symbolic object is an attack on the memory of the Holocaust," said Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem. It was a desecration, said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

The theft was a sacrilege. It will also be a sacrilege if we fail to preserve the site: crematoria, wooden barracks, barbed-wire fences, railroad platforms, archival materials and the suitcases, the hair, the intimately personal artifacts and treasures that were carried by their doomed owners into Auschwitz-Birkenau.

"The crematoria, some of which were already damaged by the Germans at the end of the war, are sinking into the ground," said Baker, a member of the International Auschwitz Council. "The Birkenau site is on an area of low groundwater. The decision was made, at a considerable cost, to temporarily shift them so as to eliminate the groundwater and then return them as they were."

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, long financed primarily by the Polish government, has been running out of funds to maintain the German extermination camp. The Auschwitz Birkenau Foundation was formed last year to raise some 120 million euros for conservation work. Last month, Germany committed half that amount; other governments must make up the rest.

In 2009, a record 1.3 million people visited the camp in southern Poland. Among them were Jewish teens from around the world on the March of the Living, an annual program that begins in Poland with a march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day and ends in Israel with festivities on Independence Day.

"WE ARE doing everything in our power to make sure that 20 or 30 years from now, the Auschwitz site will continue to be accessible and comprehensible for visitors," museum director Piotr Cywinski said in a statement. Accessible and authentic, unlike most Holocaust memorial sites. The museum is attempting to preserve Auschwitz as it was after World War II.

Newer Holocaust museums, which often are criticized as "Shoah Disney," sometimes try to "recreate an echo of that horrific experience - dark lights, narrow passageways or a boxcar, for example," said Baker. "But only at Auschwitz is the visitor actually walking along the same train platform or looking at the same electrified fence as victims did 65 years ago. And that has a power and impact on the visitor that cannot be duplicated at Yad Vashem or at the US Holocaust Museum or at any other museum."

Preservation presents its own conundrums, which are debated in the council. For example, Baker said, "We have all seen the piles and piles of shoes that are displayed in the museum, and it is sort of a three-dimensional painting in gray. But some of the staff have cleaned and restored some individual pairs of shoes - and I recall one of a bright red polished leather. Which one is the more authentic? Those dusty and gray piles of shoes seem to fit the setting, but the cleaned and sparkling ones remind us that these victims were uprooted from a normal life and transported to this hell." Some 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed in the camp.

"Auschwitz has become both symbol and shorthand for the Holocaust," said Baker. But, he said, just "as Auschwitz has become a virtual synonym for the Holocaust, we tend to forget that it was not all gas chambers and mechanized murder, particularly in the east where Jewish victims were shot and buried in unmarked graves."

Millions of Jews in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere in the east were murdered in what Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest, has called the "Holocaust by bullets." Their graves, many unmarked, are exposed to the elements and desecrated by grave robbers. Father Desbois's organization, Yahad - In Unum, has been locating and documenting hundreds of Jewish mass graves in Ukraine. Yahad - In Unum and the American Jewish Committee were among an international coalition that last week appealed for the mass graves in Ukraine to be marked, sealed and commemorated.

This is the other tragic role of Auschwitz on which to reflect as we mark the 65th anniversary of its liberation: It is a mass grave. As communities and nations recall the victims of the Holocaust, they must pledge to preserve and protect Auschwitz, both as a witness and as a Jewish cemetery.

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