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.

Auschwitz sign 248 88 AP (photo credit: )
Auschwitz sign 248 88 AP
(photo credit: )

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

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

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

The theft was a sacrilege. It will also be a sacrilege if wefail to preserve the site: crematoria, wooden barracks, barbed-wirefences, railroad platforms, archival materials and the suitcases, thehair, the intimately personal artifacts and treasures that were carriedby their doomed owners into Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, long financed primarily bythe Polish government, has been running out of funds to maintain theGerman extermination camp. The Auschwitz Birkenau Foundation was formedlast year to raise some 120 million euros for conservation work. Lastmonth, Germany committed half that amount; other governments must makeup the rest.

In2009, 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 theLiving, an annual program that begins in Poland with a march fromAuschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day and ends in Israelwith festivities on Independence Day.

"WE ARE doing everything in our power to make sure that 20 or30 years from now, the Auschwitz site will continue to be accessibleand comprehensible for visitors," museum director Piotr Cywinski saidin a statement. Accessible and authentic, unlike most Holocaustmemorial sites. The museum is attempting to preserve Auschwitz as itwas after World War II.

Newer Holocaust museums, which often are criticized as "ShoahDisney," sometimes try to "recreate an echo of that horrific experience- dark lights, narrow passageways or a boxcar, for example," saidBaker. "But only at Auschwitz is the visitor actually walking along thesame train platform or looking at the same electrified fence as victimsdid 65 years ago. And that has a power and impact on the visitor thatcannot be duplicated at Yad Vashem or at the US Holocaust Museum or atany other museum."

Preservation presents its own conundrums, which are debated inthe council. For example, Baker said, "We have all seen the piles andpiles of shoes that are displayed in the museum, and it is sort of athree-dimensional painting in gray. But some of the staff have cleanedand restored some individual pairs of shoes - and I recall one of abright red polished leather. Which one is the more authentic? Thosedusty and gray piles of shoes seem to fit the setting, but the cleanedand sparkling ones remind us that these victims were uprooted from anormal 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 theHolocaust," said Baker. But, he said, just "as Auschwitz has become avirtual synonym for the Holocaust, we tend to forget that it was notall gas chambers and mechanized murder, particularly in the east whereJewish victims were shot and buried in unmarked graves."

Millions of Jews in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere in the eastwere murdered in what Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest, hascalled the "Holocaust by bullets." Their graves, many unmarked, areexposed to the elements and desecrated by grave robbers. FatherDesbois's organization, Yahad - In Unum, has been locating anddocumenting hundreds of Jewish mass graves in Ukraine. Yahad - In Unumand the American Jewish Committee were among an international coalitionthat 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 reflectas we mark the 65th anniversary of its liberation: It is a mass grave.As communities and nations recall the victims of the Holocaust, theymust pledge to preserve and protect Auschwitz, both as a witness and asa Jewish cemetery.