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Why Auschwitz?

November 2, 2015

The “Gate of Death” at the entrance to Auschwitz II Birkenau

Why visit Auschwitz? 1,534,000 people visited the grounds of the former Nazi German Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, now the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, in 2014. As of May of 2015, 1,000,000 people had visited, promising an “increase in attendance of up to a dozen percent” from the year before. The annual report of the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum states that not only is Auschwitz “a difficult immersion in humanity’s darkest hour,” but “for us today it is a rite of passage. Is it? This post is the first in a series that aims to explore the question of “Why Auschwitz?” Why do people visit, should they visit, and in fact should Auschwitz as it exists now be there to visit at all? Even if, as the Museum states, “the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial has become the world’s symbol of the Holocaust and the crimes of WWII”, is there something truly unique that visitors gain from visiting the current site? Holocaust museums all over the country schedule trips to take museum goers to Auschwitz to learn from the site first hand. What does Auschwitz offer visitors that they can’t gain from walking through their host museum? Does the Auschwitz of 2015 truly have anything to teach about the Auschwitz of 1945?

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Wicker baskets and briefcases taken from prisoners upon their arrival at Auschwitz, currently on display in the Auschwitz I Museum

For many years the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum struggled just to stay open, and many parts of the grounds were falling into disrepair. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was formed in 2009, and due to generous donations to its Perpetual Capitol Fund it currently has funding for extensive conservation projects. January 27th, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and brings to the fore debates on “how, when, and, indeed, whether Auschwitz should be preserved for future generations.” The historian Robert Jan van Pelt is one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of Auschwitz. He has published prolifically on the subject, as well as served as an expert witness for the defense at the trial of David Irving vs Deborah Lipstadt, known most famously for Irving’s denial of the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. Van Pelt believes that after the passing of the last Auschwitz survivor, the site should be left to be reclaimed by nature. He echoes Jorge Semprum, a former Buchenwald inmate, who in his autobiographical novel The Long Voyage, states that, “when there will no longer be any real memory of this, only the memory of those who will never know what all this was” that “this camp constructed by men” should be given back to nature. His sentiment is echoed by many other survivors, that “a visit to the camps can teach little to those who were not imprisoned there.” The camp itself is a mere shadow of the horrors it once held, and should not be held to represent the horrors themselves.

In opposition, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Chairman of the International Auschwitz Council and a former Auschwitz prisoner, states that, “it lies in the nature of man than when no tangible traces remain, events of the past fall into oblivion.” If we were to let Auschwitz disintegrate “we will take a great burden on our conscience-we will trample upon the testament of the victims.” It must remain, he believes, as an “unhealed, burning wound, which wakes people up from moral lethargy and forces them to take responsibility for the fate of our world.”

Both arguments are striking; memorialize Auschwitz by letting it decay, or keep it preserved so that we are forced to never forget.

The current Auschwitz Memorial and Museum consists of a two part complex, Auschwitz I, and the larger site of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. A friend tells me, that should you visit, it is expected that you’ll visit both sites. The large numbers mean that both sites are frequently incredibly crowded, especially in the height of the summer tourist season. Van Pelt has said that he thinks Auschwitz I and II are “a kind of theme park, cleaned up for tourists,” and that through sealing it up we won’t “give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there.” Do people go with that expectation? Are they seeking knowledge of the place itself or more of a deeper understanding of what Auschwitz represents? One hundred years from now, would a visitor looking the place where Auschwitz once was, now covered in trees and brambles, be given a better lens with which to gain that understanding?

On one of the first pages of the Auschwitz Memorial’s Master Plan for Preservation is a quote by Henry Appel, an Auschwitz survivor, “There is only one thing worse than Auschwitz itself…and that is if the world forgets there was such a place.” This echoes Bartoszewski’s sentiment, the worry that if Auschwitz were allowed to decay and eventually disappear, regardless of the intention, what are we risking by it no longer being there? Would Holocaust deniers like Irving be given the upper hand? The fact that the number of people visiting Auschwitz in 2015 is breaking a record is striking, but does it represent an interest in Auschwitz itself, the memory of WWII, or does it more speak to the fact that visitors truly feel like it’s a rite of passage? If Auschwitz were left to decay, would the numbers drop? Increase? Do the debates above perhaps point to the fact that it is the expectations tied to a visit to Auschwitz that should be changed, and not the place itself? Regardless of how one experiences Auschwitz, is any act of remembering valuable enough so that we shouldn’t risk forgetting?

Photo credit: Kelly Webeck, M.F.A Student, Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, Indiana University Bloomington

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