Human memory is faulty; thus, significant events occurring in the history of humanity tend to be forgotten with time or reinterpreted in a way that completely changes their meaning. Moreover, some events and phenomena are so controversial that different groups of people voice different opinions relating to them, thereby proving the need for some objective evidence that would provide a clear and accurate picture of the event. One such controversial event in the history of humanity is the Holocaust, which is considered a terrible tragedy by many people, with some still denying the existence of such a phenomenon. In order to be able to preserve the memory of this period and accurately represent what Holocaust meant for the contemporaries and all generations in general, it is vital to restore the historical locations where it unraveled, including Auschwitz. Auschwitz is perhaps the most notorious camp of Nazi Germany that consists of the concentration camp, a death camp, and a labor camp, as well as a series of administrative buildings and laboratories used by SS officers and Nazi scientists for their purposes. Since the end of World War II, there have been voiced different views on the fate of Auschwitz. The two extreme polarities are: allowing the camp to come to decay and destruction and, on the contrary, completely renovating and modernizing it, thereby turning it into an up-to-date museum filled with various technological devices. However, it seems that a more reasonable course relating to the future of Auschwitz is the one currently implemented by its administration, attempting to preserve Auschwitz the way it is so that future generations would be able to witness what truly happened there and retain the memory of Holocaust even after the death of the last living survivors. Nonetheless, some reconsiderations are in order as, currently, Auschwitz seems to be somewhat separated from Birkenau even though the two sites constitute one inseparable whole, with both of them conveying the atmosphere of the camp as it existed when prisoners resided and died there. Overall, the preservation of Auschwitz for future generations is an extremely crucial task, which should be undertaken with care and thoughtfulness in order to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and the evils perpetrated by Nazi Germans against humanity with a view to averting similar events.
Why Should Auschwitz Be Preserved?
Prior to focusing on a more detailed discussion of some exhibitions that need preservation due to their frailty and emotional loading, it seems reasonable to discuss the arguments in favor of preserving Auschwitz in general. In fact, there exist extremely different views on the issue, and the site has always raised debates and controversies as to its purpose in the post-War era and its goal in general. Hence, some scholars, politicians, and ordinary people consider Auschwitz to be a remnant of the past and “an unthinkable realm shrouded in silence” (Van Pelt 377). Thus, it is deemed a place witnessing the deaths of more than a million Jews, as well as the representatives of many other nationalities. As one of the survivors has said, Auschwitz is “a dead planet laden with corpses” (Van Pelt 377). Respectively, people judging Auschwitz in such a way see no sense in preserving the site or creating a museum of any kind on its territory, thereby supporting Ryback’s (77) view that all former concentration camps “should be left to fall into ruins”. Instead, the survivors tend to turn their children into memorial candles who then become the symbol of their survival in concentration camps, which allows them disassociating with the camp as the physical location (Wardi 6). This way, there arises a question of not only how, but also whether and for how long some sites with a controversial meaning should be preserved. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the beliefs about the inessential character of Auschwitz and the lack of the preservation need usually correlate with the denial of Holocaust as such, thereby turning Auschwitz into the focal material evidence of the phenomenon that once erased may lead to the obliteration of the memory of the evil perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Therefore, the position of the opposing side of the argument that Auschwitz should be preserved is convincing as it is aimed at keeping the memory and preventing similar events from occurring in the future.
Thus, the proponents of Auschwitz preservation emphasize the significance of the site, which can be summed up with the words of Auschwitz’s director Dr. Cywinski:
This place is important for us all. This is where we can most fully understand the tragedy of a Europe plunged into war and mutual hatred. Here too, the younger generations can best understand how much we must preserve the site in order for the future to be different. Auschwitz remains the most comprehensible explanation of the post-war struggle for human rights. I believe that today every mature democracy depends on educating its young people in such a way so that they understand the profound state efforts to build a different world. It might not always be a success, and it might not be completely ideal, but it will be different. That is why I think that at the moment when the last eyewitnesses to those tragic times are passing away, the preservation of Auschwitz is becoming a truly shared responsibility (The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation 34).
The above statement succinctly summarizes the main reasons in favor of preserving Auschwitz as the memorial for the generations to come and not allowing the memory of the events occurring in the camp to fade away. In fact, the above idea complies with the early attitudes to the site voiced immediately after the end of the war, for instance, by the Polish parliament that declared in 1947 that the site would be “forever preserved as a memorial to the martyrdom of the Polish nation and other peoples” (Cloonan 138). Hence, Holocaust in general and the creation of concentration camps in particular, including Auschwitz, could be considered within the larger framework of xenophobia and discrimination. They represent the ultimate result of such discriminatory xenophobia and show potential consequences of allowing people to think that the discrimination of some particular groups of the society based on their race or nationality is acceptable. Since discrimination and xenophobia are still prevalent in the contemporary society, representatives of the younger generation and members of all generations overall need to be reminded of the adverse outcomes these attitudes may have unless they are correspondingly addressed and fought against. Furthermore, it is absolutely true that the last living witnesses of the World War II events and the survivors of the camps such as Auschwitz are really old and are all likely to die within the next few years. After their death, only sites similar to Auschwitz will remain to tell the true story of what happened under the Hitler Germany to Jews, Poles, and the representatives of many other nations who lived and died in the camps. Therefore, Auschwitz should be recognized as a symbol of the struggle for survival, human rights, and freedom from discrimination, as well as a warning to future generations of the potential adverse consequences of intolerance, xenophobia, and overzealous nationalism.
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All the above symbolic meanings of Auschwitz have been recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage Center that describes the site as follows: “The fortified walls, barbed wire, platforms, barracks, gallows, gas chambers and crematorium ovens show the conditions within which the Nazi genocide took place in the former concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest in the Third Reich…[and] the symbol of humanity’s cruelty to its fellow human beings in the 20th century”. Based on this significant meaning in the history of humanity, Auschwitz has been given the status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, thereby enjoying the protection from deliberate destruction. However, it does not mean that no preservation efforts need to be undertaken and that the site can remain standing as it is without special attention from the authorities, historians, and the public. On the contrary, it means that Auschwitz’s preservation should be recognized as a topical issue that needs discussing and developing specific preservation and conservation plans.
It should be noted that Auschwitz is not merely a symbol of the Holocaust and genocide perpetrated by the Nazis against particular nationalities, but also an essential memorial, as well as “an archive, museum, gathering place, and hallowed ground” (Cloonan 140). However, the site carries out different memorializing functions for various social groups. For some people, especially historians, Auschwitz stands out as a memorial of the ultimate result of “cumulative radicalizations”. It took years, if not decades, to evolve the anti-Semitic moods in the German society that led to the creation and improvement of death and concentration camps with an elaborate system of delivering people by trains straight into crematoriums, as witnessed in Auschwitz (Rees). This way, for radicals, Auschwitz has become a memorial of paradise of the Nazi regime, which may serve as a warning for the mainstream society against extreme radicalization, which can result in the repetition of a massive genocide.
In turn, for Jews, Auschwitz has become a memorial of their people’s purposeful extermination, which has turned the camp into a sort of sacred ground. As Young (127) claims, “the sanctification of ruins” is not “entirely foreign to Jewish tradition”, and this has partially occurred in Auschwitz that has become a popular tourist attraction and a place that Jews consider important for visitation at least once in a lifetime. The locals do not necessarily see Auschwitz that way as they may remember that the camp was built at the site of an erased village, which also deserves remembrance, yet has been overshadowed by the memory of the camp. Nonetheless, even though Jews as a nation seem to consider Auschwitz a sacred ground and a place of pilgrimage, the views of the survivors are a bit different. For them, Auschwitz is not merely a myth and a symbol of a large-scale genocide, but a personal story that evokes unpleasant memories. As most survivors interviewed in the film Forgiving Dr. Mengele emphasize, they have been unable to return to Auschwitz for decades after the release because of all the memories of pain, sufferings, and losses. Thus, Eva Kor does not see symbols when she looks at the barracks or laboratories, but rather the places where she spent 10 months, living, walking, and talking with other individuals, and where she also fought for survival. Similarly, other survivors do not see the exhibitions as symbolic reminders of the wartime and human rights abuse, but can easily recollect where their belongings in the camp were. While looking at the crematorium and gas chambers, Eva and other survivors see places where their families were gassed and burnt, vividly imagining the faces of their beloved in the last minutes of their life. This way, Auschwitz comes to represent different meanings for different groups of people, thus performing various memorializing functions.
The above-mentioned differences in the perception of Auschwitz can be traced to the example of one of the exhibitions, in particular the suitcase exhibition. For instance, while looking at it, one survivor named Irene Fogel Weiss does not see it as a whole, a heap of suitcases, brushes, and other items once owned by the camp residents, but rather as a reminder of everything they were deprived of in life being reduced to an unnamed depersonalized mass distinguished by numbers. In turn, she sees as her personal the items her family brought to the camp: “I remember the night of the packing very well. Things went in the suitcase, things were taken out of the suitcase. In the end, my mother filled in with food she had cooked and warm clothing and bedding. Then it was full. Plus we took a watch, some earrings, a wedding ring with us to exchange for food if necessary” (Connolly). Each suitcase as shown in Fig. 1 below had some inscription in German, indicating the family or the status of an orphan child. Stories about the belongings similar to the 4 items brought to the camp have been told by other survivors in the film Forgiving Dr. Mengele. However, as Eva Kor emphasizes, they were deprived of all their belongings immediately upon the entrance to the camp as the Nazis did not want them to retain their individuality and even humanity. All the camp residents were given numbers instead of names; thus, the items that could distinguish them from the rest were confiscated, with precious things being taken away by Germans and irrelevant items such as suitcases, shoes, and glasses (shown in Fig. 1 and 2 below) put into huge piles. For Nazis, these piles symbolized their superiority and the inferiority of the camp prisoners whom they treated as some cattle. In turn, for the survivors, these items symbolize their past and remind them of their families, hence serving as memorials for their childhood and youth as well as becoming symbols of their pain and suffering in the camp. Finally, for ordinary people coming to Auschwitz as visitors nowadays, who have never had first-hand experience with concentration camps, the exhibitions in Fig. 1 and 2 show the number of people who lived and died in the camps, thereby signifying the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by Nazis and the scale of sufferings experienced by the nationalities represented in the camp records.
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Irrespective of the particular connotation and symbolism attached to the suitcases, shoes, glasses, watches, and other material exhibitions in Auschwitz, their preservation seems to be necessary. They serve as the proof of the genocide, a physical reminder of the period and its atrocities, as well as a memorial of all the individuals who died in the camps and whose names might have been lost in the records; yet, they are still commemorated and remembered thanks to the exhibitions. Besides, the need to preserve the physical exhibitions and all the constructions and buildings on the territory of Auschwitz has recently become exceptionally acute because of their frail conditions and difficulties relating to their preservation.
Difficulties & Challenges Relating to Preservation of Auschwitz
The creation of the memorial site at Auschwitz and the preservation of the camp have always been associated with some serious difficulties besides the ideological differences pertaining to various roles and functions ascribed to it. Hence, one of the major problems concerns the fact that the camp was not built to last and has a propensity towards destruction because of the frailty of all the constructions. In the early 1990s, when the debates about the future of Auschwitz and the design of the memorial site raged, a member of the Warsaw Cultural Ministry noted the key difficulty of all preservation efforts at Auschwitz, which consisted in the following:
The Germans built the camp with the intention of exterminating an entire race and then destroying all the evidence of this deed. Everything was poorly made – the barracks, the crematoriums, the paper used for documents. It is difficult to preserve something that was made to vanish (Ryback 80).
In response to the identified frailty of all the constructions and items at Auschwitz, the participants of the debate on the future of the site suggested three drastically different approaches. Two approaches complied with the principle that frailty did not automatically mean that no efforts should be taken to preserve thousands of items found in Auschwitz; yet, they differed in terms of a particular way of preservation. A small group of historians and activists represented by Yaffa Eliach suggested reorganizing Auschwitz in a way that would give more attention to the victims by incorporating a sophisticated electronic infrastructure (Val Pelt 380). This way, it was suggested that many of the physical collections with their digitalized copies should be replaced and be displayed on video terminals installed all over the site, thereby turning Auschwitz into a modern museum in which visitors could interact with all the exhibits. However, the second group of the preservationists represented by Van Pelt and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum thought that excessive digitalization would not preserve the site, but rather transform it and deprive it of its original meaning and atmosphere. Therefore, they claimed that it was necessary to preserve the authentic nature and mood of Auschwitz in order to convey the sufferings experienced by its prisoners and remind people that genocides as the one perpetrated in the location need to be prevented at all costs. The third less extensive group believed that no preservation efforts should be undertaken in Auschwitz at all, and the camp should be left to the nature, being slowly destroyed and overtaken by trees, bushes, grass, and time (Van Pelt 383). Nonetheless, the suggestion of this group was strongly opposed, as it would allow Auschwitz fade into memory over the next few decades, hence erasing one of the few reminders of the genocide committed by Nazis and giving a chance for radical movements to resurface without any resistance on the part of the population.
The second approach mentioned above has been selected; it has been decided to try to preserve the collections and buildings at Auschwitz with the use of various modern techniques for as long as possible. While some exhibitions as those shown in Fig. 1 and 2 are easier to preserve for a long time, others such as the hair exhibition (see Fig. 3 below) are harder to preserve because of the extreme frailty and controversies raised. Fig. 3 below shows tons of hair found by the Soviet troops after entering the camp, which it has been decided to preserve for as long as possible. There are several underlying causes and symbolic meanings relating to such a decision. First, the hair exhibition is an integral part of showing life in the camp as it was since most prisoners were shaved, especially those who were to be executed. The rationale of such a move was not the intended humiliation and dehumanization of prisoners, but rather the utility of Nazis who used the hair of camp residents to create different things, for instance, seat cushions, parts of boots, fabrics, and the like. This way, the exhibition conveys the cruelty of the Nazi machine built on the premise of utility and convenience. Besides, another purpose is to shock the visitors as “Everyone who visits Auschwitz remembers the hair: almost two tons of it, piled behind glass in mounds taller than a person” (Curry 1). However, the hair exhibition initiative was opposed by Jews, who would like to have it buried in line with their religious traditions, so that the souls of the dead could find peace. Although the hair is extremely difficult to preserve and is likely to decay further in the nearest future becoming a pile of gray mass, its current preservation has been deemed to be essential for drawing attention to the reality of living in the camp and displaying Auschwitz as it used to be. Similarly to the hair, the shoes and suitcases (shown in Fig. 1 and 2), as well as other artifacts such as artificial limbs, have been preserved in order to exert a stronger emotional impact on the visitors, informing them about the Nazis’ utilitarian attitude to all the surroundings as well as conveying the atmosphere and mood reigning in the camp (Kozub 84). The exhibits have been arranged in such a way that altogether the artifacts symbolize “the relics of mass-murder”, while they can also be separately linked with individual victims, thereby commemorating them (Kozub 84). In addition to that, the preservation of the hair exhibition complies with the current policy implemented by the administration of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site, consisting of preserving and conserving as many objects, constructions, and items as possible.
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However, the greatest challenge and difficulty relating to the preservation of Auschwitz concerns its extensive territory and a large number of various constructions, buildings, and artifacts. Until recently, there has prevailed an impression that Auschwitz represents the entire camp; hence, many visitors did not know that they had to visit Birkenau to get a full impression of what the camp was like. Currently, there are shuttle buses and directions leading visitors across the entire camp so that people would feel the atmosphere of Auschwitz and witness all it has to offer, including the barracks, the graveyard, and the crematorium ruins at Birkenau. Respectively, an important task of the management is to ensure that all the barracks and buildings are repaired, the crematorium ruins are preserved, and the grounds are cleaned and maintained (Luxenberg-Eisenberg 4). Such extensive preservation efforts need much money, the overwhelming part of which is donated by various international charity organizations and funds dedicated to fund-raising for the Auschwitz-Birkenau site. Overall, the workers of the memorial believe that “The more you work here the more you don’t question why but for whom – for the memories, the prisoners, and for people to get the chance to see what happened here” (Luxenberg-Eisenberg 4). Hence, all the sectors of the site are equally valuable and should be the target of the preservation efforts, which they may require for their continued existence.
Withal, as a memorial site, Auschwitz presents a significant challenge in terms of conservation and preservation because of its huge territory, a large number of items and artifacts that have to be preserved, as well as the complex emotions and feelings relating to it. Furthermore, preservation initiatives become even more complicated due to various existing attitudes towards the site, with some people believing that it should come to natural destruction. Nonetheless, Auschwitz should not be allowed to go into oblivion as it would mean the oblivion of the millions of people who died there and the millions of others who experienced suffering and pain because of the site and Nazis’ activities there. Auschwitz serves as a powerful anti-genocide and anti-discrimination symbol that reminds people of one of the worst periods of human history that should never be allowed to occur again. Therefore, its preservation is of utmost significance and should become the focus of international efforts.