Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Poland -- What to do with Auschwitz

Auschwitz Gate, 2005. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The directors of the museum/memorial at Auschwitz and the Polish government have issued urgent calls recently for aid to conserve the crumbling infrastructure of the most notorious Nazi death camp. Auschwitz attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, but its buildings, exhibitions and archives are -- literally -- falling to pieces.

The National Post runs an article dealing with the architecture of Auschwitz and the architecture of tourism there. It is a interview with Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor at Ontario's University of Waterloo who has studied the architecture of the death camp, and particularly that of its cremetoria.

Given the lack of resources and the inevitable decay, Prof. van Pelt said one solution quickly emerges. What he says next is stripped of sentimentality but not of respect.

"Most people talk about the future of Auschwitz very emotionally without actually having any knowledge about it and without actually having any grasp of the incredibly contradictory nature of the site in terms of preservation and management.

"I say they should maybe allow Birkenau to be surrendered to nature - which does not mean putting condos on it but simply seal off the site and we allow nature to take over in a kind of symbolic gesture that humanity failed so terribly there that we now give it over to the cockroaches and grass and whatever. They haven't screwed up as badly as we have."

He adds an important caveat: It should not be done as long as there are survivors who may wish a return visit to the site. (He, himself, had a Jewish uncle who died in Auschwitz; he was named after him.)

"People will have to make choices... let us at least make a distinction between what is critical for us, what is important for us and what is merely significant.

"In Auschwitz they were restoring the sewer works of the camps not because it was the most important but because it was the only thing that was not contested.

"Because whatever you do in Auschwitz someone will say that you made the wrong choice."

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