De-Sacralizing Auschwitz: Spatial Considerations which Account for Holocaust Memorial Deficiencies

This paper was presented by Nakita Valerio for the Annual HCGSA Conference at the University of Alberta, February 2016.

slide 1

On January 27th, 2010, I stood in the freezing cold outside Auschwitz-Birkenau after a long day of watching the ceremonies for its 65th anniversary of liberation. Visitors had been huddled around burning fires just beyond the women’s camp on the way to the gas chambers. In a large tent across the infamous rail tracks, survivors, politicians, and press had listened to speeches in Polish and Hebrew. Violins had been played. At the end of a twelve-hour day, with the sun having set over the camp, many of us started to make our way toward the exit to go back to the nearby town, or to catch a bus to Krakow. In the ‘parking lot’, we met with mass confusion as guards hurried everyone along in the dark, survivors were shuffled onto buses wearing their striped uniforms, and cars took off left and right. We were informed that there were no taxis and no buses for us who remained. We would have to walk five kilometers in the cold back to the town if we hoped to leave Birkenau that night. One woman from our group grabbed me and we raced over to a tour bus as it was leaving. She managed to convince the driver to let us on but we were told that we must stand at the back and we were to remain absolutely silent: we had hitched a ride with survivors. As the bus filled with the sounds of their laughter and their chattering in a variety of languages, the woman turned to me, complaining in English about the poor organization of the ceremonies and a litany of other criticisms about its memorialization, in general. This woman confided in me that she was one of the main curators at Bergen-Belsen and when I asked her why she thought it was such a problem at Auschwitz, she replied: “It’s because Auschwitz is in Poland.”

This unusual comment has always stuck with me, not only because it is indicative of a kind of German-centric authority in memorializing the Holocaust but also because it demonstrates a narrative common about Poland, which even permeates within Poland, about a kind of ineptitude at existing in general, never mind at memorializing what is considered one of the most important sites of memory for the Holocaust. This curator is not the only person to express a sense of insufficiency when visiting the camp, in fact, entire books have tried to get at why the memorials at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau leave the visitor with a nagging sense of incompleteness and “restlessness of the soul”. Such authours as Jonathan Webber argue that the Holocaust is a rupture in the fabric of creation, and that trying to identify its causes (morally) leads to insurmountable issues for the writers of history, thus rendering any memorial hopelessly inadequate, presumably more so than memorials normally are. Webber is not alone, citing a slew of authours grappling with the immense anti-ethical implications of the Holocaust and failing to come up with solutions for curators of this critical space. Webber concludes his article by citing the lack of a unified religious (specifically Jewish) voice as crucial for reconciling the immensity of the Holocaust to our inability to reason with it and, by extension, as a comfort for our collective morality.

I argue that it is neither some kind of perceived Polish ineptitude nor a lack of religious unity nor existential trauma that are to blame in terms of the majority of problems people have with the camp, and, in fact, the sacralisation that happens in the latter formulations, which make Auschwitz the inverse of the Kantian sublime, inhibit our ability to assess Auschwitz for the historical space that it is. The symbol of Auschwitz is no longer the historical place of Auschwitz and something very valuable and illuminating has been lost in the process. Considering I am working in the field of social memory and the Holocaust, you would think I would be deeply interested in the symbolic currency of the symbol of Auschwitz and how it is used in various mindscapes of cultural systems around the world –and I am. But my point in trying to ground us in the physical space of Auschwitz once more is to note something of urgent necessity which thinkers who sacralize the camp run the risk of overlooking, and which could have dire consequences for the symbolic use of Auschwitz in the future: its conservation.

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Before I get into the stark challenges of conservation, which are wholly unique to it and will illuminate a major reason for the sense of insufficiency in the camps, I want to discuss both the problems of religious unity and sacralization briefly. An article published on August 10, 2007 by The Krakow Post was entitled “U.S. Sacred Ground Foundation wants to build sanctuary in Auschwitz.” The concept behind the proposed monument “was to reflect a symbolic burial ground for those who died in the concentration camp.”[1] The presumed purpose of something like this is to recognize the diversity of people who died in Auschwitz and whose remains ought to be honoured. It is also assumed that this sort of project has been undertaken because of the impossibility of separating intermingled remains for appropriate burial according to each victim’s religion. Ultimately, however, “The International Auschwitz Board [was] not keen on the project [because] Auschwitz is considered to be a cemetery today and Judaism does not permit any monument erection within the grounds of a cemetery.”[2] Other such memorials have been proposed and rejected in the past, preferring instead to be built outside of the camp where they “have a greater chance of success.”[3] This is but one example of how Auschwitz has become a contested space. Some might argue that contestation is an inherent part of constructing culturally important places, particularly those that are religiously sacred; that, by virtue of defining a place for one group, others will necessarily be excluded. This is a bleak reality that does not bode well for the future of those seeking to heal at Auschwitz for numerous demographics who flock there looking for closure and answers, nor for those who want to use it as a space of learning for future generations. It is, in my opinion, that under exceptional circumstances, exceptions need to be made. An example of this type of exception was reported again in The Krakow Post when an Aboriginal Elder from the Budawang people in New South Wales Australia was permitted to perform the first ever Aboriginal healing ceremony in Auschwitz.[4] Perhaps it was the fact that 59-year-old Noel Butler had no link whatsoever to any identifiable religious group that had been victimized at Auschwitz that he was permitted to do this. However, this reasoning does not hold true for a mass Muslim prayer for the dead held inside the camp and conducted by imams from around the world on May 23, 2013. Rather, perhaps the acceptance of such acts of ritual healing have been accepted by the establishment because of the impermanence of such ceremonies.

Religious contestation of the space is, by far, the least of the worries associated with the camp. Most of these attempts at closure and religious healing in the space are thwarted by its sacralization in another realm: with the elevation of Auschwitz as the site for commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust, as somehow emblematic of the entire historical episode’s face. By making Auschwitz untouchable, a kind of gruesome hierophany at which all the darkness of the human soul broke through and is somehow still emanating from that space, many historians have lost the ability to see what really underlies the first main obstacle to memorialization, something completely left aside in the conversation: that is, conservation.

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In “Wisdom Sits in Places” from Senses of Place, Keith H. Basso, states that “the self-conscious experience of place is inevitably a product and expression of the self whose experience it is, and therefore, unavoidably, the nature of that experience is shaped at every turn by the personal and social biography of the one who sustains it.”[5] Ultimately, our sense of a place like Auschwitz derives from our animation of place and its reciprocal animation of “the ideas and feelings of persons who attend to them… [and] this process of interanimation related to the fact that  familiar places are experienced as inherently meaningful, their  significance and value found to reside in the form and arrangement of their observable characteristics.”[6] Furthermore, Basso (quoting Jean-Paul Sartre) notes that things can reflect for individuals only their knowledge of them. In this understanding, it is possible to imagine an individual who has never heard of the Holocaust  and, in coming to Auschwitz, would not realize what took place there – in fact, this idea of place necessitates that hypothetical in order to counteract the alleged inverse-sublimity/sacrality that some people describe as now “emanating” from Auschwitz. What an individual such as this picks up on from the site itself is not the moral black hole that many claim is now there, but may be indicators from the landscape, both natural and altered, that offer subliminal or overt clues as to what took place there. As Basso points out, “places come to generate their own fields of meaning… [by being] animated by the thoughts and feelings of persons who attend to them[;] places express only what their animators enable them to say.”[7]

The record for the preservation of Auschwitz has been grim and it is clear that the primary reasons for this relates to inadequate funding that has hampered the process of restoring the buildings and other structures of the camps.[8]

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Jolanta Banas, the head of preservation at Auschwitz has stated matter-of-factly, “Our main problem is sheer numbers. We measure shoes in ten thousands.”[9] When the sum is totaled, Banas and her staff are responsible for the monitoring of 150 buildings and more than 300 ruins at the two main sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau.[10] According to Robert Jan Van Pelt, a cultural historian in the school of architecture at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and the leading expert on the construction of Auschwitz, “80 to 90 percent of the original structures are gone or in a state of ruin.”[11]

Part of the issue with this state of affairs is the size of the camp and thus the sheer volume of funds that are required on a continual basis for the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds. For anyone who has not been there, the three camps comprising the Auschwitz zone are enormous and total 40 square kilometers or 4000 hectares. In comparison, the other major killing zones on Polish soil are tiny. Treblinka, is a mere 17 hectares. It was never conceived of as anything other than a place to commit murder and the overwhelming majority of people sent there were killed within two hours of their arrival, totaling a minimum of 870,000 murders. Belzec camp near Lublin, Poland (another death center only) was reported to have been the site of murder for at least 434,508 people. It measures only 27 hectares. Sobobir death camp claimed the lives of between 200,000 and 250,000 prisoners and it measures only 24 hectares. Auschwitz, on the other hand, was part of a larger agricultural and industrial experiment initiated by Heinrich Himmler to assist Germans of the Reich who had settled on stolen Polish land. Slave labour from the camp, involving around 10,000 prisoners at any given time, was part of the prerogative of the creation of Auschwitz. The size of the camp is the first major obstacle to preservation because the level of funding required is both enormous and in constant demand. The fact that the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau has come to stand for the face of the entire Holocaust makes its preservation crucial for many and yet, it is in need of the most funding to do this, to the neglect of other killing centers.

slide 5

Reports immediately after the fall of the USSR indicated that many of the wooden barracks had rotted away, the crematoria were literally sinking into the ground, and the mountains of belongings stolen from the victims (from their hair to shoes, suitcases and eyeglasses) were breaking down. An article in the Ocala Star-Banner from February 19, 1990 indicated that Poland (which had toppled its Communist government only the summer before) had “formed a commission to change the 35-year-old museum exhibition, which highlight[ed] the Soviet army’s liberation of the camp but mention[ed] the Holocaust only in passing.”[12] Preservation cost estimates at that time were thought to be around $40 million. Frank Reiss, the vice-president of a New York foundation enlisted to help with the assessment of the site, called for an urgency in the repairing process, stating that “If nothing is done, in 10 to 20 years, the site will be practically non- existent…[and that] the tens of thousands of pairs of shoes…if you touch them, they fall to dust.”[13] The fact that these exhibits have not changed since the 1950s (until the present day) says a lot about the sense of urgency employed in addressing these urgent matters.

Preserving the structures and the artifacts of Auschwitz were not the only priorities for museum staff at this time. Former inmate, Kazimierz Smolen, who headed the museum group, has “struggled with the beautifying effect of ever-growing grass, the soothing sound of bird singing and the government’s limited resources to maintain the camp’s hellish authenticity.”[14] While some might assume that grass and birds were present when the Nazis were gassing prisoners, this was not always a reality. Firstly, Polish winters are very long and have high precipitation rates in the form of snow. This is why many visitors to the camp have expressed its especial bleakness when seen during the winter months as it resembles its former terror and what people expect of it much more eloquently. In the spring and summer months, the camp would have been very muddy or of hardened dirt because of the constant impact of numerous prisoners’ footfalls on what was once a grassy field. In this sense, Smolen is quite right that the current grass affects one’s overall experience of the camp when visited outside of the winter months. As Andrew Curry put it, “the scene [at Birkenau] was so peaceful it was almost impossible to imagine the sea of stinking mud that survivors describe.”[15]

It is also true that the grass threatens to overtake the boggy pool of ashes that still lies beyond the crematoria where remains were buried. If this is an issue that can (or should) be addressed is another point of contention in memorialization. Are curators supposed to “recreate” the experience for visitors? Does this lend itself to authenticity or Hollywood-esque practices? Reiss, in the exact same article, notes that rebuilding things to be as they were is unproductive, and that ruins should be preserved as they are: as ruins.

slide 6

Competing narratives about how preservation should happen continue to plague the allocation of limited funds, to the continued detriment of the decaying camps. Van Pelt, quoted above, has also stated that recreating the experience for viewers undermines the nihilism of the camps, particularly Birkenau. He has publicly stated that it is “the ultimate nihilistic place. A million people literally disappeared. Shouldn’t we confront people with the nothingness of the place? Seal it up. Don’t give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there.”[16] And yet, most people don’t share this view, particularly when the impending disappearance of the camp running parallel to the disappearance of Auschwitz survivors as time marches on.

The second point to take from Smolen’s comment is the inadequacy of funds that the Polish government has made available for undertaking such a massive preservation process. It should be noted that there are at least 13 important extermination, concentration and labour camps located in Poland alone –  all in varying stages of neglect, some in far worse condition than Auschwitz.  For example, the gas chambers at Sobobir weren’t unearthed (after being discovered beneath a road) until September 2014, likely due to the fact that the camp was closed in 1943, prior to the end of the War.[17] The number of places of historical responsibility for the government of Poland is seconded only by Germany. This has resulted in a number of unusual methods of preservation in the country, some of which people might call bizarre. This includes one program (called Tikkun and meaning “Fixing or Rectification” in hEBREW), started in 2003, which has enlisted the help of 1,500 inmates in Polish prisons to clean and repair Jewish cemeteries, and engage in Jewish cultural and learning activities such as touring extermination camps and watching films about Jewish life.[18] That the Polish government has contracted out its memorialization work to inmates at the local prison is a clear indication of the dire and desperate point to which the process has come.

slide 7

As a result of frustrations in the Polish government about the inadequacy of reactionary preventative measures, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was founded in 2009 following repeated failed efforts by the Polish government to raise adequate funds for the preservation of the camps.[19] Just prior to this, the spokesman for the Polish government on the issue of Auschwitz, Jaroslaw Mensfelt stated, “Without outside help, Poland could have trouble retaining Auschwitz as a memorial site.”[20] This occurred due to continuous underestimations of the costs involved because of the size of the camp. Revisions of the budgets forced the government to seek more funding, exacerbating lucrative relationships previously established. In 2008, the director of the memorial, Piotr Cywinski, pointed out that “Poland has been mostly the sole up-keeper of the museum for 60 years now. In the 1990s and 2000s the programmes for conservation works financed by other countries were those that catered to the most urgent needs.”[21] However, because the site was never designed to last long and it was built by inexperienced prisoners, it is deteriorating at a much faster rate than anyone had anticipated. Cywinski has argued that this burden should not fall on Poland alone but rests with the international community, particularly the European Union which should share in it.[22] When asked to justify this stance, Cywinski gave an interesting response that verges on the abstraction outlined above. He said,

Auschwitz, as the only concentration camp, and at the same time extermination camp – the biggest of them all – a symbol of the terrible entirety, is one of the foundations of our post-war European civilisation. This is the reason why for me, turning to other countries for financial support is not accounting for historical responsibility. What is to be won here is not only the preservation of the past and memory, but the foundations of a future where we understand the importance of Auschwitz as a place where we should all meet.[23]

Thus, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation began with “the aim[…] to create a Perpetual Fund which will finance conservation work and preservation of all authentic remains of the former Nazi German Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.”[24] The group’s mission statement says:

We created the Fund to make sure that future generations will have a possibility to see the authentic space which is not only a living witness of one of the biggest crimes in the history of mankind but also a place which has a fundamental meaning for the entire European civilization. In Auschwitz we can fully confront and address the most important questions about: mankind, society, the poisonous fruit of anti-Semitism, racial hatred and contempt towards others. [25]

State donors for the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau include these main contributors: Germany ($80 million), the United States ($15 million), Poland ($13 million), the European Union ($5.9 million), Israel ($1.5million) and Canada ($400,000). However, less than a year after the establishment of the foundation for the site, the shortcomings of the museum were exposed in terms of security (with the stealing of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign in January 2010) and continuing conservation issues.[26] In an interview in The National Post as recent as May 5, 2013, Eli Rubenstein (an Auschwitz tour guide) has shown that the problem of decay at Auschwitz is still very real despite significant funds being raised and action taken.[27] It may, in fact, be an impossibility in terms of long-term preservation. The fact that, “with each spring thaw, shifts in the soil threaten to deliver a final, devastating blow to the fields of ruins”[28] is not the only daunting part of this task. Specialists in building infrastructure have the goal of restoring three brick barracks per year. This is an exceedingly expensive task that requires significant underground work, installing concrete foundations to slow the effects of the shifting ground. Conserving one brick barrack is expected to cost as much as $1 million.[29] As if that weren’t overwhelming enough, specialists in charge of deteriorating personal effects have noted that each individual shoe takes two hours to clean and inspect.[30] With hundreds of thousands of shoes alone, these specialists feel a sense of urgency like no other.

While the wooden barracks have long rotted away and brick barracks are on the verge of collapse, Rubenstein notes that despite the uphill battle, the crucial nature of preserving the places in which atrocities occurred cannot be underestimated. These are not only sites to animate narratives of survivors but they also hold power in themselves: “That power never diminishes. But, it’s only effective because the barrack is still standing to tell the story,” he said. “It’s only effective if the survivor is saying ‘I lay in this barrack and this is where my father saved my life.’”[31]

slide 8

It is on this critical point that I will conclude and know that I do so, because in a similar way as the survivors mention, I have wondered if such a massive project of conservation is worth the effort against what seems like a futile end-goal. However, if we accept that places can tell us volumes of historical information and can made to do so as well, then the narrative of the Holocaust relies on future funding for Auschwitz’s conservation in a collaborative effort, first and foremost. Simultaneous to this, while the issue of religious contestation may only be overcome through the creation of impermanent rituals of healing on the grounds of Auschwitz, the sacralization of Auschwitz as an inverse moral hierophany must be abandoned, and by scholars especially. It does not lend itself well to comprehending the factors that allowed for Auschwitz to occur, nor the possibility of another Auschwitz. The challenges of evoking sensations and understanding from a place like Auschwitz, particularly in an educational way for people with no experience of the camp, are real, particularly as time marches on, survivors continue to pass on and we get further away from the immediacy of this historical episode; however, none of this can even begin to be addressed if the space of Auschwitz is not given primacy through conservation efforts first. Given that the exhibits at Auschwitz-Birkenau still have not been altered in over sixty years and the grounds and artifacts are deteriorating faster than specialists can preserve and restore them, it looks like there is a long way to go in putting place first, before it is too late.

slide 9

[1] “U.S. Sacred Ground Foundation Wants to Build Sanctuary in Auschwitz.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/344

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “An Aboriginal Experience in Auschwitz.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1308.

[5] Basso, Keith H. “Wisdom Sits in Places” in Senses of Place. Ed. Feld and Basso. School of American Research Press: Sante Fe. 2001, pp. 55

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pp. 56

[8] “US Will Give $15M for Auschwitz Museum.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/2211; “Auschwitz Still Seeking Funding.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1814. “Auschwitz Museum to Receive EU Funds.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1384;  “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” Mail Online. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1041890/Poles-ask-world-funds-stop-Auschwitz-falling-ruin.html.; “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://en.auschwitz.org/m/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=722&Itemid=8.; “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” The Evening Standard. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html; Warsaw, Matthew. “Auschwitz Museum ‘needs £113m’ for Repair Work.” The Telegraph. April 24, 49. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/poland/4347667/Auschwitz-museum-needs-113m-for-repair-work.html; “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.; Berg, Raffi. “Cash Crisis Threat to Auschwitz.” BBC News. January 26, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7800397.stm.

[9] “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12]“Auschwitz’s Deterioration Alarming to Conservators.” Ocala Star-Banner. February 19, 1990. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1356&dat=19900219&id=CadAAAAAIBAJ&sjid=rwcEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4114,7711723.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Archaeologists Make More Historic Finds at Site of Sobibor Gas Chambers – Jewish World News.” Haaretz.com. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/.premium-1.616667.

[18] “Reconstructing Attitudes to Judaism in Poland.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/5840.

[19] “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau.

[20] http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html

[21] “Counting the Cost.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1254.

[22] “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” The Evening Standard. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html.

[23]“Counting the Cost.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1254., emphasis added

[24] “Mission of the Foundation.” Mission of the Foundation. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.foundation.auschwitz.org/index.php/artykuly/12-articles/22-ratowac-auschwitz-birkenau.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Auschwitz Still Seeking Funding.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1814.

[27] “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau.

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

 

 

 

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