Thursday, May 14, 2009

Guarding Memory

There has been a recent wave of media coverage of a fund-raising campaign by the Auschwitz museum to raise over 120 million Euros, or $200 million, to put towards to the upkeep and refurbishing of the barracks and other buildings at the Auschwitz concentration camp that have fallen into disrepair due to age and exposure. The money raised would to be used towards laying down new floorboards in the barracks, replacing rusted hardware, among other improvements, including dismantling the infamous sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” temporarily replacing it with a replica while the original is being refurbished. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, the director of the international Auschwitz center, asserts that all these changes, will be done in such a way as to exactly match the materials and building practices of the 1940s. The goal, Bartoszewski assures us, is not to ‘Disnify’ Auschwitz, but rather to maintain the site and its authenticity.

Yet it is exactly this authenticity that risks being lost in the name of preservation. The camp is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year who seek, above all, a genuine experience and the hope that being in exact spot where so much suffering occurred will allow them deeper insight into an event and a place is often impervious to true understanding. Will that understanding truly come from an ersatz camp, made up of refurbished barracks and polished signs?

Auschwitz has been preserved to play a specific role in our contemporary world: that of ‘lieu de memoire,’ a tangible yet fragile connection to a brutal era that every day recedes further into the rearview mirror of history. Indeed, more than almost any other symbol of that era, this camp has become synonymous with the Holocaust and its brutalities. In reading these articles, it is clear that for the advocates of this fund-raising campaign, there is a direct line between the physical presence of these buildings, and the feelings of horror and sadness that they provoke, and the ability of subsequent generations to absorb and pass on the story of the Shoah.

Indeed, as Piotr M.A. Cywinski, member of the Auschwitz museum administration insists, “allowing the camps to return to nature …is not a responsible alternative for remembrance," “That's being completely irresponsible. Allowing the same to happen to Auschwitz would simply be finishing what the Nazis started - "realizing the SS's dreams. That's why we are trying to keep the memory.” (Click here to read the full article)

The museum leadership is right to be concerned about the education of future generations. But they are mistaken if they truly believe that is only through the physical presence of the buildings that their children will absorb the lessons of the Holocaust. In an era when hundreds of novels, biographies, memoirs, and other works of scholarship are published yearly throughout the Western world, not to mention the numerous Holocaust movies to appear from Hollywood directors, it is clear that subsequent generations have in fact taken this history to heart and continue to seek out ways to represent it in all its complexity. This multimedia approach does not override or negate the importance of the site nor of its preservation. However, they must be taken into account by those for whom the loss of the buildings spell the end of Holocaust remembrance.

There are many reasons why the camp must be sustained as a site of remembrance and bereavement. But the real fund-raising emphasis should be on raising money to support programs within Poland and throughout the world that support not only Holocaust education, but also education about the roots of other forms of contemporary hatreds: racism, bigotry, and xenophobia. For it is most essential that this generation understand that the hatred that led to the Holocaust did not die in Auschwitz nor does it only concern Jews. It unfortunately lives on in many forms and against a multitude of groups. One day, the buildings that comprised Auschwitz the camp may very well crumble and disintegrate and return, as Mr. Cywinski says, back to nature. But if the Auschwitz museum and others like it champion education for future generations, the knowledge of the camp and the inhumanity that it represents will be impetus enough for them guard and pass on the memory.

1 comment:

Justin said...

This is a very complicated issue and you've addressed it very thoughtfully. Keep it up! I look forward to your upcoming posts!