I had a recent trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There was much to think about at both sites. Both represent very painful heritage, a history of barbarity and industrial killing on an unimaginable scale. Part of me went round both sites responding as any other human being might. Another part of me was fascinated by both sites as examples of heritage interpretation. These are a few of my thoughts.
What is the purpose of both sites? Are they memorials? Are they a political message? Are they sources of tourist income? Are any of these in conflict with the others? Are the camps themselves the memorials, or the displays placed within the camp buildings? Which moves the visitor to remember and respect the dead? Is authenticity an important part of the memorial function?
As memorials, I found the physical remains of the camps to be powerful. For me, it was important to stand were the dead once stood, to touch the fabric of the site that the dead once touched, to see the steps down into the changing rooms outside the gas chamber, to touch the walls inside the only still standing gas chamber. Next in power was the display of the mountain of 80,000 shoes in huge glass cases, and the 2 tonnes of human hair. The interpretation panels for me were, by comparison, more intellectual and less emotive. So, does it matter that the ovens in crematorium 1 are reconstructions and that the gallows in the Auschwitz yard are likewise? I can’t decide.
What messages do both camps deliver? That such barbarity should not be allowed to happen again is an obvious answer. But is that too simplistic? Can messages be made more powerful? Is the subliminal message that these inhuman acts were the responsibility of the Nazis and that as the Nazis no longer exist such things cannot happen again? In other words, is the interpretation to historically specific, too contextualised to have wider power? The message surely is that such acts have occurred throughout time and that what was different about this instance was the availability and mis-use of industrial technology. A more humanistic and more powerful message might result if examples of other genocides were referenced in the displays.
These sites are tourist sites, where large numbers of group tours as well as individuals mill around. Both sites are crowded. This certainly takes away from the ability to contemplate the site. At least at Birkenau the site is so huge that you can go to quiet parts of the site and its emotive power is greatly increased.
Which site is more powerful? Auschwitz was a concentration camp while Birkenau was the much bigger extermination camp. Auschwitz has the displays, complete accommodation blocks etc. Birkenau only has a few blocks still standing, with a few rebuilt, but does have the dynamited remains of the main gas chambers, and railway tracks and gateway that symbolise so much.
Birkenau’s sheer sizes overwhelms the mind. Being able to stand by the remains of the gas chambers, left as they were found is very powerful. But Auschwitz has the chilling execution yard, enclosed and easy to imagine the shootings that took place there, although the shooting wall is a reconstruction which takes away some of its power for me.
Is it right to focus on the victims?
That may seem a daft question. Of course we should focus on the victims. But, I remain unsettled by that. I want to know why it happened. I want to know why thousands of ordinary people could put on a uniform and take part in the processing and murder of millions of human beings. I want to hear the voice of the guards, of the Nazis, to know why this could happen. Who were the guards? What kind of backgrounds did they come from? Were they all brutal psychopaths? Were any capable of any decency? Only when we understand the perpetrators can we make sure that things like this can never happen again.