A case for letting nature take back Auschwitz
Jan van Pelt argues that there would be dignityin death camp's neglect /
Brett Popplewell / Toronto Star 2009/12/27
The recent theft and retrieval of the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Sets You Free") sign that marks the gateway into Auschwitz has reignited debate over what should be done with the sombre monument to one of humanity's darkest hours.
Last week Poland's culture minister promised the equivalent of $137,000 for improving security at the site where more than one million people died during the Holocaust.
But Robert Jan Van Pelt, an architectural historian and a leading expert on Auschwitz, says it may be time to consider other strategies for the site, which is split into two camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau. They sprawl over nearly 500 acres.
Van Pelt, a professor at the University of Waterloo, suggests the museum consider sealing off the Birkenau death camp, where 95 per cent of the murders took place, and letting nature take over. We asked him to explain.
Why have you have posited that Birkenau should be closed up and reclaimed by nature?
There is a present problem of preservation in Auschwitz. The place that is actually well-preserved – that's where the museum is. But the site of Birkenau, a couple kilometres away, where the murders happened, is falling apart. That camp was very hastily constructed. The buildings were built to have a lifespan of two to three years. They were built from recycled bricks. When they ran out of recycled bricks, the SS bought from the German army prefab horse stables. In 1945, when the war came to an end, these horse stables were very valuable because they were kind of instant housing for someone who needed it. So people had the idea that the best thing that they could do was to pick up all of these horse stables – and there's like 500 of them – take them apart, put them on the train and send them to Warsaw. By 1948 all of the brick barracks in Birkenau were already falling apart. Each of the old horse stables had two stoves inside with two brick chimneys that were not taken to Warsaw.
So you had this very weird landscape – and you still have that – where you get these small, primitive brick chimneys rising three metres out of the ground. They don't have any other bracing and if you have a storm they blow over. But of course the chimneys themselves – altogether there are hundreds of them – create a very powerful symbolic landscape because we associate Birkenau with the chimneys of the crematoria. Those crematoria aren't there anymore, they were blown up by the Germans and one of them was blown up by the prisoners in 1944. So because there are only these ruins of the crematoria and because people expect to see chimneys in some way, that field of small chimneys that are the leftovers of the barracks creates a kind of landscape that people in some way associate with the killing and the burning of the bodies of the victims.
By allowing nature to take over the site, do we run the risk of allowing humanity to forget what happened and set the stage for future questioning of the Holocaust?
Ninety-nine per cent of what we know we do not actually have the physical evidence to prove . . . it has become part of our inherited knowledge.
I don't think that the Holocaust is an exceptional case in that sense. We in the future – remembering the Holocaust – will operate in the same way that we remember most things from the past. We will know about it from literature and eyewitness testimony. . . . We are very successful in remembering the past in that manner. That's how we know that Cesar was killed on the Ides of March. To put the holocaust in some separate category and to demand that it be there – to demand that we have more material evidence – is actually us somehow giving in to the Holocaust deniers by providing some sort of special evidence.
Why has the site not been closed off already?
In 1959, a proposal was made to let nature take over the camp. The museum wanted to seal the gates and let everything fall into disrepair. The idea was that this spot represented a place where humanity failed in such a monumental way that we really have no business maintaining it.
At that time the survivors opposed that proposal. They said `You cannot lock us out of our own experience. We suffered here; we need to be able to return to the site where we suffered.'
Fifty years later, we are facing the end of the age of the survivors – the age of the witnesses – and I think when the last survivor of the Holocaust has died, when that almost silent passing happens, we as a civilization or as a species should mark this.
And (what) if no one was going to provide the funds to preserve this site? My response to that challenge is `So what? Maybe it's not so bad if this site is erased.' But if indeed there is a moment when we can surrender this site to nature, we cannot do that before the last survivor dies.
The chairman of the international Auschwitz council says the decision should be left to those who died at Auschwitz. Do we have any insight – recorded statements from victims before they died – on what they wanted to be done with the site?
No. So when you call on the victims to some way indicate what happened at the site we can only talk about the survivors. But can survivors really represent those who died?
The survivors can do that to a degree, but once they are dead I don't think it's our place to interpret. This is a decision that we have to take as the living. The earth belongs to the living. It is the living that have to make the tough decisions.
It is fine with me if we the living decide that this site should be preserved and . . . we are willing to spend the money to maintain the site in a proper way . . . that somehow leaves the dignity of the place intact. I'm not going to quarrel with that. But that means we as a worldwide society are actually accepting responsibility for the site – and putting resources toward that.