Auschwitz, 70 years after

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Jan. 27 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet troops. Dignitaries, ordinary citizens and survivors of the Nazi death camp attended a commemoration at the site that represents supreme human evil.

The moment gives us occasion to contemplate Auschwitz-Birkenau’s historical significance and honor the 1.1 million Jewish men, women and children and the 125,000 non-Jews who perished there, as well as to treasure those who survived. Lest we forget, the numbers of those murdered are: 1.1 million Jews; 75,000 Poles; 21,000 Roma/Sinti (Gypsies); 15,000 Soviet POWs; Jehovah’s Witnesses; homosexuals; German criminals.

A relatively large number of victims survived Auschwitz-Birkenau; many gave testimonies that became critical to our knowledge of what happened there. Some of the survivors in attendance at this week’s ceremony were aware that it might be their last time to participate in such a memorial. One asked me, “How will our memory be preserved?”

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust. Its centrality is evident from the extensive research, literature, educational programs and actual visits to the site. In the last decade alone, more than 1 million people visited every year. Today, the majority of visitors are non-Jews from Europe and Asia who have no direct link to the Holocaust. In this context of fading proximity to the events and the people themselves, how should the site be preserved and remembered? 

Auschwitz’s network of 40 prison camps, labor camps and death camps was never meant to outlive the war. But postwar Polish communist authorities, newly ascended to power, established a state museum at Auschwitz. They decided to leave Birkenau, the extermination camp nearby, in the abandoned state in which it was found at liberation, with crematoria and gas chambers evident but in ruins. The Germans had fled in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to entirely destroy evidence of their crimes.

The Auschwitz State Museum had a monumental plan to conserve the site and conduct commemorative and educational programs. However, the museum was run by rigid Stalinist ideologues who aimed to “Polonize” the site, making it a symbol of Polish martyrdom and marginalizing all other narratives, most egregiously the Jewish experience.

Perhaps the most disturbing step was the removal of Birkenau from museum-guided tours of the site, when it was at Birkenau that an estimated 1.1 million Jews had died — one-sixth of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. This politically motivated move “was equivalent to removing the Jews from the memory space,” wrote Polish sociologist Slawomir Kapralski. Nazi Germany had perpetuated the Holocaust, and Communist Poland had suppressed the Holocaust memory. In nationalizing the death camp and obscuring its universal and international history, it became, in the words of another Polish scholar, Iwona Zarecka, “Auschwitz without Jews.”

The end of the Communist regime in 1989 opened the way for Poland’s new democratic government and Polish citizens to redress the Cold War repression of Holocaust history. As Poland’s fledgling democracy developed, Auschwitz-Birkenau underwent a transformation. The exhibition and the site’s content were revised to ensure their accuracy and present the primacy of Holocaust memory.

The site itself is the museum’s chief artifact. Unlike Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust museum in Washington, the Auschwitz State Museum is located on the very site where its history took place.

Scholars have been grappling with deep questions concerning the purpose and future direction of both the site and its museum. What is a visitor to do at Auschwitz-Birkenau? How can the museum present the unique nature of this death camp-concentration camp universe and the broader narratives of Nazi-occupied Europe?

For British anthropologist Jonathan Webber, who serves on the International Auschwitz Council, the main purpose of a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau should be to honor and mourn, to approach the site as a cemetery where the dead never received proper funerals. In addition, he believes visitors should connect with the “nothingness.”

“Is the sheer physicality of Auschwitz telling us how to interpret the site?” he asks. “Or is it, in a sense, misleading us, because we’re too focused on the physicality of what’s been left behind rather than on the nothingness?”

Education and remembrance remain the two primary goals of the site. “But how to mourn the dead and remember the victims when all this information is bombarding you?” Webber continues. “If you’re going to spend one day of your life visiting Auschwitz, how much time do you think you ought to spend listening to information, which you can get on the Internet anyway, and how much time should you spend sitting on the ground, meditating and praying for the souls who hover there, who were murdered there?”

Shana Penn is executive director of Taube Philanthropies, based in Belmont.