Let the death camps die

Guy Rundle reports from former Nazi camps, where ever-more morbid attempts are being made to preserve buildings, ash pits, even human hair.

Guy Rundle

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The day was raw cold, with a sharp wind whipping from the low skies. There were a half-dozen of us, tourists all, waiting for a bus back to town. A couple in Armani, talking in that annoying overloud manner of galumphing globetrotters everywhere, whipped out a mobile phone. ‘Hey I’m gonna call Greg.’ ‘Oh, sure.’ ‘Hey Greg! Guess where I’m calling from! Dachau! Greg? Hello…?’

No one decked Mr Armani – probably because we were all in various states of shock and introspection, having spent the last hour traipsing around the grim, grey-stoned former concentration camp outside Munich, Germany. Walking around it is a jarring experience: it is both a site of death and part of the tourist trail, with people smiling for photos beside memorials, bored kids running around, and people wondering out loud why there isn’t a cafeteria.

Dachau has been an exhibit for many years, but the authorities don’t really know what to do with it, or with the other surviving Nazi camps. This became clear during Holocaust Memorial Week in January, when it was revealed that the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland is falling apart, and that more funds and staff are needed to ensure its preservation. Its buildings are succumbing to the elements, and many of the exhibits in the museum are decaying for want of upkeep, including those items taken from the inmates, among them 80,000 pairs of shoes.

Those who think the Nazi concentration and death camps should be preserved are putting forward various solutions, including replacing decaying artifacts with replicas. ‘Conservationists are like doctors: we can extend life but not for eternity’, said Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp museum (1).

However, it is not life that we would be extending if we preserved Auschwitz and the other camps. When you hear that one of the proposals is to cover the whole Auschwitz complex with a giant new dome, you can see that something has gone wrong in our approach to Holocaust memory. Because Auschwitz is a place of death – killing was its pure focus – then any care extended to preserving it will not be in service to life. Rather, normalising such a place – and tourism, more than anything else, helps to normalise strange experiences – can only undermine the unique horror of the camps and extend their morbidity into contemporary European politics.

Jes Benstock’s film The Holocaust Tourist captures these problems well (2). It shows a curator reflecting upon the uncomfortable fact that Jewish-themed restaurants have grown up around the camps, which are often frequented by Jewish survivors or else by beefy, lolling German tourists. There is also the bitter irony that ash pits that are disintegrating because they are open to the elements are now being covered up in order to preserve the look of being open to the elements. The pile of hair taken from female inmates is, not surprisingly, frizzing and fraying – so attempts are being made to restore it back to non-life, to preserve its deathly, Holocaust-era quality.

There is a danger that in trying to recover the humanity of these places, curators are reanimating the Nazis’ ghastly horror show, preserving the sadism that was a central part of the Nazis’ theatres of death.

The curators of Auschwitz have gone from tending the site to trying to maximise its reality. The motivation often seems to be symbolic rather than memorial – to keep Auschwitz ‘as a reminder of the consequences of racism and intolerance’, according to Cywinski. But this is to make a fetish of the material form of evil. In themselves, wooden barracks and rail lines tell us very little; they have to be re-interpreted in a story in order to have any impact. Some argue that we need to preserve the camps in case humanity ever forgets what happened. Yet surely we should trust history, the wealth of evidence and investigation into the Nazis’ atrocities, to communicate to future generations what took place, rather than thinking we need to freeze artifacts in time as permanent reminders of human evil.

In their attempt to keep the camps alive, current curators are looking to schoolchildren for help. Take the notorious inmate shoes at Auschwitz, which are falling apart. According to one report: ‘Chief conservationist Rafal Pioro and his staff of 38 invited schoolchildren to help clean and polish some of them. “The work is endless and painstaking and can be heartrending”, said Pioro. “When we were working on the children’s shoes, some of us were crying all the time.”’ Here, instead of letting these pathetic objects decay, a new generation is brought in to polish and preserve them – who benefits from that?

So what should be done with the camps? Having visited a few of them, my suggestion is that these places of death should be allowed to die. Having preserved exhibits and a comprehensive photographic record, let the buildings yield to the elements and fall in the coming decades. Do what is owed by the living to the dead, and dispose of, with appropriate solemnity, the hair that was taken from the women and the shoes from the children. Close down the cafes and restaurants and let the elements slowly reclaim the barracks and yards. Let those who wish to visit do so, where they can see the camps in their natural, decaying state.

The process of decay may take decades, and some decision can then be made about what sort of permanent memorial should be erected in their place. Some might think that letting the camps die will mean that we forget; in fact, it would mean relying on history to record what the Nazis did, rather than on falling-down buildings and stolen shoes. The current focus on preservation at all costs risks making us servants to the deathly mystique of Nazism, thereby carrying its powers of horror into a new century.

Guy Rundle is European editor of Arena Magazine based in Australia.

(1) Chris Johnston, Fight against time to preserve Auschwitz, The Age, 31 January 2007

(2) Watch The Holocaust Tourist here

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