Auschwitz should never have existed, so why are we so keen to cling onto it? Would it not be reasonable to scrub it from the landscape, remove the very thought of what it represents from our minds, recognize it as the cemetery it is, then grass it over and leave the dead to rest in peace?
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland has not taken that approach. On the contrary, 70 years after the burning ovens ceased their deadly work at Birkenau, where at least 960,000 Jews were murdered, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation announced it has raised 109 million of the 120-million Euros it needs to ensure the site is preserved in perpetuity.
The task of preserving such a site is a daunting one, as the museum has one of the largest footprints, with the most buildings, in the worst weather conditions of any museum, anywhere. As a UNESCO heritage site, it has been recognized as a place of global significance, but the rotting timbers and crumbling bricks have no idea about that, they are turning to the dust from whence they came.
Museum Director Piotr Cywinski is a thoughtful figure who is determined that Auschwitz exists for future generations.
“If one place addresses the conscience of humanity in the 21st century, it is Auschwitz-Birkenau,” he says.
Since taking on the role as director, Cywinski has insisted that not only is preserving the authentic site a vital part of ensuring the Holocaust is not forgotten, but that the physical evidence is a part of preventing future genocides.
There is, of course, nothing to say that memory itself will compel anyone to act ethically in the present, let alone the world leaders who are gathering on Jan. 27 to remember the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Being there to remember could be a way to avoid action, because they can say the right words, leave and do nothing. But being at the very place where over a million lives were wasted on the alter of inhumanity makes moral demands on those who stand there. The place itself is indisputable proof that genocide is possible and therefore must be prevented. That's where the place and our conscience come together.
I have been listening to testimonies in the Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation in the run-up to this commemoration and have heard from among the 8,842 witnesses to Auschwitz-Birkenau a constant theme – how unexpected the finality and ferocity of Auschwitz was. It was not that they had not felt the full force of the Nazis for a very long time; it was just that Birkenau was truly inconceivable.
When an academic colleague of mine, who has read about Auschwitz and seen many documentaries, returned from a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, told me that his life would be divided into “before and after visiting Auschwitz,” I understood in a new way the power of place. It is not a representation of the Holocaust, but a physical fact. And the fact that it ever existed is what gives pause, because Birkenau, which was at the heart of the genocide of the Jews, exemplifies the possibility inherent all acts of genocide.
When Henry Appel said, “There is only one thing worse than Auschwitz itself ... and that is if the world forgets there was such a place,” he makes the case for its preservation, because when it is there before our eyes, there is no forgetting.
(Help us remember the victims and preserve their memories for future generations. Text A70 to 41444 today to support permanent access to the full collection of testimony in the Visual History Archive at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.)