Auschwitz

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

By Nathaniel Popper

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Walking under the metal gate that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Brings Freedom”) is a seminal moment for visitors to Auschwitz — a chill-inducing passage into a place of death. It comes as some surprise, then, to learn that it was actually upon passing the ticket-takers’ booth in the parking lot that visitors entered what was the main complex of the concentration camp.

The communist government that took control of Auschwitz after the war altered the physical complex in innumerable unmarked ways, changes that were largely made to serve the story of the Holocaust told behind the Iron Curtain. In communist eastern Europe, the central narrative of the Holocaust was not the death of Jews; it was the story of communist resistance and fascist atrocity. As a result, the focus of the Auschwitz museum is the complex known as Auschwitz 1, where the bulk of Polish political prisoners were killed early in the war. In the communist incarnation of the museum, only two of the barracks in Auschwitz 1 were given over to a discussion of the Jews. That has broadened in the post-communist years, but there continues to be a very European focus on nationalism. The Dutch government was given a barrack where they tell a story of brave Dutch resistance; they do not mention that, aside from Poland, no country allowed a higher proportion of its Jews to be killed than the Netherlands.

The museological focus on Auschwitz 1, however, has the unintended effect of leaving the much more massive Birkenau complex — the center of mass extermination — in a relatively unadulterated state. Few spaces convey the physical enormity of Jewish death during the Holocaust like the fields of Birkenau, with the outlines of destroyed barracks stretching out over a vast desolate field. At the back of the Birkenau complex, the Soviets erected an abstract granite memorial that towers over the surroundings. It represents the Soviet story, which was always one of triumph, skipping as quickly as possible over the mourning stage. This effort to create a narrative, though, is overwhelmed by the remains of the two brick buildings nearby that held the gas chambers, now collapsing in on themselves.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.