Auschwitz

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

By Nathaniel Popper

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.

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.



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