‘A Place… Close to Our Hearts’
TEREZIN, CZECH REPUBLIC — Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ “model” ghetto, whose remains were nearly washed away by the waters of the Elbe and Eger rivers in last August’s disastrous floods, is on its way back to model condition. Thanks to the generosity of Jews throughout the world who answered cries for help, the site through which 140,000 Jews passed on their way to death at Auschwitz is ready to receive a new type of Jewish visitor.
“This is a place which is very close to our hearts,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities. “The effort to fundraise for this was heard by many Jewish institutions around the world.”
Theresienstadt is not alone. Similar efforts have been mobilized to restore other Nazi-era sites, at a cost of millions of dollars. Proponents see maintaining these places as a vital part of
preserving history. But there are critics who wonder if the money might be better spent elsewhere.
On the sunny spring day of the Forward’s visit two weeks ago, the water at Terezin had receded — but the damage remained. The bright red interior walls of the town’s small fortress — once used as an S.S. prison — crumbled like sand when touched. Many tombstones at the National Cemetery, just outside the harrowing gates of the fortress, which sat underwater for days, need to be replaced. Throughout the town of 5,000 inhabitants — which housed 55,000 Jews at one time — water marks, some 4 feet high, scar the buildings.
Slowly, however, the walls are being fortified, the documents dried, the exhibits delicately recreated. And so goes the precarious art of restoring a former Nazi camp.
The destruction at Terezin is vast, but the floodwaters have simply accelerated what has become a problem for Nazi-era sites across the continent. Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz — these compounds weren’t built to last.
Birkenau, for example, the death factory attached to Auschwitz, built of wood and situated atop a swamp, fared poorly throughout the years; historians estimate that fewer than a quarter of the wooden buildings survive. Other camps have sustained damage from Nazis trying to erase evidence of their crimes, Allied troops aiming to diffuse epidemics, looting locals and weather.
Preservation and restoration work at camps across Europe has cost “massive amounts of money over the years,” said Warren Miller, chairman of the government-funded U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. “Many millions of dollars —just at Auschwitz alone.”
“I think there’s more interest and sensitivity being shown by many of these European governments for the preservation of these sites,” he said. “There is also more interest in the Jewish community now.”
Not everyone is happy about preserving the camps. “Continuing the work of the Nazis? It’s disgusting,” said Henryk Broder, a writer at the German magazine Der Spiegel. “It takes a sick, sick mind.”
“I discovered, by now, that they’ve spent more money on the reconstruction of Auschwitz than they did on the original site,” Broder said. “It’s totally bizarre.”
Indeed, the most prominent restoration efforts have been at Auschwitz, the largest cog in the Nazi death machine and the camp that remained the most intact after World War II. In 1989, cosmetics giant Ronald Lauder visited the camp and was appalled by the state of disrepair. “He saw that if he didn’t conserve them, the camp would disappear and give one more vote to the people who believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen,” said Marjorie Federbush, vice chairman of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
Lauder established the International Auschwitz-Birkenau Preservation Project, which has raised nearly $26 million from European governments for conservation projects. “The bottom line of our effort is that preservation methods not be intrusive,” Federbush said. “The site is so evocative because it seems untouched. In order to retain it without embellishing requires a steady hand and a restrained approach to conservation efforts.”
Yet even the most delicate touch leaves fingerprints. Of the efforts to “shore up” Birkenau’s barracks, as Federbush calls it, “it’s very distinctive what is new and what is old.” In attempt to preserve exhibitions at Auschwitz, climate-control systems were added recently. Next month, a state-of-the-art, on-site conservation center will open at Auschwitz.
“You go to Auschwitz, you see the way the barracks are built and you say, ‘Gee, this isn’t so bad,’” said Eva Fogelman, a psychologist and child of Holocaust survivors. “Yes, these places need to be preserved. But we don’t have to make mausoleums out of them. They’re trying to make palaces out of them. If we leave them barren, the way they were, that’s the message.”
At the Mauthausen memorial, multimillion-dollar preservation projects, funded by Austria’s interior ministry, are underway. “Never before has such a big investment been made at the Mauthausen site,” said Gerhard Botz, professor of history at the University of Vienna and an adviser on the project.
Next week a visitors’ center will open, which is partially an attempt to move day-to-day operations of the memorial — such as public toilets and administration offices — out of the camp and into a modern-day, off-site building.
Even camps decimated by the Nazis face unique — and expensive — preservation dilemmas. The American Jewish Committee, for example, together with the Polish government, is helping to create a memorial at the extermination camp of Belzec, which was converted into a farm in 1943. “It’s going to be an excess of $4 million,” said Miller, adding that the committee is responsible for raising half the money.
“The symbolism is important — that Americans are helping in all these places,” Miller said. “Most of the Jews of Europe are now in Israel or the U.S. We’re a nation of immigrants. We care — and especially Jewish Americans care — about our heritage.”
But American involvement leaves a bad taste in others’ mouths. “Maybe they need a place where they can travel to,” Broder quipped. A few years ago, Broder visited Auschwitz with a group of American donors, who were, he says, given the royal treatment.
“When my mother went to Auschwitz, it was under very different circumstances,” he said.
“You have an American Jewish generation that feels guilty because it didn’t do enough to save Jews at that time,” Fogelman said. “You have an American Jewish community that has no connection to Jewish culture, tradition, text. The Holocaust is an easy way to say, ‘I know something about being Jewish — I read Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night.”’ It’s an easy way to identify as a Jew; it doesn’t require much of you.”
“Somehow, when it comes to restoration, the dollar signs always go up. I’d like to see all those millions go to a free Jewish education for every child,” she said.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has contributed more than $120,000 for restoration efforts at Terezin, including $20,000 for the reconstruction of a building that today is used as an elderly housing unit — and was once the barracks housing Jews from Denmark. On Yom Hashoah, earlier this week, a special dedication ceremony was held, unveiling a plaque that commemorates the plight of the Danish Jews.
As the repair work at Terezin continues, new damages are being discovered on a regular basis, said Jan Munk, director of Terezin Memorial and president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic.
While he hopes to repair everything to its original state, “There will be no beautification,” Munk said. “Of course, if you repair the facade of a building, the first few years the facade will look new. It’s normal.”
Volunteers from the Prague Jewish community as well as German student groups have helped with the conservation efforts; a group of enthusiasts of the Trabant — a communist-era plastic car made in East Germany — from Belitz, Germany, have recently re-planted roses in the national cemetery.
“We are established as an institution which should commemorate the ghetto and the prisoners of the small fortress,” Munk said. “In those times, the fortifications and all the places looked much better than they do now. Back then, every year, work was done.”
“When you have some thousands of prisoners, you can use them,” Munk said. “Now, we have only workers. We have to pay them. The situation is much more complicated.”