Save Auschwitz, or Leave it to Rot?

ByRichard Gizbert

OSWIECIM, Poland, Nov. 24, 2002 — -- Ernst Michel, prisoner number 104955 to the Nazis, spent almost two years at the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, where more than a million people died. His crime? Being a Jew in Adolph Hitler's Germany.

An American now, Michel has helped raise millions to preserve a collapsing, decaying place in a remote corner of southern Poland that still haunts him.

"I am not in favor of beautifying the camp," he said. "I'm not in favor of putting flowers there. Leave it the way it is, but preserve it."

However, at a time when most of the direct witnesses to the Holocaust are dying off, and as decay sets in at the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, some wonder if anything should be preserved at all.

"It is best probably to allow the site to fall apart and to say, 'There's no way we really can imagine what happened there. There's no way we can make it, possible to imagine what happened there,'" said Robert Jan van Pelt, a prominent architectural historian who likens Auschwitz to a nuclear bomb site.

Over the years, the wooden beams propping up the barracks at Auschwitz have grown tired and worn. The gas chambers and crematoria that the Nazis dynamited upon fleeing have collapsed further. Shoes and hair of the camp's victims are rotting.

"Ultimately, if you want to in some way enter that world, do it through a book," van Pelt said. "Also, accept that in some way this event and this place somewhat transcends our possibilities to imagine what happened there. And say, 'OK, let's seal it off, as the Jewish tradition calls it, [as] a cursed place,' and say, 'We can approach it but we cannot enter it any more.'"

That doesn't sit well with Bogoslav Sicinska, a former inmate. He understands that time and half a million tourists a year take their toll. But at the very least he wants some of the evidence saved, like the crematoria.

"I believe this place should be handed down from generation to generation, so that in the future, no nation — I would stress, no nation — should repeat this," Sicinska said through a translator.

"I must tell you that for the first 15 years, I was afraid to come here to this camp," he said. "I was afraid I would have a heart attack. I could still smell the crematorium in my sleep. Now, without the blood, without the prisoners, without the SS men, it's a still life. It is a history."

In 1947, Poland passed a law declaring Auschwitz had to be preserved forever. But in the almost half century that Poland lived under communism, it lacked the means to do the job. These days, an international committee raises money for some of the repair work.

Fading even more quickly than the beams, bricks and mortar are the artifacts the Poles preserved. The former barracks, known as building No. 4, displays the thousands of shoes the prisoners wore — a display that leaves its mark on visitors because it is so personal. But the shoes are looking less and less familiar.

"The shoes are so old and they are so nasty that none of us has ever actually had such a shoe, has ever seen such a shoe," van Pelt said. "So you don't anymore relate the shoe to the victim, the person who was wearing the shoe in 1942 to '44 when they arrived in the camp. But you basically look at it and you're revolted by the state of preservation. And so, you maybe also would say that maybe at a certain moment it becomes time to bury the shoes too, or just to dispose of it."

More harrowing are displays in the same building of the hair shorn from women's heads. It was to be used in German mattress and textile factories. That hair is slowly beginning to decompose.

"It's not just a technical issue — should we wash it, should we conserve it, should we bring back its color or shine?" said Krystyna Olesky, deputy director of the Auschwitz Museum, through a translator. "Conservation experts say that this might be possible. It's just a question of, do we want to do it?"

The Auschwitz people see today is not quite the place prisoners remember, and not because their memories are failing. Auschwitz was more barren then, not much grass, few trees, and buildings have been altered. Where prisoners' clothes were disinfected, glass was laid to preserve the original floor and a new roof was built.

These places were not designed to last. Auschwitz and Birkenau were built to do the job of killing. The Germans planned to destroy the evidence and then move on.

But it didn't turn out that way, and that which remains presents the dilemma, such as what to do with the crematoria and gas chambers. Some have suggested building a structure around them to protect from the elements and prevent further damage.

Historians are wary of crossing the line between preservation and reconstruction because no one wants this place rebuilt. One of the dangers of too much reconstruction is that Holocaust deniers might seize upon it and argue that reconstruction is evidence that the Holocaust never happened in the first place.

Nevertheless, there are preservation efforts underway.

On a hot summer afternoon, construction workers proceeded quietly, methodically and carefully to take apart fence posts, strengthen the wires and put them back together again — one man, one post, from start to finish.

"There are ashes scattered of people who died here," said Leszek Godlewski, a supervisor on the reconstruction project. "These posts are in fact witnesses to the events which took place here."

Many different nationalities are tied to the horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place the Germans built, the Poles were forced to accept, the Soviets liberated and legions of victims — Jewish, Gypsy, Polish, Slav, Russian — lost their lives.

"We are on an international cemetery," said Bronislaw Cembalia, a technical supervisor on the preservation project. "People from all around the world died here. But in order to underline the size and tragic nature of this site, we feel we should repair and revert it to its original state."

"Should it be allowed to rot?" one worker said. "No. It's a monument. It's a monument to extermination and people should be able to remember so that the same thing never happens again."

But even something as simple as restoring the fence posts amounts to a complicated decision at a place like Auschwitz. It took several years for the idea to be approved.

"I would say it's the most emotional place on earth," Olesky said. "People come here with their expectations, with their imaginations, with their deep emotions. They have a right to do this, but these emotions are very divergent at times. How should you preserve this place?"

Ernst Michel, the American attempting to preserve Auschwitz, last visited there two years ago. His family videotaped what he said would be his last visit.

"I wanted to come here as a memory of, really of who I am," Michel told his family on the tape. "That I survived it, I still do not understand it. That I can stay here at this place and talk to you is something that I will never, never fully understand."

When he is dead and gone, Michel says, he wants others to see what he showed his children and grandchildren.

"This is the reason why I believe whatever happens in Auschwitz, it should be kept the way it is," Michel said. "I will want to be sure that the story of what happened to us in the middle of the 20th century will remain and will not be forgotten. So that the hundreds of thousands of visitors, who are coming from all over the world, will see what happened — in this place, in our time."

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