Saving a Memorial The Immense Challenge of Preserving Auschwitz

Conservators at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial are doing all they can to preserve artifacts left behind by those murdered at the camp in the Holocaust. Structures, too, need refurbishment. But the goal of authenticity is a difficult one to reach.

Sven Doering/ DER SPIEGEL

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If you walk into the Conservation Laboratories at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, the earnestness of those working here immediately becomes apparent. Conservators in white lab coats are examining ripped and battered suitcases lying on a brightly lit white table. It is completely silent in the room, but for the soft scratching of brushes, erasers and scrapers used to clean the relics of the largest genocide ever seen in human history.

Restorers generally learn their trade working on valuable works of art from past epochs, baroque ceiling frescoes or stone sculptures from the Middle Ages. The fact that they are focusing their attentions on old suitcases here at Auschwitz is the product of historical-political dogma: Not a single piece of evidence left behind by the victims or the perpetrators of the Holocaust should be sacrificed to entropy.

"Nothing lasts forever, of course" says Margrit Bormann, 38, a German conservator who works in the Conservation Laboratories. But it is at least possible, she says, to "slow down" the decay. She, too, is currently busy with a suitcase once brought to Auschwitz because it's owner thought it would be possible to wear one's own clothes in the camp. But every new arrival to the concentration camp was forced to immediately hand over their luggage, the contents of which were seized by the SS.

In the museum's storage areas and display rooms, there are some 3,800 suitcases, along with 5,000 toothbrushes and 110,000 shoes and shoe remnants. There are also mountains of human hair, prosthetic limbs, eyeglasses and other things left behind by the prisoners. It all amounts to a huge number of artifacts given the museum's storage capacity -- but relative to the vast number of victims, it isn't much. Around 1.1 million people, including 1 million Jews, were murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp.

Bormann has sponged off the varnish that her predecessors applied in the 1970s to protect the suitcase. "Today, we know that this coating accelerates the decay of the material beneath," she explains, "regardless whether it is leather, cardboard or plastic." When she opened the suitcase, though, a tiny piece of paper tore off from the lining. She carefully glued it back on, diligently adding a note to the object's corresponding file.

Material Evidence

"Our iron rule is: Conserve but don't repair," Bormann says. In other words, even if the suitcase is badly damaged, nothing would be more reprehensible than obliterating such material evidence of the Holocaust.

The administration of the State Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, as the memorial site is officially known, has indeed obligated its 400 employees to pursue a clear goal: "To preserve authenticity." That is the demand made by lead conservator Rafal Pióro, 44, and it also appears in many of the museum's printed materials.

There are good reasons for the creed. The Auschwitz memorial must maintain authenticity because only relics whose genuineness is not questioned can immunize the Holocaust against doubt and denial. The further into the past the genocide fades, the greater is the danger of relativization and repudiation. Authenticity is a shield.

But as simple as it might sound, protecting authenticity isn't easy. Jan. 27 will mark the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the camp complex Auschwitz I and Birkenau and the condition of many of the buildings and artifacts continues to worsen -- and the effort needed to maintain them grows ever greater. The two camps sprawl across an area of 191 hectares (472 acres) and include 155 buildings, 300 ruins, around two kilometers of train tracks and almost 11 kilometers of roads and pathways. It is almost impossible to conserve all of that without interfering with the original substance.

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The dilemma becomes particularly apparent with the almost 14 kilometers of barbed-wire. The image of the electrified, barbed-wire fence has become a powerful symbol of the Auschwitz death camp. But the wire that modern-day visitors see is from the hardware store: It has had to be replaced on several occasions.

And the wood that is exposed to the elements decays as well. The signs, for example, that warn against approaching the (no-longer electrified) fences are clearly replicas. The stenciled letters reading "Halt! Stój!" and the skull and crossbones are quite fresh. Here, too, it was not possible to maintain authenticity.

Misguided Decisions

The famous sign reading "Arbeit macht frei" ("work sets you free") at the entrance to the Auschwitz I main camp, the so-called "Stammlager," has likewise been replaced. After the original sign was stolen on behalf of a Swedish neo-Nazi in December 2009, the memorial site erected a copy. The original, which had been sawed into three pieces, reappeared a short time later, but it was not put back up after being restored for reasons of security.

Other changes to the camp's historical inventory were the product of misguided decisions made decades ago that can no longer be reversed. When former prisoners established the memorial site in summer 1947, Auschwitz I was made smaller than it had actually been. Many buildings neighboring the memorial, some of which are badly deteriorated while others are being used for different purposes, used to be part of the camp complex.

The first gas chamber on the perimeter of the site, a structure that had been demolished by the Nazis, was partly rebuilt by the founders of the museum. They built a new chimney, installed hatches in the ceiling for the introduction of gas canisters and rebuilt two of the three crematorium ovens using original pieces.

The so-called Black Wall where SS henchmen executed thousands of prisoners was also re-erected after the war, but at least a sign posted at the site notes that it is a replica.

In the main camp, there stood -- and still stand today -- 31 buildings, most of them two-story structures, which served as barracks for Polish troops prior to the war before being transformed into a concentration camp by the Germans. Initially, Poles made up the majority of the prisoners locked up here, at the mercy of Nazi terror. As such, it made sense for the young Polish People's Republic to use the site as the center of the new museum instead of establishing it in Birkenau, the focal point of the mass murder, where there was no suitable structure anyway.

Still, relics from the mostly Jewish victims found in Birkenau, which is located three kilometers away from Auschwitz I, were brought to the main camp and put on display in Block 5. Other buildings in which prisoners had been housed until 1945 were likewise repurposed: Individual countries like Belgium, France and the Netherlands are able to commemorate their victims in these structures. The building where the Conservation Laboratories and other workshops are located was once used as the reception area for newly arrived prisoners.

A Hybrid

It is, of course, easy to recognize the main camp's original purpose of housing and punishing the prisoners. The exhibit in the so-called death block primarily documents the martyrdom of the Polish captives. Two additional blocks were restored at great effort just a few years ago. Conservators went to extreme lengths to keep interference with the original building fabric to a minimum, despite the need to install underfloor heating to protect the buildings from dampness and temperature fluctuations.

Nevertheless, the former main camp of Auschwitz I feels a bit like a hybrid. It is both a memorial site and a museum. Visitors to the site can see the places where prisoners suffered and were tortured, but they also pass through rooms with explanatory plaques and artifacts. In the same buildings where prisoners once languished, art exhibits are held displaying works of former inmates. It may be both sensible and pragmatic, but it doesn't live up to the site's pretense of authenticity.

This approach to the historical heritage is not limited to Auschwitz. Portions of the camp complex at Buchenwald or Neuengamme are also used for exhibits -- a solution that is often the result of financial considerations given the expense associated with the construction of new museum buildings. There was no way that socialist Poland could afford such a luxury in the years following the end of World War II.

At the time, though, there was a wide variety of ideas regarding what should be done with Auschwitz I and Birkenau. Some wanted to simply bulldoze both sites and cover up the ugly history of the place. Others argued that the buildings and facilities should be left to slowly decay. In 2009, the Dutch architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt proposed closing the memorial site following the death of the last survivor. "It might be that ... the best way to honor those who were murdered in the camp and those who survived is by sealing it from the world, allowing grass, roots and brambles to cover, undermine and finally efface that most unnatural creation of man," he said in an interview with the BBC.

'Great Deal of Work'

But van Pelt's view was not adopted. That same year, in 2009, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was established and funded with €120 million from an international alliance of countries and institutions to ensure the memorial's long-term survival. The German federal government and the German states provided half of that total.

Since then, the most urgent repairs are taken care of using foundation money. "We try to conserve as much of the historical material as possible," says Agnieszka Tanistra-Rózanowska, who holds the title "head of the master plan for preservation." Her office is right next to the Conservation Laboratories in the former reception building and she, too, is dedicated to the principle of preserving authenticity. "As a matter of principle, we don't add anything new," the conservator says, before going on to admit that it is a principle that sometimes leads to "a great deal of work."

Tanistra-Rózanowska was faced with a particularly challenging task when it came to the large Crematoria II and III in Birkenau, both of which were blown up by the Nazis shortly before the camp was abandoned. The loamy soil was threatening to fill in the remaining cavities of the underground facilities. Ultimately, a subterranean cement palisade, invisible to visitors, were built for Crematorium III to protect it -- a great deal of effort to shield this manifestation of human cruelty from definitive demise.

The situation in the Birkenau camp is particularly precarious, says Tanistra-Rózanowska. In contrast to the main camp, there are no solid brick buildings at Birkenau, just wooden barracks and low stone buildings built by Soviet prisoners of war starting in October 1941. Construction had to go quickly, and the resulting structures reflect the builders' lack of experience. In some cases, the conservator says, the brick walls don't even align with the pre-laid foundations.

The result can be seen today: The entire section, which housed the women's camp until liberation, is in danger of complete deterioration. The walls of the 45 brick barracks, built on soft soil, are slowly but surely succumbing to the weight of their tiled roofs and many of the external walls have had to be propped up with wooden supports.

Sturdier and More Windproof

Currently, two particularly imperiled structures are hidden beneath large, white tent-like structures and visitors are not allowed inside. With the help of modern-day construction chemistry, everything is being done behind the protective curtains to stop the deterioration of the former prisoner quarters.

The restoration adheres to the "minimally invasive" principle followed by the conservators according to which the original materials are changed as little as possible. But the result is something of a paradox: The post-restauration brick buildings are sturdier and more winterproof than ever before. Whereas the prisoners were forced to sleep under leaky tile roofs through which the wind whistled and the rainwater dripped, everything is now being sealed. Otherwise, restauration efforts would be for naught.

The result is that visitors to the camp see an improved version of the miserable reality. But what is the alternative?

"We conservators always want to preserve things," says Tanistra-Rózanowska. She says she can understand people like van Pelt and other experts who call for the site to be left to decay, but she disagrees. Essentially, it is a "philosophical question," she says. "We humans are material beings. As such, material things ultimately strike a chord with us more than ideal concepts. Visitors need material things to understand what happened here."

If that is the maxim being pursued, however, then the term "authenticity" must be approached with care. It looks as though decay can ultimately only be stopped if many elements of the facilities that are decaying are no longer completely authentic.

The wooden barracks in Birkenau illustrate this problem even more clearly than the brick buildings in the former women's camp. Up to 700 people were crammed into each of the barracks, most of which were erected according to plans for horse stalls.

A Bit of Rubble

More than 200 wooden structures survived the war, but by 1946, all that was left behind was a bit of rubble, out of which 22 barracks were newly assembled. The other wood buildings had either been sold off by the Polish administration or torn down by plunderers. None of the wooden barracks that stand in Birkenau today are in their original condition.

In the years between 2007 to 2013, five of the wooden barracks were once again stripped down to their foundations. The ground was sealed to protect against dampness, rotting planks were replaced and other defects repaired. The primary focus was that of stabilizing the load-bearing beams and planks. In doing so, the conservator responsible for the project allows, "decisions had to be based on a compromise between the dictates of conservation and structural integrity."

Architects use the term "critical reconstruction" when discussing such projects, a method used, for example, to restore the Alte Pinakothek art museum in Munich after the war or, later, the Neues Museum in Berlin. An important part of the concept involves making replacement parts visible and not laminating or otherwise treating them to look like the original surrounding materials.

If you walk by the long row of wooden barracks in Birkenau today, you can tell if a building has already been refurbished by the brighter color of the wood -- assuming you already know that such work has taken place here. There are no signs explaining the preservation efforts.

The conservators were also forced to find a compromise with the museum educators. At times, the desire for authenticity is at odds with the desire to convey history as illustratively as possible. One result of this conflict can be seen at the Birkenau unloading platform, where a large freight car stands, having only been placed there in 2009. Whether the car was actually once used to transport Holocaust victims is unknown -- indeed, it is rather unlikely. It is there for symbolic reasons and primarily serves as a selfie backdrop for younger visitors.

New Educational Approach

Two additional freight cars, also of unknown provenance, can be found at the first unloading ramp that was used until May 1944 and is located about one kilometer outside the camp. The cars are even carefully cleaned by memorial site interns dressed in white overalls.

"Today, we use other methods to transmit our knowledge," says Andrzej Kacorzyk, 55, the deputy head of the museum and head of the memorial site's education center. He uses an example to illustrate what he means: "We no longer explain the history of the camp in all its details at Birkenau, rather we lead visitors along the historical path from the gate across the unloading ramps to the gas chambers."

The new educational approach focuses more on a sensory experience, but it is also consistent with changing realities. "Twenty years ago, there were still plenty of survivors," says Kacorzyk. "Today, the material artifacts are decisive for a visit to the site."

Kacorzyk heads up the educational program from his office at the edge of the former main camp. There, in the building that once served as the concentration camp's SS administration headquarters, museum workers are working on new concepts and ideas for coming generations.

In the last 20 years, the number of people visiting Auschwitz has increased by a factor of five, from 400,000 to 2.2 million per year. On some days, the number of tour groups is so huge that entrance to the camp must be regulated. "As a rule, we don't allow more than 1,000 new visitors per hour," says the deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

Kacorzyk's colleagues are primarily focused on reaching young people and the Auschwitz memorial is present on all significant social media channels. Furthermore, a new exhibition of artifacts from Birkenau is currently being developed. In 2022, it will replace the old, somewhat dusty presentation assembled in the 1950s.

This new exhibit may also fall short of the lofty goal of authenticity. But what is undisputed is the impressive earnestness and professionalism with which Andrzej Kacorzyk, Agnieszka Tanistra-Rózanowska, Margrit Bormann and all the other memorial workers address the immense challenges of their daily work.

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