Friday, July 31, 2015

WWII 70 years later: Preserving the truth at Auschwitz

Among the artifacts at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, at the site of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps of World War II, are 110,000 shoes, 3,800 suitcases, 246 tallits (Jewish prayer shawls), 8,000 letters from prisoners and reams of documents from the SS, Adolf Hitler’s terrifying paramilitary force.

The sheer size of the archive that documents how 1.1 million people perished there during the Holocaust forces the museum’s keepers to at least try to distance themselves emotionally from their work.

“We usually treat these buildings or blocks just like we would treat any other preservation objects,” says Agnieszka Tanistra, acting head of the museum’s preservation department. “It’s a job to be done.”

Yet even seven decades after the camps were liberated by Soviet troops, it’s still impossible to fully maintain that distance.

Within the worldwide community of Holocaust scholars, some wonder whether the preservation efforts are worth it. At great expense and effort, the museum has transformed a horrible place into a popular tourist destination. They question whether visitors can understand the depth of the suffering that occurred there.

“Is there a case for abandoning the site and letting nature take its course?” says Robert Jan Van Pelt, an architectural historian and Holocaust scholar at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “There is, and there isn’t. I continue to argue with myself on that.”

Museum officials believe the effort to remember is what matters. As the last survivors of Auschwitz and Birkenau die, the museum recounts their experiences for the tens of thousands of visitors who pass through the camps every week.

WWII 70 years later: Preserving the truth at Auschwitz

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