The word “Auschwitz” has come to mean more than just the concentration camp in Poland. It’s shorthand for the horrors of the Holocaust, and proof of man’s capacity for extreme inhumanity to man.
But nearly 70 years after the Second World War ended, there’s an ongoing debate among historians, architects and archaeologists about how to properly preserve the site of the atrocities, specifically the neighboring site Birkenau, or Auschwitz 2.
Los Angeles-based architects Eric Kahn and Russell Thomsen started developing a proposal for the site, “Thinking the Future of Auschwitz.”
Eric Kahn passed in June of this year, but Thomsen carried on, and now the fruits of their work are on display through Nov. 30 at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc).
The idea began forming about seven years ago, when Kahn and Thomsen visited Dachau, the first of the Nazi concentration camps that was opened in Germany.
“We came away from that experience feeling a kind of dissatisfaction with the way it was presented, because it was too sanitized,” Thomsen said. “It was presented in a very curated, heavily curated way. Everything was cleaned up. It was bucolic, park-like, and all the kind of horrific exhibits, photographs, etc., from that particular place, were housed in these pristinely-restored administration buildings. And it felt almost pornographic, the way that the images were so, in a way, removed from their context and presented simply as shock value.”
Kahn and Thomsen have been friends since architecture school, and ran their studio out of a warehouse in downtown L.A.’s Arts District. Between projects, they kept thinking about their experience at Dachau. Two years ago, Thomsen went to Auschwitz. The part that most visitors see – and nearly a million and a half people go there every year – is known as Auschwitz 1.
“Auschwitz 1 was originally an Austro-Hungarian army barracks that the Nazis appropriated and used as a kind of prisoner of war workers camp, initially,” Thomsen said. “And that’s a fairly permanent set of structures, that is maintained today as the Auschwitz museum. It’s where you see all the exhibitions of the hair and the shoes, and the barracks.”
Visitors enter Auschwitz 1 through the railroad tracks with those ominous words hanging over the gate, “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning “work makes you free.” Birkenau, which is sometimes referred to as Auschwitz 2, is a couple miles away. It’s the extermination camp where most of the killing happened. An estimated one million people lost their lives there. Thomsen said that he went, like many, in the hope of understanding what happened there, and more importantly, why.
“And I think what I came away from the place, was that, that kind of an answer is withheld,” Thomsen said. “As much as you want to touch the wood, and walk the grounds, it’s a kind of opaque place. And you’re left with a sense of extreme loss, but also a sense of withholding that you can’t find an easy answer to this.”
Thomsen was accompanied on the trip by his friend Michael Berenbaum, a professor at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and a leading Holocaust historian. Berenbaum said that visiting Auschwitz can’t really give you a sense of what it was like to be a prisoner there. Going there in the dead of winter, he wore a heavy coat, but he knew the prisoners had nothing but rags to protect them from the chill.
“So in one sense, whatever you see, you cannot see and whatever you understand, you cannot understand. But try we must. This is the impossible struggle,” Berenbaum said.
The Soviet-aligned government that took control of Poland after the war preserved the guard towers, barracks and barbed wire fences of Auschwitz 1 as a reminder of the evils of fascism, and all Polish school children were required to visit. Meanwhile, Birkenau, a place that was never built to last, began to fall apart.
“After the camp was liberated, when the Nazis left they dynamited and destroyed the crematoria, and then over the years, everything fell into disrepair” Thomsen said. “A lot of the wood barracks were taken away immediately after the close of the war, because of the extreme shortage of building material. So the last statistic I think I read was that 80 to 90 percent of the original camp at Birkenau is gone. It’s in ruin.”
Given that Birkenau has almost disappeared, some, including Holocaust historian Robert Jan van Pelt, have argued that once the last survivor has died, nature should be allowed to reclaim the land.
This gets to the central question of historical monuments: What can we expect to learn from a place about what happened there? What should we see when we come to a place where a terrible crime has been perpetrated?
What Thomsen and Khan came up with was this. Leave Auschwitz 1 as a museum. But in 2045, after the last survivors pass away, gather felled trees from all the countries in Europe that prisoners came from, and surround Birkenau with a barrier made of the stacked logs. Essentially, make the land impassible. Thomsen said the idea was to create a “tel olam,” a biblical term for a place whose physical past should be blotted out forever.
“The idea is not to withhold the place or to deny the place, but rather to fundamentally challenge how you see the place,” Thomsen said. “And we called it ‘blanking it.’ It wasn’t erasing it. It wasn’t destroying it. It was blanking it. And the idea there is that the void, or the emptiness of that figure, that tragic figure of the camp, would be a kind of powerful provocation that would endure, but it would also be about achieving some sort of permanence through something that is basically impermanent. Something that would ultimately decay.”
But this raises another question: can we remove memory from land, or should we? Should soil be considered an accomplice to the crime perpetrated upon it? Thomsen’s idea is controversial, and he acknowledges it probably won’t go anywhere. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the committee in charge of Auschwitz’s future seems focused on the selective preservation of the camps.
Mark Rothman was the previous Executive Director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and currently is the director of the U.S. Campaign for the Friends of Auschwitz Birkenau Foundation. The foundation has raised most of its goal of $154 million to preserve the buildings and objects at Auschwitz. That includes 45 buildings that were part of the women’s camp at Birkenau. Rothman said the goal is architectural “authenticity.”
“There’s a paradox when we talk about authenticity,” Rothman said.“The most important value is to not create something new. Because it’s essential that we have the credibility to be able to say to people, to look them in the eyes, metaphorically, and say, this is exactly what was left behind. Now to do that, we do need to reconstruct certain artifacts, in the broad sense. The buildings that are collapsing. There are ongoing preservation projects to shore up the brick walls. To re-lay foundations, because the foundations were not laid appropriately. To ensure that the wood does not suffer from dry rot. These are human interventions, but the goal is to preserve as much as possible the authenticity of the original objects.”
Michael Berenbaum, the Holocaust historian, said that his problem with Thomsen’s idea is that people need to be able to physically enter a site like Birkenau, even if it is empty.
“Remember, they’re dealing with a very peculiar thing, which is making it a tel olam means that you are in the presence of absence. The void. The unapproachable. The ineffable. The unexperienceable. Something you can’t get into,” Berenbaum said. “And it’s precisely something you can’t get into sometimes that is attractive. And sometimes it’s important. What makes it difficult for anybody to conceive of doing is, since this is a site of pilgrimage, would somebody come as pilgrims to see a site that is nothing?”
Thomsen says his interest in this project was more academic and humanitarian. But for his late partner Eric Kahn, it was more personal. Kahn was Jewish, and his father escaped the Netherlands on the Kindertransport, and took a ship to Cuba. Kahn’s grandfather was murdered at Buchenwald.
“Now that he’s passed away, I’ve contemplated whether or not to finish the work, because the work is a product of both of us in dialogue for such a long period of time,” Thomsen said. “On the other hand, I don’t think that we would want to let the work simply fade away.”
Visiting Auschwitz, of course, reveals just one small part of what happened in the Holocaust. And the Holocaust is just one small part of the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland. Yet it resulted in the deaths of about 90 percent of the 3.3 million Polish Jews.
A new museum opened just last week in Warsaw, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and just one of its eight galleries focuses on the Holocaust. The hope is that if visitors come from around the world to see Auschwitz – and they do – that they’ll also go to Warsaw and learn about the centuries of Jewish life that came before Auschwitz. Perhaps that would deepen the experience of Auschwitz even further.
The exhibit “Thinking the Future of Auschwitz” is on display at SCI-Arc through Nov. 30.