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"Preserving the Ghastly Inventory of Auschwitz"

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Interesting article recently in NY Times on preserving artifacts from inmates in Auschwitz-Birkenau: should the pile of inmates hair behind showcases be preserved or allowed to turn into dust as experts say it will?

should the restored crumbling old barracks be rehabbed or allowed to crumble?

Should the horrific gas chamber ruins at Birkenau - now a moss covered pile of rubble, be preserved in a more recongizable shape?

and how to cope with a surge in visitors - 1.3 million now a year vs 1/3 that number in 2001?

should the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei ("work madkes you free") signover the entrance at Auschwitz which was vandalized and broken in pieces a few years ago - should that sign be pieced back together or not? (The article tells the decision.)

Well these condundrums are all discussed in this thought-provoking article.

A visit to Auschwitz is not for everyone - for some it is too gruesome but for me is was very sobering and one of the most thougjht-provoking things I've done in decades of European travels - you wander around the decaying camps and think "gee this did not happen that long ago and in a pseudo-Uber-civilized country such as Germany was seen to be - just 70 some years ago.

To see at Birkenau (actually there were two separate camps - Auschwitz the work camp and Birkenau the killing fields and also work camp - the most starkly disturbing things are at Brikenau - the original rail line and platforms on which not only Jews but slavs, gays, gypsies and others were unloaded like cattle and then examined as to who was fit for work (which would not set them free!) and who were sent straight away to the nearby gas chambers - the other really distrubing site at Birkenau - now just a jumple of concrete but which takes on a vivid image in your mind - seeing the horror that is was, hearing in your mind the screams of the dying and visualizing German guards just watching it all - ah the inhumanmity of it all.

I can understand that some folks on a relaxing European vacation not caring to see such a horrific place but to me it is a must for everyone in the area - or any such death camp and there are so many everywhere it seems but I have seen many and none is as stark and shocking in its scope as Birkenau.

HAVE YOU VISITEFD AUSCHWITZ -? How did it affect you?

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    Another question might be:
    Will you visit Auschwitz (or any other camp) if you are in the area?
    I've never been, but don't know if I would feel impelled/obliged/obligated to visit, or if the volume of memories (second hand or more) and history would overwhelm me.
    I think I would only know once the opportunity arose.

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    I visited Auschwitz in 1968 as a 17 y.o. It was less a museum then than an abandoned place. There was almost no posted information, so the victims were not identified with ethnic or other labels; they were just humans who had been killed by other humans. I had studied the Holocaust before my travels, but reading and seeing are not the same. The images of the artifacts, the ovens, etc., are seared in my brain almost 50 years later. It is the most memorable place I've been to anywhere in the world.

    But as to the question of whether these places should be meticulously re-constructed and preserved... Will that prevent similar episodes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc., in the future? Sadly, history has proven it doesn't. Still, I wish there was a way everyone would visit these sites to better understand what happened. You just don't get the entire picture at a purpose-built museum.

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    We have been to Auschwitz.

    As the article noted, the most moving things were not the grotesque but the mundane such the the cases filled with hair, eyeglasses, and suitcases.

    The hair should allowed to decompose, but remain in the exhibition, even when it becomes empty. It would be an abstract variation of Hannah Ardent's "banality of evil."

    On the train trip on the next day from Krakow to Prague we shared a compartment with Saul, a Holocaust survivor, and his family. He told the story of how as a seven year old boy he and his brother hid in the Polish woods for almost two years and relied on the kindness and trust of non-Jews. And then he said he too visited Auschwitz the previous day and started screaming at the tour guide who denied the Poles involvement in the Holocaust, citing the Auschwitz, as the German name as evidence.

    One of my teachers in grad school was Tom Keneally, one of the kindest men I have met who considered becoming a Catholic priest as a youth. Tom, of course, wrote Schindler's List. In the rest of the English speaking world but the United States, it is called Schindler's Ark. His American publishers were afraid that people would confuse it with Noah's ark.

    For all real deaths and the tragic ironies and for the purposes of relying history as close to the truth as it can be told, "Arbeit macht frei" should remain a concrete horrible irony, "Work makes you free."

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    I visited in 2004. I had read many books on WWII and the Holocaust, but that didn't prepare me for the experience of being there. This is what I wrote shortly afterwards:

    "The experience of visiting Auschwitz could also be described as primitive but powerful ... Some people have questioned why I went, but once I decided to visit Krakow I knew that I would visit Auschwitz - for many reasons. I went as a reporter, to describe the experience, I went as a witness, to stand with those who will never forget and I went as a mourner, to honor the dead and the survivors. It turned out that I went also to be counted, as a record is kept of the number of visitors. What if nobody went?

    We have all seen the photographs: the "Labor Makes Free" gateway, the barracks, the railway siding and selection area at Birkenau, the gas chambers and crematoria. They are all there, and they are all like the photographs. What the photos cannot show is the atmosphere that still pervades the place, where even the grass seems reluctant to grow in such tainted soil. The pain and terror are still almost tangible, the screams almost audible. Some things I learned: those chosen to "live" lasted three months on average, Birkenau is more shocking than Auschwitz because it is so much bigger, and there is a grove of trees near the outer boundary of Birkenau that I thought must be postwar, but that were where the condemned waited their turn when the gas chambers were overloaded.

    As I wrote immediately afterwards, I found the experience profoundly upsetting, much more so than I had expected. I think this was partly because of the atmosphere at the site, but also because I grew up with the comforting myth that such inhumanity could only happen "there", but I am all too aware now that that is not true. Seeing the evidence of what was done at Auschwitz makes what has happened since, in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Sudan, somehow more real, and our apparent inability to stop such horror more depressing.

    We also comfort ourselves with the idea that Hitler failed. True, the Third Reich did not last a thousand years. Europe's Jews, gypsies and homosexuals were not exterminated. But, walking around Krakow's former Jewish quarter, I realized that Judaism in Europe, at least in Eastern Europe, was in a very real sense wiped out. In 1939 30% of Krakow's population, 65,000 people, were Jewish. Now one small synagogue serves the 100 or so who remain. A thriving community with its own schools, hospitals, synagogues, cemeteries and most especially culture has disappeared. The surviving synagogues are museums, the main square is lined with tourist cafes and those old houses that are left are being pulled down to make way for posh apartments - for Christians.

    Don't misunderstand - Krakow is a charming town, with plenty of beautiful buildings, one of Europe's best squares and lots of good food. I'd be happy to return. But the ghosts at Auschwitz are very real. We should all visit. Once."

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    I will go to Auschwitz in June. It was the primary reason I decided to include Kraków on my itinerary.
    Most people I tell about the visit can't comprehend spending part of a vacation this way. For me, it's simple. I must bear witness. I must pay my respects.

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    I visited in 1995 and doing so remains among the most powerful experiences of my life.

    Several of you have captured part of what I felt, which was not unlike thursdaysd's experience, except that I had, at the time I visited, a greater confidence that the world was moving beyond genocide -- an optimism I no longer feel. Too, those who deny the Holocaust seem to me to be gaining prominence. So, from my perspective, preserving this place seems imperative. It is an extraordinary example of the efficiency with which huge numbers of people can be executed, particularly if their pre-death moments are seen merely as a resource to be tapped, insofar as it is deemed economically "beneficial" to do so.

    Before visiting, I considered myself reasonably well educated about concentration camps -- I had read a lot, seen several documentaries filmed upon their liberation, and spent many hours with Terrence Des Pres, who interviewed many of the survivors of the camps and chronicled what he learned in his book, The Survivor. Nothing prepared me for what I experienced on the ground. Nothing. I now hope I never find myself prepared to see anything like these camps. And I also feel very powerfully the need to stand as witness.

    Profoundly disturbing and profoundly moving, my visit to these camps helped me understand, in a visceral way, what Terrence communicated so powerfully: Many of the doomed in these camps knew how important it would be to preserve the record of what these camps were and what they were like for those who passed through on their ways to death. Preserving the historical record was sufficiently important to enough camp residents that they diverted resources to the chroniclers. If they -- starving and exhausted and aware of their imminent mortality (and aware of the horrific consequences that would befall not just themselves, but also others, if their efforts to ensure a written record were discovered) -- were willing to ensure that the record of their experiences survived, then surely we -- well-fed and comfortable and (it is to be hoped) never to know their agony -- can AND SHOULD honor that effort.

    And if we choose to believe it can never happen to us, well, I sincerely hope that is true.

    If you haven't read it, I wholeheartedly recommend Des Pres's The Survivor.

    [In memoriam, Terrence. You are missed.]

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    I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau last October. The problem was the hoards of people trying to get through the buildings.
    It kind of took away some of the meaning for me. But just seeing the hair and especially the suitcases with the names on them was really heartbreaking.
    I have also visited Buchenwald and Dachau on separate trips and was most moved by Buchenwald.
    I know this is morbid to some people but I have become very interested in the history of World War II and the atrocities of Hitler.

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