Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Review of the Auschwitz Museum* and Birkenau Memorial Site

(* The title alone contains a review of its own and are in fact my own words.  The attentive reader will notice that I have not called it the 'Auschwitz concentration camp memorial site'.  The reason for this should be clearly understood by a reading of this article.)

Producing an area for visitors in a former concentration camp is not easy; even more so when we are not talking about an 'average' concentration camp but Auschwitz, a place known throughout the world to be a place of immense suffering, barbarity and murder.  More than any former concentration camp Auschwitz has assumed an iconic status; becoming a symbol of the Shoah, together with the other victims of the crimes of the Nazi regime.

The needs of the visitor to former concentration/'extermination'** sites

Think about that.  What do you actually want to gain by visiting a former concentration camp, or Auschwitz, indeed?  I would guess that you would want to know about what happened there; learning about who was there as prisoners, their daily routines, their living and working conditions, their registration process.  I daresay you would also wish to know about the 'extermination' that took place there (though largely that word is better associated with Birkenau), as to what actually happened?

Perhaps you would also wish to know about resistance in the camps and the contact that members of the camps had with local people.

So far you would find your needs being fulfilled.  The exhibition contains historical artifacts (mattresses, blankets, uniforms, possessions which had been taken away from the new prisoners) and shows the visitor the barracks, toilet facilities, roll-call area and punishment block.  An official guided tour takes one through the exhibition that shows these things.  One is also shown in Auschwitz the former crematorium which also contained a gas chamber that was used for experimental purposes (leading to the death of at least 600 people).

During the tour one also receives a bit of information about resistance (especially during the tour in Birkenau where the Sinti and Roma did an upraising in the Zigeunerlager).

I daresay a visitor who had only these wishes would be satisfied with the Auschwitz museum.

It's the nature of how these wishes are satisfied, however, that I take issue with.

First of all, the obvious complaint is the mixing together of Auschwitz and Birkenau in the Auschwitz museum.  There one sees exhibitions about the gas chambers, the Zyklon B; one sees clothes, hair, glasses and artificial limbs taken from those killed in Birkenau.  It is unclear in the exhibition and therefore also in the tours whether we are hearing about/seeing things about Auschwitz or Birkenau.  A detailed look would provide a clear differentiation of both camps, but a more casual look/listening would not make that difference clear.

Now, I would like you to think about how you would like to leave the Auschwitz museum.   In addition to the previously named needs, perhaps you would slowly aware of other ones:

Trying to understand how this was possible

This requires one, in my opinion (as well as that of all concentration camp memorial sites I know in Germany) to know about the perpetrators.  Who were they?  Why did they join the SS?  Why did they do what they did?  Obviously, the first two questions are easier to answer than the last one.  However, an answer to the first two questions can provide clues.  Also, should interviews exist (as they most famously do with Rudolf Höß, former camp commander of Auschwitz, we can learn a lot more about his motivations.)

Secondly, one would need to know about the different peoples who were there.  Now, the exhibition correctly highlights the Jewish, Roma/Sinti and political prisoners who were sent to the camps.  Apart from a small poster, however, there is nothing about the gay and so-called 'asocial' prisoners.  While comprising a relatively small group, they were however numbers of the latter groups there.  No information (even on that poster) is given to criminal prisoners, something which reflects the fact that some of these were given the role of 'Kapos', a complex role that led to some carrying out abuses.  Information is however given about them during the tours.

Thirdly, one would need to know about why they were there.  Apart from one exhibition (not shown during the official tours) no information is given about anti-semitism.  Furthermore, no information is given to the nature of 'political crimes' which led to peoples' arrests (though the tours do give a few examples), an information that would be clear through a simple look at the situation in different countries between 1940 and 1945.  Antiziganism is hardly addressed.  Of course, no information is given to homophobia (largely against men) and prejudice against people classed as being 'asocial'.

A greater understanding of how this was possible would also be possible through looking at the stories of individuals.  While the showing in the 'Sauna' exhibition in Birkenau of biographies of Jewish victims are to be welcomed, a visitor to the Auschwitz museum would however not see them (in fact, that one sees the 'Sauna' exhibition having already been in the Auschwitz museum and Birkenau memorial site decreases, in my opinion, the likely impact of the personalisation of history).

Now, it can be said that places like the Topography of Terror in Berlin (where I used to work) are the correct places to look at the perpetrators, as such places are primarilly associated not with victims but with perpetrators, and that former concentration/'extermination' camps are places to focus on the victims.  However, as I know from concentration camp memorial sites in Germany a small focus on the perpetrators is necessary in order to try to understand how it was possible.

An emotional Disneyland

Now, there may be some visitors who want, to put it bluntly, to cry, or at the least to feel very sad and/or shocked.  For some (say, for relatives of those who died there) this may be cathartic.  For others it may be because of a societal pressure to show emotion, say, for some German people who are told by their teachers to feel guilty, or some Israeli people who are told to focus on their victimhood (as some Israelis have told me), or some emotion-starved British people searching for 'emoting'.

Whatever the needs of the visitor, the aim of the exhibition is very plainly to shock and upset people.  Think about that.  You may think that that is not a bad thing, or may even consider this to be a good thing.  Let's get a bit deeper in that:

Massive photos of naked emaciated women and children, or dead bodies

I saw some photos that are difficult to look at: A Belgian Jewish women sits on a bed after the liberation looking at the camera, weighing about 35kg.  Four Roma children with bones showing all over the place.  What is the aim of these photos?  Purely to shock

Now, one may consider that to be a good thing.  Certainly, it is the case that other concentration camp memorial sites used to use such tactics, often at the behest of survivors themselves (though not directly from the survivors portrayed in the photos!)  They wanted to let people know what happened.  However, this is a abuse of the victims as it involves using their bodies in order to provoke an emotional reaction.  Doing this is actually a form of dehumisation; they are not used as human beings with their own personalities and biographies, rather they are used purely as shock material.  Where photos of dead bodies are used, it is the fact that these human beings used in the photos have no say in how they are to be used.

With such photos the pictures in the head can remain, but it is purely an emotional reaction, not a reaction that can lead to deeper reflection.  Any reflection would only go so far as 'The Nazis were bad people'.  Such a reaction abdicates all form of personal responsibility for evil and transfers it onto a historical group of people.

Now, I am not arguing against emotion in such places.  It is a completely human reaction to be emotionally affected by such places.  My issue is with the deliberate use of photos in order to produce an emotional reaction.  In tours elsewhere I have seen the work of the Einsatzgruppen, say, described  and have seen groups often get shocked and sad.  This is however a by-product of learning, not the main aim in itself.  A good exhibition and tour guide will enable people to use their intelligence in order to come to understanding; their emotions may stir or result from such understanding.

For me, a concept for exhibitions in former concentration and 'extermination'** camps is to:

(a) Show respect to the victims
(b) Teach about what happened there
(c) Help to understand why the events took place
(d) Challenge the visitor as to current structures of prejudice, discrimination and human rights abuses

Now, the latter point can lead to political propaganda (and, indeed, anti-semitism).  However, a careful memorial site and tour can enable people to be critical of the 'we-groups' that they belong to, in other words to be self-critical, such as when you think the Nazis are bad but you are racist against Roma; you are against anti-semitism but look down on homeless people, and so on.

Effectively, the approach of some visitors to former concentration camps and, seemingly, the Auschwitz museum is that of an 'emotional Disneyland': One goes there in order to feel bad, and nothing more.  Such a bad feeling is perversely something that makes one feel good, as for some time you felt emotion and better than the 'bad people', in this case the Nazis.  That we could also be guilty of such crimes doesn't enter ones imagination.

In any case, the use of 'shock education' is counter-productive, as it often leads to a rejection of engaging with the theme.

As it is, beyond the emotional shocking of people, it appears that there is no concept behind the Auschwitz exhibition.  This is made clearer through the tours.

Freedom for the tour guides

To be fair, producing a memorial site to make all people happy is impossible.  People have diverse needs (though I would argue that not all needs are right).  To add to the situation is the huge amount of visitors to Auschwitz, an amount that makes it hard for people to reflect upon and take their time to consider the information given.

It seems that the tour guides have to follow a set tour.  While enabling all visitors to receive a basic view it does not take into account that diversity of the groups coming (say, I was there with people who work in concentration camp memorial sites and we were told things that were totally obvious to us).  Such is the post-communist-statist-rule in Poland that a one-size-fits-all form of pedagogy rules.

That this one tour has no concept and throws all manner of information at the visitor in an unstructured form (say, the guide wanders from the induction of new prisoners to the building of the camp in 1940 to the deportation of Czech Jewish people in 1944 within five minutes) makes it harder to actually learn anything there.  I have been on two tours there and can hardly remember anything I was told.

Defense of the museum

To be fair, the more modern exhibitions within the complex do use photos in a more subtle and more pedagogical way, enabling the visitor to try to engage oneself with more than ones emotions.  The 'shock method' of education was used in German memorial sites up until the 1990's, and from looking at the more modern exhibitions I expect this method to become a thing of the past.  (Saying that, if they go down the route of the Schlinder Factory museum in Kraków (opened in 2010) the use of emotional manipulation may continue, though in a more restrained manner).

In saying this I am aware that the words of this article may be difficult to read for Polish guides or museum staff.  I do not come from Poland, and am talking from the perspective of someone who has worked in various concentration camp memorial sites and museums that deal with the Nazi past in Germany.  My experience is that Polish people will feel that they are looked-down upon when criticism comes from western countries (maybe not just from the west).  The fact remains that my complaints would also, I daresay, be aimed against former concentration camps in other central and eastern European countries.  At least, unlike Maly Trostenets, something more than a small memorial has been done with Auschwitz.  As it is, Poland is much more of a culturally hierarchal country than countries in the west of Europe and therefore individual guides and even museums leaders have less space in which to move in.  I am here advocating a cultural change, not just the change of one museum.

Why 'museum' and not 'memorial site'?

I was with a group in the Auschwitz museum last week and many said afterwards something that crystilised thinking in my head: That of the difference between a museum and a memorial site.  This difference is not clear in the Polish language, as the word 'memorial site' doesn't translate into Polish and it called 'Muzeum'.  (The English website of the place calls it the 'Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, something which does not in fact indicate whether both places are the 'Memorial and Museum', or whether only Birkenau is.  In any case, the word 'Memorial' is the wrong translation, in that 'memorial' in concentration camp education usage means a monument, i.e. one specific structure often taking the form of a statue, plaque or symbol).

While my accusation of emotional manipulation may not tally with the word 'museum', I believe that the place is not 'memorial site'.  A memorial site is a place where people can reflect on and pay respect to the victims of human rights abuses.  While the exhibition in Auschwitz may be good in stirring up emotions, it provides not outlet for them; no real place where one can at least look at a memorial and reflect.  Of course, a lot of concentration camp memorial sites have memorials that are politically motivated, but in any case at least a clear open space is provided for consideration about at least the theme of remembrance.  Certainly, a small memorial space exists in Auschwitz in the former execution yard, but the place hardly lends itself towards reflection for me due to its closed off space.

The Birkenau memorials site however is more more open to reflection, due to the big memorial by the former gas chambers, but also due to its bigger and much more open space.


Not that I expect the right people to read this article, but anyway here are my recommendations for the re-making of the Auschwitz site:
• Arrange the exhibition so that the part on Birkenau is either in Birkenau, or (more likely due to technological factors) is towards the end of the Auschwitz space/tour, so that the difference between Auschwitz and Birkenau is clearer
• Minimise the use of shocking photos.  This can be done by using less, making them smaller and using more of my next recommenodation.
• Utilise biographies.  Give biographical details with things like photos of them as children (and not just as used by Nazis) and in the time before (and when appropriate, after) their time in Auschwitz.  When one can use interview videos.
• Contain information as to anti-semitism, Ziganophobia, homophobia, prejudice against those labelled as 'Asocial' and the political situations in Germany and occupied countries
• Give a bit of information about the perpetrators, with biographies and a brief analysis of their motivations.
• The tours should contain a discussion as to the 'why'?
• Enable tour guides to devise their own concept together with trained pedagogical leaders and do their own tours
• Such a concept can be this: Enabling the visitor to learn about the events between 1940 and 1945 in Auschwitz and then Birkenau, showing how things changed during that time; enabling the visitor to see both the Polish and well as international context of the camps; enabling the visitor to learn about the Shoah; enabling the visitor to learn about the genocide on Roma and Sinti people; enabling the visitor to learn about other victim groups; in each of these ways history is to be presented as personal (thus the use of biographies); through careful reflection the issue of 'why?' is to be addressed.
• Tour guides should be able to adapt their tours to different groups (this will also help with space issues)
• Have more parts of the exhibition outside in order to give more space to the exhibitions inside
• Introduce a space to show how the exhibition has changed, with an explanation of why that changed as happened (thus also dealing with national/communist myths of history
• Introduce a piece on Holocaust denial, thus enabling the visitor to be able to counteract with facts.  This can at the very least facilitated through an indication of the sources used for information.
• Introduce a memorial space, possibly by the crematorium, where flowers, rocks and candles can be lain (though not crosses!); together with a memorial

** I put the word 'extermination' in inverted commas due to its being Nazi racist terminology comparing Jews with vermin.

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