Jewish Journal

Preserving Auschwitz?

by Ryan E. Smith

Posted on Jan. 30, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Railroad tracks go through the main gate of the Birkenau death camp.  Photo by Angelo Celedon/Wikipedia

Railroad tracks go through the main gate of the Birkenau death camp. Photo by Angelo Celedon/Wikipedia

For many, the everlasting power of Auschwitz is understood only by visiting the infamous death camp and walking the grounds where more than 1 million people were killed during the Holocaust.

The problem, according to two local architects, is in assuming the camp itself will be everlasting. As survivors continue to die and the camp’s structures continue to decay, there remains the question of how and what to preserve of Auschwitz, and how visitors — currently more than 1 million annually — will interact with the site in the years and centuries to come. 

During a panel discussion at American Jewish University (AJU) on Jan. 27 — International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the date the camp was liberated in 1945 — architects Eric Kahn and Russell Thomsen of IDEA Office in downtown Los Angeles offered a radically different vision for Auschwitz from the one visitors experience today.

Their suggestion? Leave the small, well-known base camp (Auschwitz I) — the one with the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gate and unforgettable exhibits — as it is, but build a wooden barricade around the ruins of Birkenau (Auschwitz II), the giant, satellite extermination camp located about two miles away. Then allow the latter’s decay and reforestation to take place unimpeded. Unable to see through the wall or enter the site where most of Auschwitz’s Jews were killed, visitors would be forced to find a new way to confront what happened there.

“The material used to build the camp was never meant to last,” Kahn explained. “We’re trying to build a long view for an idea about how the camp endures, and it’s not based on permanence; it’s based on impermanence.”

There have been various philosophies about how to deal with the future of Auschwitz, which was operated by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945 and which is now maintained by the Polish government. Some support preserving the existing remnants of Birkenau — the train track leading through the main gate, the degrading barracks and the rubble of gas chambers and crematoria — even advocate for reconstructing parts. Others think it more appropriate to let the camp deteriorate into nothingness.

“We want to find a way of marking the camp in perpetuity so that it’s not something that can be forgotten. By actually marking it, we could develop new forms of remembrance and new forms of witnessing,” Kahn said.

Their solution is particularly rooted in Judaism, he said, citing for inspiration the biblical concept of a tel olam (Deuteronomy 13:17).

“It talks about a place where such eminent evil has occurred, God commands us to turn it into an eternal heap, an eternal mound, a perpetual ruin,” he said.

In practical terms, the pair’s idea would be for the perimeter wall to be built in 2045 — 100 years after the camp’s liberation — and for it to be constructed in such a way that it eventually succumbs to natural elements itself and forces future generations to re-engage with the issue.

With plans still conceptual and no commission to act on them, their idea is a labor of love that began years ago when they traveled together in Europe. For Kahn, a Reconstructionist Jew who lives in the Mid-Wilshire area, it’s personal: His father escaped, thanks to the Kindertransport, and his grandfather was killed at the Buchenwald concentration camp.


From left: Los Angeles-area architects Eric Kahn and Russell Thomsen. Photo by Ryan E. Smith

At AJU on Sunday, the proposal was described by some in the audience of about 50 people as ingenious, while others saw it as unsettling — and some expressed both in the same stream of thought.

When asked about how barring access to the site of one of history’s most heinous crimes might bolster Holocaust deniers, Kahn pointed to the many other venues around the world, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that offer proof of what happened in other ways and formats.

But Thomsen, a Pasadena resident who is not Jewish, admitted, “It’s something that we’ve been grappling with.”

Many in the audience struggled against the idea of not being able to visit the site firsthand, indicating that nothing can compare as one attempts to comprehend the magnitude of what happened in the Holocaust. Others urged that preservation efforts for what remains must be paramount.

Kahn responded, “What we’re trying to imagine is a day when the evidence of those buildings is not there and can no longer be conserved.

“That day is not today,” he continued. “We understand that that day will come.”

The panel discussion was presented by the Sigi Ziering Institute at AJU. It featured Michael Berenbaum, director of the institute and an AJU professor of Jewish studies, as well as Jeffrey Kipnis, architecture professor at Ohio State University, and Mark Smith, a local architect and historian.

Berenbaum, who was project director of the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, called the architects’ plans “enormously intriguing — wrong, but intriguing.”

He offered some of his own ideas about how to deal with the camp, including creating infrastructure for visitors — parking lots, bathrooms, dining facilities — at a neutral location away from Auschwitz I, which receives the bulk of travelers and is sacred to Poles. That, he said, would encourage more people to visit Birkenau, which he called the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. 

Berenbaum’s other suggestions included integrating recorded histories of survivors at the site, and returning artifacts to Birkenau that have migrated to exhibits at the base camp.

“The most powerful things at Auschwitz I come from Birkenau,” he said. “The things you remember, the things that send chills up and down your spine — the shoes, the hair the suitcases, [and other items] — all of this is material that was taken from Auschwitz II and brought to Auschwitz I.”

Paula Lebovics, an Auschwitz survivor present at the discussion, said she had been  liberated from the camp 68 years ago to the day. The 79-year-old Encino resident was 11 at the time. She stressed the importance of preserving something from the actual site.

“I think they have to keep something — [even] if it’s the brick from the chimneys … — and preserve voices,” she said.

For now, though, Lebovics has something more to offer: her own story.

“I’m here,” she told the audience. “My time wasn’t up.”

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