Thursday, 2 April 2009

Why Oswecim?

I was told that it is a difficult place to visit, especially in Winter. Polish name - Oswecim, in German – Auschwitz, a small town striving to remove the stamp of Nazi concentration camp and to continue everyday life behind the walls of the museum.
Inside the museum, the first image is a poster, calling for donations for the preservation of the camp, then little cafe, bookshop and post office with postcards. I was met by the conservation officer of the museum, who led me through the labyrinth of corridors to the conservation department.
In between a lengthy presentation in the conservation lab and the meeting with the museum director I had little time to see around the camp itself. It was snowing and cold and I tried to orientate thanks to the tourist groups wondering in between the barracks to see what was it - the Auschwitz Nazi Concentration Camp.
Is it worth describing the barracks, chambers, death wall, exhibitions, etc.? I felt stifled. The place was indeed depressing, so much that I got suddenly irritated, but not so much by the place itself, as by the staged presentation that pressed us, the visitors, to remember one particular moment in history, to hate one particular agressor and to pity one particualr nation. I got irritated by the well preserved wooden buildings which were not supposed to last long, but local conservationists do miracles to make them last forever in order to hand down to future generations this particular image and message.
ICOMOS recommended inscribing this site in the World Heritage List as a symbolic and the only representation of all other similar death camps that happened before and after WW2. Now that I am thinking, it sounds an excuse not to mention about all other genocides and war crimes that happen right next to us in this world. We have paid our duty - making World Heritage list representative and balanced, having one best example inscribed, otherwise if we allow having as many death camps in the list as we do the churches and palazzos, would it be just? I am afraid if recognizing that brutality and violence is as much heritage of humanity as the beautiful architecture, they might far outnumber the great art works in national inventories or in the World Heritage List.
The director of the museum told me that this particular war was a turning moment in history, this camp is a representation of the greatest crimes against humanity and that the mission of the museum is to raise awareness and sence of responsibility in visitors for all the violence that happens in the world. Such a concept of Auschwitz became known to me only thanks to the director, or may it be the tour guides also mention it? I doubt they draw parallels, or... perhaps the Nazi concentration camps are unparalleled? How do we measure the heritage "quality" of such places? By the number of dead people or innovation in human extermination methods?
It is indeed a difficult issue to think of: the conservation department of the museum is a super high tech lab capable to conserve 80 000 shoes remaining of former prisoners piece by piece, and this is only a small part of their job. The only question that came to my mind listening to nearly proud presentation was - why? Why do they turn these unfortunate remains of human history into well organized exhibition and a clean image? What matters - to spend millions for preservation of physical remains or to better preserve and promote the idea of non violence? Surely the 80 000 pieces of shoes are not impressive to many of the visitors. Even the death chambers are only a background for the photo to commemorate their visit. So then...why?


  1. polish name is Oświęcim, not Oswecim

  2. I know, my keyboard is not adapted to Polish symbols, and I didn't know how to fix it. Thanks for the comment