Reminder at the edge of Track 17, Grunewald Station, Berlin
On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, two experts on Auschwitz argue for and against the idea that the former Nazi death camp should be allowed to crumble away.
ROBERT JAN VAN PELT, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR
Many Auschwitz survivors have told me that a visit to the camp can teach little to those who were not imprisoned there.
Their view is best summarised in the text of Alain Resnais’ celebrated movie Night and Fog (1955), written by the camp survivor Jean Cayrol. As the camera pans across the empty barracks, the narrator warns the viewer that these remains do not reveal the wartime reality of “endless, uninterrupted fear”. The barracks offer no more than “the shell, the shadow”.
Should the world marshal enormous resources to preserve empty shells and faint shadows?
WLADYSLAW BARTOSZEWSKI, CHAIRMAN OF THE INTERNATIONAL AUSCHWITZ COUNCIL
The only people with a full and undeniable right to decide the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial are the hundreds of thousands murdered in this concentration camp. The prisoners whom I met as prisoner number 4427, when I was detained in Auschwitz between September 1940 and April 1941, are among them.
To some I owe my survival. They saved me, guided not only by the impulse of the heart, which was heroic at the time. They also believed that the survivors will bear witness to the tragedy which in Auschwitz-Birkenau became the fate of so many Europeans.
But the moment when there will be no more eyewitnesses left is inexorably approaching. What remains is the belief that when the people are gone, “the stones will cry out”.
Because we preserve an archive of evil we remind and remember what that evil was and did to the world. There is no less reason to preserve Auschwitz than to polish and paint the Statue of Liberty or temper the air in the Louvre.
Frankly, I consider this discussion to be an exercise in sophistry. The premise of museums and libraries is established as a necessity of civilization. Only nations and politicians with a stake in forgetting consider the question.
It’s been thirty years since I visited and learned from Auschwitz. Future generations should have the same opportunity.
[It’s been over twelve years since I reached the conclusion immediately above this line. I still feel the same.]