Fleeing Germans also torched a couple of dozen of the wooden barracks at Birkenau. Many of the camp buildings that were left largely intact were later taken apart by Poles desperate for shelter. Birkenau remains the starkest, most tangible, most haunting reminder of what Dwork says was the “greatest catastrophe Western civilization permitted, and endured.”
Ever since the Auschwitz memorial and museum first opened to the public, in 1947, workers have repaired and rebuilt the place. The barbed wire that rings the camps must be continuously replaced as it rusts. In the 1950s, construction crews repairing the crumbling gas chamber at the main Auschwitz camp removed one of the original walls. Most recently, the staff has had to deal with crime and vandalism. This past December, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was stolen by thieves, who intended to sell it to a collector. Although the sign was recovered, it was cut into three pieces and will need to be repaired.
Inevitably, Auschwitz will grow less authentic with the passage of time. “You’re seeing basically a reconstruction on an original site,” says van Pelt, the historian. “It’s a place that constantly needs to be rebuilt in order to remain a ruin for us.”
He is not the only one to argue against wholesale preservation of the camp. A 1958 proposal called for paving a 230-foot-wide, 3,200-foot-long asphalt road diagonally across the main Auschwitz camp and letting the rest of the ruins crumble, forcing visitors to “confront oblivion” and realize they could not fully comprehend the atrocities committed there. The concept was unanimously accepted by the memorial design committee—and roundly rejected by survivors, who felt the plan lacked any expression of remembrance.
For the preservation staff, the burden of remembrance informs every aspect of their restoration efforts. “If there’s damage to an object as part of its history, we leave it that way,” Banas says. She points to crates of shoes stacked in a hallway, most with worn insoles and uneven heels—signs of human use that will be left as they are. The International Auschwitz Council—museum officials and survivors from around the world dedicated to the conservation of Auschwitz—has decided that the mounds of hair will be allowed to decay naturally because they are human remains.
After three days at Auschwitz, I was left with the feeling that for some visitors, the former concentration camp is a box to check off on a tourist “to-do” list. But many people appeared genuinely moved. I saw Israeli teenagers crying and hugging each other and groups of people transfixed by the mug shots of prisoners that line the walls of one of the Auschwitz barracks. Walking through the room full of hair still makes my stomach churn. But what I hadn’t remembered from my first visit was the room next door filled with battered cooking pots and pans, brought by people who believed until the last moment that there was a future wherever they were being taken. And when Banas told me about the carefully folded math test that conservationists found hidden in a child’s shoe, I choked up. Even if only a fraction of the people who come here each year are profoundly affected, a fraction of a million is still a lot of people.
There is no more forceful advocate for the preservation of Auschwitz than Wladyslaw Bartoszewski. Born in Warsaw in 1922, Bartoszewski, 87, was a Red Cross stretcher-bearer when the German Army invaded the capital city in September 1939. Plucked off the street by German soldiers a year later, he was sent to Auschwitz. He’d been there seven months when the Red Cross arranged for his release in April 1941—one of the few inmates ever set free.
After Auschwitz, he helped found an underground organization to help Poland’s Jews. He fought against the German Army during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. He was jailed three times: twice as an active dissident during Poland’s early communist era and once for his support of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s.
Today, he is chairman of the International Auschwitz Council. Nothing, he says, can replace the actual site as a monument and memorial. “It’s great that you can go to a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “But no one died in Washington in the Holocaust. Here—here is a massive cemetery without gravestones. Here they spent their last moments, here they took their last steps, here they said their last prayers, here they said goodbye to their children. Here. This is the symbol of the Holocaust.”
Andrew Curry’s article on Hadrian’s Wall appeared in the October 2009 Smithsonian. Maciek Nabrdalik is an award-winning photographer who resides in Warsaw.