Auschwitz-Birkenau: conserve, restore, rebuild?

10 November 2015

Structures that retain unpleasant memories, such as the Bastille or the Berlin Wall, are often destroyed. In South Africa, the Robben Island prison is a famous example of such a structure that has acquired conservation status.

Among the vibrant and diverse viewpoints and debates about heritage and conservation in South Africa, there also is a debate on whether former mining compounds should be retained or not and, if retained, on how it should be done.

Like discussions on the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, South African discussions also have numerous reverberations in history and in contemporary debates.

For Anna Lopuska, who is actively involved in the debate over Auschwitz-Birkenau, this work is a task of resistance – resistance against a regime whose death camps were intended to exist only temporarily – until their target was reached. “They did not want it to continue to exist. But we make it last”, she said in an interview published in the New York Times. Lopuska is at the head of a master plan for the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the best known of German concentration camps.

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The motto of the foundation that was established in 2009 to raise money for the maintenance of Auschwitz-Birkenau is “preserve authenticity”. The idea, as reported in the Times, is to keep the place as a whole, exactly as it was when the Nazis left it in 1945 ahead of the approaching Russian soldiers. “It is a moral position with specific curatorial challenges. This means restoring barracks of brick that are falling apart where Jews and some others were detained, without rebuilding it, to prevent it looking like a historical replica. This means reinforcing the moss-covered piles of rubble – the gas chamber at Birkenau, the death camp a few miles away, a structure that was bombed by the Nazis. This means protecting this rubbish against water seeping in from pools where the ashes of the dead were dumped.”

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Although Lopuska says the strategy is to maintain, not to restore, Jonathan Webber, a former member of the International Auschwitz Council of advisers, says he is not convinced that it is the right strategy. “If you have a very good monument (memorial), all of this can be attained without the effort of preservation and restoration.”

Read more about this thorny problem by clicking here.

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