In the 50 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, time has eroded much evidence but healed few wounds, and there is now bitter controversy over how the dead should be rem embered
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The Independent Culture
IT IS 50 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. It was on 27 January 1945 that the first Soviet soldiers entered the camp, abandoned by the Germans several days before. Now people from all over the world are arriving there to honour the anniversary, and as they arrive they make an unnerving discovery. Auschwitz has grown old. The place of death is itself dying.

Somehow, this is unexpected. Auschwitz is a symbol of many different things. But one of its best-understood meanings is about the contrast between life and machinery, between defenceless human bodies and the concrete and iron of the great industrial process put here to consume them. A million and a half people, more or less, were killed here. In comparison with their mortality, the steel of the barbed wire and the iron of the crematorium furnaces and the reinforced concrete of the gas chambers all seem invincible. But even these things, though infinitely more slowly, must perish too.

The Nazis did not build this camp to last. The only solid part is the original nucleus, the rows of two-storey brick blocks which were once an Austro-Hungarian barracks and which the Germans took over from the defeated Polish Army in 1939. This was opened as a concentration camp in 1940. But then came the construction of Birkenau (Auschwitz II), the gigantic wire enclosure a mile away which could hold 100,000 prisoners in wooden huts and which also contained the great industrial killing installation: a railway siding and unloading ramp, four purpose-built gas chambers, batteries of crematorium ovens with chimneys. Later still, and even further away, the SS used slave prisoners to erect the camp at Monowitz (Auschwitz III), to house the labour force forthe Buna artificial rubber plant.

It was wartime. One could not get proper craftsmen, but had to rely on starving, half-trained prisoners to build the camps. The cement for the posts of the electrified fence was badly mixed and of sub-standard quality. The huts were dumped directly on the sandy soil, without waiting for brick or concrete underfloors. Anyway, the SS programme was to demolish completely all the camps concerned with the "final solution of the Jewish question" - the genocide of European Jewry - when they had completed theirwork. In most cases this target was met. The sites of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec were cleared and planted with trees when they had served their purpose, as if nothing had ever happened there.The SS were not in the business of leaving evidence around.

At Auschwitz, they began the demolition process by blowing up the Birkenau gas chambers, but were interrupted by the Soviet advance before they could finish their work. That is why so much remains to be seen, even now. And it is that surviving Auschwitz which is now crumbling away.

The wire fences, stretching away in perspective to the misty horizon, are rusty and beginning to show gaps. The posts still carry their white insulators, but they are discoloured and starting to fragment. The surviving huts at Birkenau (most of them wereburnt down after the liberation, because they were crawling with typhus-infected lice) are rotting away. The steel rails which brought the cattle-wagons of doomed Jews up to the Birkenau ramp are still hard and clear, but the stones of the track-bed arevanishing beneath earth and weeds.

Time cannot be imprisoned. When I first visited Auschwitz, more than 30 years ago, I could pull up the turf anywhere in the open ground beyond the end of the railway track and find the earth white-ish: a paste of calcined human bone and ash. Now, the ca r bon cycle has quietly done its work over half a century, and the soil is brown again. At that time, the poplars planted by the SS to screen the gas chambers and the crematorium blocks from view were still scrawny saplings. Today they are vast, gracefult rees, gently waving their tips against the clouds.

Since the war, Auschwitz has been a museum, funded and administered by the Polish state. But no museum in the world has to face such problems of choice. What is to be done with this place? It is, as I would say, the worst place in the world. But that do e s not tell posterity how, or even if, it should be conserved.

One argument is that Auschwitz should be left to fall apart in its own natural time. In this view, what took place at Auschwitz is so terrible that any human intervention, even an attempt to organise the site in order to teach visitors what happened in the camp, is impious. It is necessary, of course, to educate the world about the Final Solution and the nature of Himmler's empire, but not here. The great camp is primarily a place of death, a form of cemetery. Visitors should go to meditate or to grievein silence. They should not throng in organised guide-parties down a "Holocaust Heritage Trail" from Visitor Centre to Info-Point to Museum Shop.

The opposite extreme is to turn Auschwitz into a theme park. A theme with solemn intentions, admittedly - but the strategy would be to create an international visitor site in which surviving reality is deliberately adapted or even replaced in order to deliver a pre-planned experience. Everything would be rebuilt; or if not quite everything - for the Auschwitz complex at its peak of activity in 1944 was the size of a small conurbation - at least the "representative core" of the place. The fen c es, wire,lights and guard-towers, together with some of the wooden bunk-houses, would be entirely restored and redecorated to their original appearance in a sample area of the camp. And one of the Birkenau gas chambers might be reconstructed so that vis itors could enter it, look around at the "shower" openings, and experience appropriate feelings.

Neither of these radical solutions appeals much to the Polish custodians. They have not had a great deal of time to brood on Western doctrines of "museology". Until 1989, the job of the Auschwitz Museum was to display what remained of the camp as an international "monument to the crimes of Fascism", playing its part in the Communist bloc's campaign against alleged West German "militarism".

To fulfil this task, the museum authorities carried out a certain amount of restoration in the early post-war years. Right after liberation, there had been chaos on the Auschwitz site. An obscene gold rush took place. Poles with spades and sieves overranthe camp to dig through its earth and to pan the nearby Sola river, in search of the gold coins and tooth fillings which they imagined the "rich Jews" had left behind. Others with horses and carts loaded up anything they could find which might serve as building material or be sold for scrap. There was much destruction.

The museum, once established, rebuilt several huts at Birkenau, renewed stretches of barbed wire which had been stolen and - most controversially - restored the first gas chamber, a building in Auschwitz I which had been subsequently converted and rebuilt by the SS to use as an air raid shelter. This restoration was not made plain to visitors, who were encouraged to think that they were seeing the unretouched place of murder. Later, when the truth came out, the post-war building work was used by right-wing "Holocaust denial" writers as evidence that no gas chambers had ever existed except as Communist propaganda fakes.

During the Communist period, there was no coherent policy for or against restoration; after the initial replacement work, the museum administration more or less restricted itself to maintaining the site in the semi-ruined condition in which it had found it. If something actually fell down, it was usually put back by Polish workmen in a simulation of how it had looked before. The "message" delivered by the museum was also contradictory. The labelling of displays and relics, like the wording on the various memorial plaques, deliberately underplayed the fact that Auschwitz had played a central part in the Jewish Holocaust; instead, it was vaguely presented as a place where all nations had suffered under Hitlerite German oppression. Among the tablets honouring nations whose people had been murdered there, the name of Israel did not occur, while East Germany (which of course did not exist in 1945, any more than Israel) absurdly had a tablet of its own. At the same time, the museum staff would usually treatthis "party line" with contempt and, in taking visitors round, would make clear the central significance of Auschwitz as the place of Jewish martyrdom.

In the later 1980s, everything changed. Again, it was a museum researcher, Franciszek Piper, who broke through the propaganda wall. To official consternation, he demonstrated that the Auschwitz victims had numbered between 1.1 and 1.4 million (not the traditional 4 million, a figure apparently plucked out of the air by Soviet propagandists in the late 1940s), and that 90 per cent of them had been Jews. At about the same time, a merciless and fanatical quarrel between American Jews and Polish Catholics broke out over the establishment of a Carmelite nunnery in an old SS store building adjacent to the camp. The most extreme Jewish groups denounced the nunnery as an anti-Semitic provocation and demanded that Auschwitz should become an exclusively Jewish memorial.

This dispute blazed on for some years after the collapse of Polish Communism in 1989, but has now been precariously settled by a set of compromises. One of them, dating back to 1989, is the establishment of an "International Auschwitz Council", which in c ludes Jewish and Gypsy representatives as well as Polish officials, to advise the museum. This has already produced new and much more truthful exhibition material on the site. And in the new climate, the West has begun to participate in funding the Ausch witz relics and museum, in years when state funding has been drastically cut back and the Polish budget can no longer afford even the maintenance costs, let alone new display or restoration projects. Ronald Lauder, once American ambassador to Austria,is using his personal foundation to raise a target of over $40 million for "long- term preservation".

None of this, though, removes the fundamental choices which have to be made about Auschwitz. It might seem that the option of just standing back, declaring Auschwitz a graveyard and letting it vanish under the grass, has been pre-empted by the recent changes. The Lauder money is committed to maintenance, while the International Council stands for an educational policy which will use the place as an organised teaching resource to inoculate the human race against genocide and dictatorial terror. And yet even the abandonment option is not entirely closed. One of the worst sights at Auschwitz is the room filled with human hair, shorn off corpses or off those who were about to become corpses a few minutes later. There are nearly two tons of it, plaits and braids, curls and tresses of every colour, found by the Russians ready-baled for delivery to German industry - a small fraction of the total. But the hair is beginning to disintegrate. The preservation methods invented and applied by the Poles over the years have not been enough, and indeed no museum in the world knows how to treat so large a quantity of hair against deterioration. At Auschwitz, in its glass-fronted display room in Block Four, the hair is now beginning to turn to dust. Some people, including many camp survivors, insist that ways must be found to preserve it for future generations. But there are others whose respect for the irreversible fact of death makes them want to return dust to dust - to remove the decaying hair from the showcases and bury it at last.

THE TRUTH about Auschwitz is that there can never be consensus about the use of its ruins. It has too many symbolisms for too many different, and sometimes mutually suspicious, groups of people. Those who want to meditate about what was done here will always resent the organised crowds of visitors flowing through the site - chattering, taking snap-shots, eating or smoking - and feel that they defile the commandment to remember. Those who want the place to teach something and to be visited by millions ofpilgrims annually will always resent the "meditators" for their refusal to exploit the potential of the site. Some survivors find it painful that anything whatever is allowed to remain; others find the camp's decay an offensive symbol of the world's indifference and would like radical restoration. Germans will feel that any further commercialisation will get in the way of their own need to confront their national past. Poles will often suspect that Jews are "using" the site to imply unfair slanders about Polish anti-Semitism; Jews will often regard the "international" character of the museum displays as an attempt by Christian Europeans to conceal their complicity in the Holocaust.

But this inner discord, which can never fully be overcome, is what Auschwitz and its memory are about. What happened here was not just death, but abandonment. Behind this wire, people felt forsaken in a way so utter and final that their loneliness somehow survives their transformation into smoke and ash. Many Jews and Christians thought that their God had abandoned them. Others blamed earthly powers. Poles thought that it was Europe that had once again abandoned them to death, as so often in the past. All the prisoners, watching the Allied bombers passing far overhead, felt that the world had abandoned them, caring nothing for their fate. Where was the Vatican, the Red Cross, the League of Nations, President Roosevelt, the Royal Air Force? Those who survived, and those who took up the cause of the dead, inherited this sense of abandonment, and it has proved incurable. Those who profess to care now did not care then. Where were all these wealthy, concerned universities and churches and governments whenthe trains were steaming up to the ramp, and the Sonderkommando was stoking the crematorium fires?

There is no answer to that. And there is no single answer to the way in which Auschwitz still makes people - even visitors - feel lonely, as if every other group or nationality were somehow concealing hostility and indifference. The consequence of that misery is that any agreement on the future of the Auschwitz site can only be a compromise, and that such a compromise will never be comfortable and always hurt some people.

The SS, tramping through the morning frost to their duties inside the wire, used to sing : "Everything will be over, everything passes away; After every December, there comes again May . . ."

The trees grow, the glittering barbed wire turns brown and then powders away, the cruel bricks are softened by moss - and it is 50 years since the last of over a million helpless human beings was murdered. The rest of the world was unable or unwilling tosave them. But now the rest of the world - which has come to mean us - is able and willing to save the gallows and the furnace instead. The irony of that is foul. But we have earned it.