Kate Simon: This mute witness to genocide must not be allowed to crumble

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:13

Auschwitz may not seem a suitable subject for the travel pages, yet this Nazi death camp is one of the world's most poignant museums, visited annually by more than a million people who come to remember the victims of the Holocaust.

Now Auschwitz is facing a crisis that highlights the uneasy position of a historic site which is both a designated mass cemetery and an attraction for tourism. The Nazi death camp (there were, in fact, three camps on the main Auschwitz site) is disintegrating and is the subject of an appeal for funds to repair it.

An interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 earlier this month highlighted the degradation of much of the original structure and its collections, including victims' possessions – shoes, glasses, toothbrushes and other mundane yet moving ephemera of ordinary lives that were brutally terminated. When a nearby river almost burst its banks recently, it revealed another potential threat to the most sensitive part of the camp, the gas chambers.

However, the appeal to preserve the site has raised difficult questions about how the Memorial Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau can balance tourism with due respect for the victims.

For some, particularly survivors and the families of the murdered, the idea of putting money into facilitating the experience of visitors is difficult to justify. The hotel next to the camp, the picnicking tourists – it all smacks too much of a day out rather than a sobering pilgrimage.

I have not yet been to Auschwitz, but those of my friends who have made the trip all say how moved they were by the experience, even if the most gruesome conditions – the mud, the lice, the stench – cannot be recreated. Many of them visited with Leon Greenman, an inspirational survivor who lost his family in the gas chambers of the extermination camp and then dedicated his life to bearing witness to the Holocaust and also to protesting on the streets against later generations of neo-Nazis, something he did right up until his death in 2008 at the age of 97.

The museum still offers an insight into the cruel conditions faced by prisoners. Visitors can tour Auschwitz I, where the Nazis perfected the use of Zyklon-B to gas people, conducted pseudo-medical experiments on some prisoners, shot many others, and murdered the first mass influx of Jews from the Third Reich's newly conquered territories.

At Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, the Vernichtungslager or extermination camp, around a million European Jews were killed. The gas chambers and crematoria were found intact by the liberating Red Army in 1945 when the decision was made to keep the camp intact as a testament. The museum was founded two years later. Admission is free, though guided tours, workshops and seminars are also available.

The need to save Auschwitz as a mute witness to the murderous intent of fascism means that the problems raised by tourism must be solved. For, while the infrastructure of tourism is needed to cope with the numbers arriving, this is not a place where one comes in order to feel comfortable.

The fabric of Auschwitz must be preserved, because even in the face of this most conclusive piece of evidence, the apologists for Nazism – with whom, admirably, the museum refuses to debate – still try to deny the Holocaust took place.

As the ranks of the survivors are thinned by time and the thread between real life and history grows weak, how much more brazen would those denials become without the most concrete proof of all – the archaeology of genocide.

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