By Helen Rubinstein, 2014 AJC Jaffa and Larry Feldman Fellow
The first thing I do when I get to Auschwitz is put on sunscreen.
Then I take out my notebook and write, The first thing I do when I get to Auschwitz is put on sunscreen. Because being here makes us scrutinize ourselves; being here makes us worry. Are we mourning appropriately? Are we responding and reacting in the way that we should? Should I not wear the dress with horizontal stripes, should I avoid any dress with bright colors? Once thought, these questions are hard to un-think, and so I am here in my brownest most ordinary dress, a dress I will from now on think of as my Auschwitz dress even if, when I return to the memorial on other days—because, right, this is not Auschwitz but the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum—I will feel okay wearing brighter dresses.
In the past weeks, we AJC Fellows have been debating the ethics of selfies at Auschwitz and photos under the iconic Arbeit Macht Frei sign. That the sign is no longer the original but a replica erected after a 2009 robbery only makes visitors’ photos underneath its awning more specious and confusing. See, I needed to record that I was putting on sunscreen not only because sunscreen falls into the same sunny category as bright dresses, but because sunscreen is a summer thing, a vacation thing, and a tourist thing. And the reconstructed Arbeit Macht Frei sign—the way the replica stands in for the original, the simulation for the real—only magnifies my concern that the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is, like sunscreen, a summer thing, a vacation thing, and a tourist thing. I’m afraid that, in its attempt to provide evidence of the horrors of its history, the memorial that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site may have shed some of what makes its past feel immediate, authentic, and true.
Our guide, Paweł, begins our tour by telling us that this is an authentic site—I write down his words. He says, “Every brick tells a story.” What he means, I know, is that everything here has been maintained, conserved, or reconstructed to as-near-perfectly-as-possible match the original. There’s an obvious reason for this: the site must stand as evidence to counter the ranks of Holocaust deniers. But the instant Paweł calls the site authentic, I feel myself grow doubtful, not only because I am mindful that authenticity is an impossible ideal, but because I don’t even know how the site can be authentic. It can’t replicate the moment the memorial is presuming to preserve: nothing that is happening onsite now was happening onsite between 1940 and 1945. And how can the site be authentic when its iconic gate, barbed wire, execution wall, and HALT! signs are all reconstructions?
Our AJC Fellows group has spent much of the trip discussing the ethos of museums: their design choices, their occasional contrivances, the narratives implied in the arrangement of artifacts and interpretive material, and the various ways in which museums attempt to authentically—that is, ethically, and with as little propaganda as possible—represent the past. Here, too, such questions are pertinent, even if Paweł will suggest that the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is not only a museum but also a kind of cemetery. Inside one former barracks, near photos of the 1944 transport of Hungarian Jews, a bronze sign reads baldly: “Jews are a race that must be totally exterminated.” It’s a quotation from Hans Frank, meant to provide context and educate, but its loud and prominent position on the wall gives me a chill. Elsewhere, a sign reading MATERIAL PROOF OF CRIMES makes me equally uncomfortable, for how it directs the reader’s attention not to these crimes’ victims—whose hair, shoes, and possessions constitute “proof”—but to the crimes’ unnamed perpetrators.
Authenticity is a word Paweł keeps returning to. New exhibits, he says, will be without multimedia, without fireworks, meant only to explain the authenticity of the site. He tells us about the three-year project of barracks preservation, the attempts to conserve historical damage, how replicas of straw mattresses, and even ceiling pipes, are marked by newness, so as to distinguish themselves from nearby originals—designed so that the viewer can see the old in the context of refurbished details meant only to fill in the blanks. He explains that, aside from an Auschwitz I gas chamber reconstructed after the war, the gas chambers alone have not been conserved, that to conserve them would be an ethical problem, and that the fingernail scratches we find inside were most likely left behind by tourists, not prisoners. Original fingernail scratches would have faded. But new fingernail scratches that pretend to be old—new fingernail scratches that are scars of disrespect—these can’t be painted over, either.
This is maybe the essence of the problem: that while Auschwitz attempts to maintain the traces of what it used to be, it is also something new. It is a place where people use selfie sticks, a place where we sit in auditorium seating for lectures in buildings that are former blocks. We understand the visitors’ fingernail scratches to violate some code of behavior, but we’re not sure exactly what that code might be, because we’re not sure exactly what this place is. This is a museum, and a memorial, a cemetery, and a site of former atrocity. This is the most visited museum in all of Poland precisely because it is an authentic site. Here, we walk paths that prisoners have walked—it’s an immersion exhibit, in a way. But we don’t want it to be like the drippy brick tunnels inside the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising or the gravelly mockghettos at the Schindler Factory Museum in Kraków. The problem with these exhibits lies in the word mock: in the act of imitation, and especially as they imitate places and events we remember with gravity, these reconstructions can come off as belittling and cheap. In its attempts at self-preservation, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, too, risks becoming what Robert Jan van Pelt calls “a reconstruction on an original site,” “a place that constantly needs to be rebuilt in order to remain a ruin.”
Because people visit Auschwitz with the assumption that the Arbeit Macht Freisign, barbed wire, execution wall, and gas chamber wall in Auschwitz I are original, their newness is pointed out during regular tours, we’re told. But I’m most bothered by the HALT! signs we find along the fencing, with their skulls and crossbones. These are obviously reconstructions, but in a place where the smell of sunscreen wafts through the air, they can look like decorations in a theme park’s thrill ride. At other museums, we’ve discussed the difference between immersion and spectatorship, between standing on gravel meant to replicate the environment of a ghetto and looking at photos of the same ghetto through a peephole on a wall. The first method risks disrespect, the second too much distance. Here, though, we are standing in the site of atrocity at the same time that we’re seeing it from afar. We don’t want to imitate prisoners’ experience (as I might seem to be doing if I wore stripes: almost as rude as scratching my fingernails into a wall), but neither do we want to distance ourselves too much (as I might if I wore bright colors).
The problem reminds me of two towns we visited earlier on our trip. In Chmielnik, at the site of the shtetl’s former great synagogue, there now stands a synagogue re-creation complete with a modern glass bima and a multimedia exhibit about the area’s Jewish history. In nearby Działoszyce, at the site of the shtetl’s former great synagogue, stands the same great synagogue, fenced in but now roofless and subject to pigeons and rain. Neither site feels authentic to its history: in Chmielnik, the reconstructed synagogue feels too flashy, despite the obvious earnestness of the attempt to honor the past; and in Działoszyce, the empty hole at the great synagogue’s height is a reminder less of what was than what is. But at Auschwitz, the attempt is to strike a balance between these two modes of representation. And I’m not sure it’s possible to do both, to be at once original and redone.
The problem is that time prohibits authenticity: time makes it impossible to be faithful to any moment in the past. Months after my visit, a cousin from my parents’ generation will ask about my trip and tell me how, when she visited Auschwitz, she refused to pay an entrance fee because, she told the guard, “You killed my whole family here and now you expect me to pay to see it?” She’s conflating two very different yous—the you of the camp guards and the you of the memorial’s guardians—but I can see why. Here, past and present coexist, and the way they coexist is uncomfortable. The memorial’s attempt at authenticity is impossible for precisely this reason. There’s nothing wrong with preservation, conservation, or replication, except that it will never be exactly right.
Helen Rubinstein is the Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer in nonfiction at the University of Iowa, where she is at work on two books, one of which draws on research from her AJC trip. Her essays and stories have been published in The Paris Review Daily, Slice Magazine, Witness, The New York Times, and elsewhere, and her work has been honored in The Best Women’s Travel Writing and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. She holds M.F.A. degrees from the University of Iowa and Brooklyn College, and a B.A. in literature from Yale.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Summer 2015 newsletter articles are found here.