May 25, 2018

Auschwitz I

View of Auschwitz I Museum and Memorial.
20 May 2018

Around 1.5 million people were murdered in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Since then, the camp has become one of the most recognizable symbols of this genocide. 

The infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gate, the rows of identical bunks, and the gas chambers have all been cemented in the minds of millions around the globe.  

In 1940, the Germans converted Auschwitz I, a Polish artillery barrack at the time, into a labor camp.  Its first prisoners were Polish political dissidents, including some Jews.  Then, in 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR, Soviet POWs were deported to Auschwitz I as forced labor to construct Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The first Jews were deported to Auschwitz on racial lines in 1942, shortly after the Wannsee Conference, wherein top Nazi officials planned the Final Solution. The camp was liberated in January 1945 by the Soviets.  After two years, the Soviets officially turned Auschwitz I into a memorial; many of the exhibits were influenced by Soviet propaganda that downplayed the Jewish victims of the camp.  Most of these old exhibits have been converted into new, modern ones that more accurately reflect the details of the concentration camp.

The perspective of the camp is that from the victims and the survivors.  The first part of the camp’s memorial explains and details the experience of the victims of Auschwitz.  These initial exhibits rely on synecdochical remnants of the murdered Jews—including clothing, hair, shoes, and glasses—to remember these victims.  The rest of the exhibit is largely from the survivor perspective; much of the narrative of this latter part of the memorial relies on survivor testimony and anecdotes to accurately describe the daily life of Auschwitz I.  The framework of Auschwitz I is also intriguing.  There is significant spatial freedom when exploring the camp if one is without a tour guide: while there is a “main path” through the memorial, anyone can diverge from this path and explore the camp in any order.  Moreover, the memorial excludes the perpetrator viewpoint almost completely. The memorial also appeals to a transnational audience since the exhibits try to be as inclusive as possible.  The exhibits document many experiences of different nationalities of Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and political prisoners.  This transnational appeal has led to Auschwitz being a destination for over 2 million tourists every year.  As for the rhetoric of the camp, there is relatively little text in the exhibit, leading to our group’s dependence on our tour guide for information. The exhibits did include many different media, which include photography, maps, text, and 3D models. 

Personally, the setting of the camp influenced my own perspective greatly during the visit.  We arrived at Auschwitz I in the morning, a bright, crisp spring day.  The sunlight bounced off of the brick walls of the blocks in the camp, and bird chirping provided a calming ambient noise throughout our tour.  I was also constantly surrounded by and preoccupied with other tourists of the camp.  In essence, it did not feel like a labor camp used to torture and murder people—and it shouldn’t have.  The environment of the camp made me realize that Auschwitz I today is just a shell of what it was during World War II, when an aura of fear and violence permeated the site.  Once I understood this, I could analyze the camp from a scholarly perspective instead of merely seeking an emotional response from the history. The point of visiting this labor camp during the FOCUS trip was not to say that we visited Auschwitz and now we are better individuals, but rather to enhance our understanding of the camp’s history and to analyze different ways of memorializing and remembering all of the victims of the Holocaust.   

Group 1: Madeline Alburtys, Shayna Finkelstein, Ryan Nordheimer, Katie Hayes (Author: Ryan Nordheimer)