Skip to main content

The Awkward Case for Preserving Holocaust Relics

As time erodes the ephemera of genocide, the purpose behind preserving every physical bit of atrocity becomes a question for archivists and ethicists.

The theft in Poland of a Holocaust relic — the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz — had historians and memorialists around the world this month in an uncomfortable posture of outrage. Some of them seemed as upset as jewellers over the theft of the Hope Diamond, which revived a delicate question. How much of the Holocaust needs to be preserved?

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is now a memorial museum, and its managers handled the theft of the sign just as any curator would treat the loss of some vital collection piece. It's an odd reaction, because it risks turning Nazi memorabilia into something sacred. Decay is natural, and one day, maybe centuries from now, the entire Auschwitz camp will return to the Polish forest. Isn't the proper response, "Good riddance"?

Not just yet. Rabbi Marvin Hier from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles rightly scolded Polish authorities for not preventing the theft. He called the sign "the defining symbol of the Holocaust, because everyone knew that this was not a place where work makes you free, but it was the place where millions of men, women, and children were brought for one purpose only - to be murdered."

The museum installed a replica sign within hours, and the original will return to its original spot once the police glean evidence and museum preservationists repair it (the thieves hacked it into three pieces).

But suppose the sign had vanished for good? Even a cheap knockoff requires workmanship, attention to detail, a whole team of enlightened modern people dedicating their talents to aping some aspect of Nazi camp design. The result would be an item that could fuel — far more than the original — wild arguments of denialists who say the Holocaust was an elaborate hoax.

Is it worth it? Why not just let Hitler's archipelago of camps disappear?

"The only people with a full and undeniable right to decide the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial are the hundreds of thousands murdered in this concentration camp," Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor and now chairman of the International Auschwitz Council, has written. "The moment when there will be no more eyewitnesses left is inexorably approaching. What remains is the belief that when the people are gone, 'the stones will cry out.'"

Of course, even the stones aren't eternal. Timothy Ryback wrote an article for The New Yorker in 1993 about efforts by the Auschwitz museum to keep quantities of human hair discovered at the camp by the Red Army in 1945 from deteriorating. Whole bales of hair — tons of it — had been shaved from prisoners by Nazi guards and sold to "German felt and textile manufacturers," writes Ryback, "who used the versatile fibre in the production of thread, rope, cloth, carpets, mattress stuffing, lining stiffeners for uniforms, socks for submarine crews, and felt insulators for the boots of railroad workers."

Some people felt hair was too personal to show. Others had religious objections. The museum staff thought it was a powerful reminder of Nazi atrocities. But by 1993 the hair was deteriorating. It attracted insects and dust, so it had to be shaken out and treated with naphthalene, the chemical in mothballs. "After the hair was dusted," writes Ryback, "pans of liquid naphthalene were placed beneath the screens. The vapor impregnated the hair and provided protection against future infestation. Each time the hair was treated, however, it seemed to become more brittle."

The hair is still on display. But it can't last forever, and some historians think the Holocaust is so well documented in other respects that the hair should be allowed to crumble.

Education is arguably more important than perfect preservation. The irony of Holocaust denial is that it flourishes in eastern Europe, where the Nazis built most of their camps. The Jewish element of the Holocaust was downplayed in Soviet histories because it served no propaganda purpose in Moscow. The war is commemorated by Russia as an occasion of heroic Russian sacrifice, not deliberate genocide of European Jews. One reason we remember the Holocaust so well on the other side of the Iron Curtain is that the camps' great memorialists — Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Imre Kertész — have lived and published in the West.

But the counter-argument is powerful, too. The hair, the grim preserved camps, and the now hacked-up Auschwitz sign all have an immediacy that even an excellent book will lack.

"To destroy [the hair] would be to remove the strongest evidence of what happened to us," an Auschwitz survivor named Ernest Michel told Ryback in 1993. "On the transport that I came on, all the women and children were taken from the train and immediately gassed. The hair, along with the combs and suitcases and shoes, is all that remains of them. No matter how painful it may be to look at, it is all part of the story that I believe has to be told."

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.