Friday, December 18, 2009

Preserve Auschwitz?

Here's a historic preservation dilemma for you: should we renovate Auschwitz? The question has been debated for years, as the camps slowly deteriorate. On the one hand, there is something obscene about spending millions of dollars to lovingly restore a death camp. On the other, there is a strong imperative to preserve the sites to preserve the memory of those who died there.

This morning's news story was about the theft of the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign that hangs over the gate, which it strikes me is one of the strangest thefts in history. But from the story I learned that the debate over restoration has finally been settled, and the EU is putting up $90 million for a thorough restoration of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

I have my doubts about the wisdom of this. Every restoration brings with it questions of authenticity. Nothing can be made precisely as it was, and the whole enterprise is always fraught with questions of "Disneyfication" and the like. Every restoration is guided by a vision of the experience that the restorers want the visitor to have. As long as the camps just were as they were, nobody could really be accused of exploiting their memory. But once restoration begins, this question becomes inescapable. The camps will not just be leftovers from the Holocaust, but a museum shaped around somebody's idea of what death camps were like.

I myself would have left them alone to slowly rot away to nothing. That would have been a different kind of memorial, a memorial to change and impermanence. The Nazis are gone, and perhaps we should let the camps fade away to nothing, too.

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