Why Should Auschwitz Concentration Camp Be Preserved?

Writing a list of must-see places in Poland is no easy task. The country offers an immense range of experiences and attractions. During over a thousand years of history, the country has had to endure significant turbulence and tragedy. Yet, today, it stands as the sixth-largest economy in Europe, mainly due to the fortitude and drive of its

It is no exaggeration to say that for many people, the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau are the physical embodiment of man’s proclivity to evil. At the ground zero of this unimaginable horror, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum endeavours to keep alive the memory of those murdered during the Holocaust. In total, 1.1 million people lost their lives in the concentration camp, with around 960,000 of those victims being Jews.

Nevertheless, many wonder if a museum model is the best way of paying tribute to those who perished here. Are there alternatives? Will the death of the few remaining Holocaust survivors mark the moment that the site should be closed?

Join Poland at War Tours as we consider whether Auschwitz should be preserved. Furthermore, if you plan on visiting, please look at our Comprehensive 14-Day WW2 Tour of Poland. With Poland at War Tours, you will experience key WWII locations with trained experts.

Auschwitz Railway, Poland

Opposition to the preservation of Auschwitz

It is intensely difficult to estimate how many Holocaust survivors are alive today. However, given the decades that have passed since WWII, any living victims of the Holocaust are now old. For many, the last word in any discussion of what to do with Auschwitz has rested on the victims. 

There has been a sense that while there are still people alive who experienced the hell of the Nazi concentration camps, there is a duty to preserve the sites. Moreover, many survivors have supported the Auschwitz Museum remaining open to the public.

So long as the camps remain in existence, they can be used as a tangible tool for showing the world that this happened. When victims have felt the impulse to visit the location to give themselves closure or pay tribute to loved ones they lost, they have a physical place where they can mourn. But what do we do when the last survivors are gone? Do we dare attempt to speak on their behalf?

A common concern with preserving the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau is that of so-called Disneylandification. Could the camps eventually become no more than a travel destination for fans of Dark Tourism (a fascination with places associated with horrific events)? Do we risk making a spectacle of a historical site that should be reserved for quiet contemplation?

There is a fear that no matter how many experts are enlisted and how educational the museum at Auschwitz is, it will fail to be the solemn place of remembrance that it should be. Critics will state that no museum can ever do justice to the Nazis’ barbarity in Auschwitz.

Finally, so the argument goes, the need to make money also compromises the museum’s educational mission. So long as visitors are invited to buy tickets to enter the site, there will exist a risk of the moral principles behind the project being abandoned. 

Auschwitz, Poland

Furthermore, the questions surrounding the financial upkeep of the concentration camps go further. The enormous sums of money required to run the museum and preserve the extant buildings, artefacts, and records have made major news. Given the purpose of the camps, it should surprise no one to read that the Germans threw up the buildings haphazardly during WWII. Keeping the site safe for visitors today means constantly reinforcing crumbling walls, fixing paths, and performing other maintenance duties. This conservation work is an unending task that is labour-intensive and costly. 

The artefacts linked to Auschwitz’s victims, such as clothes, suitcases, and even tonnes of shaved human air, require even more sensitive and technical levels of care. After the Polish government appealed to other nations for help protecting the site, The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was established in 2009. Since then, Poland, the USA, Germany, Israel, Russia, and other countries have donated money to preserve the site. The demands, though, are high. The fragility of the camps and the inevitable impact of around 2 million visitors each year means that preservation is a constant struggle. Some leading voices have argued that the camps be left to nature following the death of the last Auschwitz survivor. 

Like the haunting remains of France’s Oradour-sur-Glane (the site of a 1944 Waffen SS massacre), the policy of letting go of the site and allowing it to become a place lost to history could prove to be a moving memorial to the dead. However, the chances of embracing such an idea are next to zero, given the overwhelming international support for Auschwitz’s preservation.

Reasons to Preserve Auschwitz

The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno is often misquoted as saying, “After Auschwitz, no poetry.” He had written, in fact, that writing poetry was barbaric in the wake of Auschwitz. At the heart of this, the idea is that with Auschwitz, something in our culture was irredeemably changed. Art would now have to reckon with the horrors of the death camps, lest it is frivolous and even barbaric in its sidestepping of the darkest moment in human history.

A similar outlook can undoubtedly be taken about Auschwitz as a museum. Across the globe, we have museums and art galleries (many of which have cost taxpayers a great deal of money) that champion any number of art movements or proud areas of human history. Our natural history museums boast of the wonders of human scientific thinking and all the discoveries that man has made; we could list a variety of museums dedicated to notable historical figures whose life stories are meant to inspire us. So, would it be correct to pass the opportunity to look at humanity at its lowest moment?

There is a litany of dark chapters in the human story, but there is perhaps none quite so shocking as the industrialised murder enacted during the Holocaust, an event that took place a mere 80 years ago. While the site can be restored and protected, it is now that the decision must be made regarding its long-term preservation.

Some have argued that a separate museum could be erected away from the death camps, a purpose-built museum. The Holocaust Museum of Washington D.C. is often pointed to as an example of where this has been done successfully, and rightly so, as it is a fantastic museum and archival resource. The Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk is another shining example, where expert curators and historians have brought into one exhibition space enough material to tell the story of WWII dramatically and thoroughly.

Nevertheless, it is indeed uncontroversial to acknowledge that human beings are naturally drawn to the places where historical events unfolded. The world over, people visit artists’ former homes, battlefields, the birthplaces of political leaders, etc. Walking in the footsteps of those who came before us offers a manifest link to the past. History is undoubtedly at its most vivid when we can experience both the purpose-built museum space and the historic location. 

With Auschwitz, this power of place is witnessed in the number of visitors deeply moved by their time exploring the remains of the camps each year. Thus far, around 25 million people have visited the preserved sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau. If we allow that for some guests, the site will be no more than another famous museum to tick off their list, which does not invalidate the importance of the site.

So long as any fraction of the site’s 2 million annual visitors left with a determined belief in the need to remember what happened and that it must never be allowed to happen again, the museum’s work at Auschwitz remains utterly essential. For young visitors, often brought by their school, the site often has a profound — it is as stark an indictment of anti-Semitism, racism, and hatred as you are ever likely to find. 

Bags in Auschwitz

The preservation of Auschwitz is also fundamentally important as this is the final resting place of so many people. 1.1 million lives were taken here, making Auschwitz an enormous gravesite. The nature of the atrocities committed here means that individual memorials (or even an exhaustive list of victims’ names) will never be achieved. Some have suggested that this fact means the whole area should be treated much like the underwater graves of a sunken sailing vessel: left totally to the elements and not interfered with. However, we know from experience that economic considerations can often lead to the abandonment and eventual desecration of important historical sites.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation ensures that money is reserved for the upkeep of these lands. The continued interest of international guests means that this site gets the care and attention it deserves. When UNESCO made Auschwitz one of its World Heritage Sites, they described the camps as “a silent witness to history, bearing testimony of the crime of genocide committed by the German Nazis.” The integrity of the site, its authenticity and its ability to truthfully give an idea of the horrors that unfolded there, and its place as grave to so many surely mean that we would risk losing too much without its preservation. 

This brings to an end our blog on the preservation of Auschwitz. If you have any questions for us, please feel free to get in touch

Now, please continue exploring our Polish history blog. Why not read about The Miracle on the Vistula next?

Leave a Reply