For nearly 60 years, Auschwitz has told its own story, shaped in the recent aftermath of the Second World War. It now unfolds, unadorned and mostly unexplained, in displays of hair, shoes and other remains of the dead. Past the notorious, mocking gateway, into the brick ranks of the former barracks of the Polish army camp that the Nazis seized and converted into prisons and death chambers, visitors bear witness via this exhibition.
Now those in charge of passing along the legacy of this camp insist that Auschwitz needs an update. Its story needs to be retold, in a different way for a different age.
Partly the change has to do with the simple passage of time, refurbishing an aging display. Partly it’s about the pressures of tourism, and partly about the changing of generations. What is the most visited site and the biggest cemetery in Poland for Jews and non-Jews alike, needs to explain itself better, officials here contend.
A proposed new exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum here, occupying some of the same barracks or blocks, will retain the piled hair and other remains, which by now have become icons, as inextricable from Auschwitz as the crematoria and railway tracks. But the display will start with an explanatory section on how the camp worked, as a German Nazi bureaucratic institution, a topic now largely absent from the present exhibition, which was devised by survivors during the 1950s.
Back then they wished to erase the memory of their tormenters, as the Nazis had tried to erase them, so they said as little as possible in their exhibition about the Germans who had conceived and run the camp. They focused on mass victimhood but didn’t highlight individual stories or testimonials of the sort that have become commonplace at memorial museums as devices to translate incomprehensible numbers of dead into real people, giving visitors personal stories and characters they can relate to. Those piles, including prostheses, suitcases and so on, also stressed the sheer scale of killing at a time when the world still didn’t comprehend, and much of it refused to admit to, what really happened here.
Read the rest here on the New York Times website.