Uncovering Birkenau – Reflections Upon the 71st Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

One side of the Book of Names; photo courtesy Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
One side of the Book of Names; photo courtesy Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

By Shana Penn

Until recently, Birkenau has been locked in shadows. Though it was the site where most Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, it was obscured and rendered inaccessible during Poland’s communist era.

The new permanent exhibition being planned at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, however, has inaugurated a new era of acknowledgement about the site’s bitter truths. The first exhibit to exemplify this positive shift is on display in Block 27, one of the several former barracks that now house narrative exhibits documenting the national and ethnic experiences of those who perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The exhibit, Shoah, which opened in mid-2013, was curated, conceptualized and brought to life by Yad Vashem in partnership with the State Museum. Innovative in both design and narrative, it offers poignant evidence that the State Museum, which for too long brazenly denied the Nazi genocide on its site, now respectfully recognizes the fate of European Jews as the largest victim group of this death camp. Most striking, perhaps, is the role of the exhibit in showcasing a site no longer controlled by the oppressive politics of the communist era, and is now a stunning example of how to metaphorically lay to rest the Jews who suffered tragic deaths there.

Auschwitz-Birkenau’s post-WWII history is fraught with half-truths and neglect. In 1990, concerned Polish intellectuals, many Jewish, many dissidents who helped overthrow the Communist system in 1989, gathered in Warsaw for discussion of how to overhaul the shoddy exhibit in Block 27, which was created in the politically repressive late 1960s and had long been problematic.

At the 50th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1995, Poland, under its first post-1989 democratic president, Lech Walesa, egregiously failed to recognize the primacy of Jewish victims there, only acknowledging Polish suffering.

Up until the end of the communist regime in 1989, the state had distorted Holocaust history, “Polonizing” both the museum narrative and the physical site through removing Birkenau from visitors’ experiences.

But over the course of the 1990s, with the help of Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Poland’s new democratic government and its people initiated a new era. The “Cold War theater” that had been scripted for the site underwent a comprehensive transformation, and the State Museum began to improve the accuracy of the entire site and permanent exhibition. For the first time, visitors could tour the physical camp space with the help of text panels describing the historical meaning of each locale inclusive of the experiences of all victim groups.

Knowing well the postwar history of state socialism’s exploitation of the site to rally the nation’s loyalty to the Soviet Union’s liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, having witnessed grueling conflicts over the site’s contested memory, having seen the Israeli government’s efforts to reclaim the site’s Jewish memory through ritualized mass parades, the new Shoah exhibit, lovingly created by Yad Vashem, seemed to have quietly appeared, conveying a sense of peace and compassion, and bypassing the worn-out litany of blame and denial.

The exhibit’s name, Shoah, alerts us instantly to the exhibit’s focus, which is not exclusively the Jewish experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but more broadly the fate of Europe’s Jews in the Nazi genocide, making conscious use of the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. The primary foci of this thoughtful, contemporary representation are the humanity of the Jewish victims and the war crimes of the Nazi perpetrators. The main questions explored are: Who were the Jews? What were the motivations for their annihilation? How were they murdered? How did victims deal with the various forms of Nazi oppression? It is clear from the exhibit that the nations occupied by Nazi Germany, Poland included, were not the perpetrators.

Three gallery spaces depart from a strictly historical narrative to present artistic installations that give names and faces to more than four million Jews who perished as well as special attention to the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust. Suspended from the ceiling, the interactive and searchable “Book of Names” contains the 4.2 million names of Jewish victims, along with birth dates, hometowns and places of death, which Yad Vashem collected in a database made over 60 years.

The curators aimed to humanize and personalize the experiences of each and every Jewish victim of the Holocaust. Hence, the exhibit begins and closes with human beings, transmitting the message that European Jews are a collective inheritance of Jews and Europeans and their diasporas.

The exhibit succeeds in being meditative more than informational, a memorial more than museum. The Shoah exhibit, as a tribute to lives and to life – and as an example of Poles and Israelis collaborating on Holocaust remembrance – is a tremendous achievement.

This decade, as the World War II generation passes on and as the site’s long-term budget for conservation, education and remembrance receives substantial subsidies from the European Union and individual countries, is an opportune time to contemplate future directions for the Auschwitz-Birkenau site and state museum. The Shoah exhibit reflects and informs such conversation.

Shana Penn is executive director of Taube Philanthropies, a Bay Area-based foundation committed to the revitalization of Jewish life in Poland. She is the author of “Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland.”