March 19, 2014

Care to spare a dime to save Auschwitz?

That was the question posed to us last week when the government-appointed leader of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland visited our offices. For the last six years, museum director Piotr M.A. Cywinski and his team have been on a mission to raise $165 million to preserve the cursed concentration camp, where nearly 1.1 million Jews were exterminated.

Turns out, the Nazi penchant for fine art did not extend to architecture. Auschwitz was actually shabbily built, bricks-and-mortar style, designed to be a temporary slaughterhouse and then disappear. It wasn’t built to last — or matter.  

It should surprise no one that the Nazis were better at destroying than building, but in fact, it is alarming that in the decades since World War II, the site that proves Hitler’s horrors existed has been slowly crumbling away.

A steady stream of groundwater has upended the 45 brick barracks where so many Jews barely slept; Cywinski estimates that 15 years ago, 90 percent of the barracks were open to the public. Today, only three are intact enough for entry.

Saving a death camp is a twisted task, but it must be done to preserve the evidence of history. It is a “harsh reality” as museum literature puts it, that “the ravages of time” — wind, rain, freezing cold and scorching sun — have begun “devouring every barracks and building, every shoe and suitcase, every vestige of the twisted world that flourished within … ”

In 2009, Cywinski co-founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation as a separate, independent endowment for the site in order to ensure its preservation for future generations. It is promising that last year alone, Auschwitz hosted more people who had come to learn about its history than perished in its gas chambers. And of the 1.4 million international visitors, 70 percent were teenagers. 

The international interest in the site explains why approximately 28 countries have contributed $136 million to the endowment; though culpability must have played a role, too: Germany gave the leading gift of $81.6 million, followed by the United States with $15 million, Poland with $13.6 million and France with $6.8 million. The city of Paris, host to the Vel d’Hiv roundup, gave its own, separate gift of 300,000 euros; but big and benevolent Canada managed only $400,000 in U.S. currency, making Israel’s second-best friend, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seem a little stingy (I was told that initially Canada declined altogether, then offered a symbolic gift of $200,000 as good sense prevailed).

Museum officials are in a rush to raise the $25 million or so still needed before Jan. 27, 2015 — the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. But, as they’ve learned, easy money is hard to come by, unless you’re willing to sell high or sell out.  

They rejected a boatload from an internationally renowned fashion designer who wanted to do a fashion shoot under the signature entry sign “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the terrible lie that “work sets one free” — to honor the victims, of course. Imagine that on the fall cover of Vogue: Homage via haute couture. 

“It’s very easy for artists to make their name using this site,” Cywinski said, explaining his decision not to allow it. “If I’m managing this site and this history, I have to protect it.”

Hollywood and other artists have come calling, too. But while Cywinski allows the site to be used for documentary films, he cannot conscience turning the setting of the 20th century’s great historical tragedy into a set for Aristotelian tragedy. “Never, never, never,” he said in his Polish-accented European English.

“I don’t have the right to reduce Auschwitz-Birkenau to the role of ciné.” 

Cywinski’s only aim is to preserve the essential authenticity of Auschwitz, not use it for other purposes or build over it with monuments. Not like Dachau, he said, which is dappled with churches, or Mauthausen, which is masked by memorials. “When you want to express too much, you express nothing,” he lamented.

So he has no plans to rebuild what the Nazis long ago destroyed. “This is a place of sorrow,” he said. “We don’t want to turn it into Disneyland.”

So long as Cywinski is at the helm, nothing new will be made at Auschwitz. But what of the 2,000 works of art made by prisoners of the camp itself? When survivor Dina Gottliebova Babbitt tried to retrieve the watercolor portraits she painted of gypsy prisoners at the behest of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the museum refused to give them to her. And not an international outpouring, a congressional hearing or a documentary film on her plight could reunite her with her work. She died in 2009. 

“It’s painful to go against the real emotions of a survivor,” Cywinski told me, woefully. “From an emotional point of view, you think, ‘Why not give it back to her?’ But you have to be confident that it is only drawings she did. Or, is it part of the documentation of what Mengele did?”

“Arbeit Macht Frei was built by a prisoner who specialized in metal work,” he added. “Everything in the camp was done by prisoners on order. Is [Auschwitz] the property of prisoners? You can’t distribute Auschwitz all over the world.”

On this topic, Cywinski makes one exception to his general rule. He intends to create an art gallery in the camp’s kitchen — “the source of hope, because to work in the kitchen in many cases meant you would be saved” — displaying selections from the thousands of artworks created by humans beings on the brink. “This will not be a normal art gallery,” he explained, as if it could be, but a sacred space for art “organized not by artist, but by feeling.”  

Seven decades after so much death, emotions still have life.

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