By Michael Meagher, Boston University
Located on the former site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp complex, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is the most materially rich of the major Holocaust museums. Featuring numerous artifacts from all aspects of camp life, many of the museums’ displays showcase highly intimate or sensitive items, including personal belongings and human remains.
In Block 5, for example, one case displays Jewish prayer shawls, while a nearby room is piled almost to the ceiling with suitcases of those who were murdered upon their arrival to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many of them still bear the names and addresses of their owners. A similar exhibit shows the prosthetic limbs, crutches, and other medical devices that were confiscated from detainees with disabilities, all of whom would have been immediately murdered upon entry to the camp.
In Block 4, one hall is filled with the hair of tens of thousands of women whose heads were shaved before their bodies were burned; this hair was to be sold to companies in the Third Reich for industrial purposes. In another room, a large urn filled with cremated remains and human bone fragments is displayed on an elevated pedestal in a recessed portion of the wall.
The treatment of these exhibits marks them as being different in kind from the other displays throughout the museum. A fresh rose is placed before each exhibit that contains any intimate personal belonging or remains, a wholly "un-Jewish" gesture of memorial that is touching nonetheless. Museum policy expressly forbids photography of the female prisoners’ hair, and photography is prohibited as well in the basement of Block 11, where Soviet POWs and Polish political prisoners were tortured to death. While these policies are laudable efforts to ensure the dignity of these sites and the remains stored within them, apparent inconsistencies in museum policy invite questioning of the role and intention of such sensitive exhibits.
Silence is requested in the museum’s execution yard, intact gas chamber, and surviving crematorium – a respectful nod to the untold scores of people killed in these very locations – and yet no such silence is requested in the rooms that hold the remains of these very individuals. It is similarly inconsistent to forbid photography of the human hair exhibited in Block 5 without requesting that cameras be disallowed in the chamber below that serves as the final resting place for an unknown number of people. Why are these ashes and bones on display? And why are silence and a lack of photography not demanded for this grave of unknown victims?
These inquires inevitably lead to questions about the purpose of keeping these exhibits on public display. Is the intent behind them to shock, disgust, and sadden visitors with the disregard for humanity that occurred in Auschwitz? If so, then the prosthetics and hair exhibits certainly succeed in doing so. But if this is indeed the goal, is it ethical or respectful to us human remains in such a manner? As genetic testing grows ever more advanced, should surviving relatives of those who perished in Auschwitz be entitled to pursue such testing on the chance of finding a family member’s locks
within the museum’s stores of human hair? Ought a catalogue of the genetic signatures of these women’s hair be compiled, or at least attempted, before the collection decays completely? A similar issue arises with items such as the briefcases; should living relatives of these individuals be sought out in order to provide them with what may be the only remaining memento of a murdered loved one? Has such an effort already been attempted? The exhibit itself does not address this topic.
Another issue worth considering in the creation and maintenance of such a museum relates to the potential ‘repatriation’ of sensitive objects whose original owners are unknown. Should the museum’s salvaged tallitoth -- the prayer shawls -- be brought to Israel, in order to be displayed or disposed of by citizens of the Jewish state? In the perhaps unlikely case in which the nationality but not identity of an item’s owner is known, should the object be returned to the country of its owner’s birth? These are only a few of the ethical questions that arise from the exhibition and display of such objects in a state-run museum. Many individuals and organizations are no doubt already concerned with these issues, and it behooves the Polish government to acknowledge and address such issues in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
This post is part of series of articles written by participants on our “We Will Write Our History” writing seminar in Auschwitz. Learn more at http://togetherrestoring.com/writehistory