Discussions will soon be held on modernizing and renovating the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, built immediately following World War II. After returning from there last summer, I was asked to share my thoughts with the museum's board of directors.
I first visited Auschwitz 30 years ago. I came alone, a young doctoral student studying in Paris. I had not yet begun to deal openly with the past of my mother, Rina Govrin, who walked in the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, or with the brief life of my brother, Mark Leib, my mother's son, whose father was murdered and who was sent at age 8 to the gas chambers. Few people then visited communist Poland. In Auschwitz-Birkenau's broad, neglected expanses, the only other persons out in the autumn cold were a small group of Polish students. Time stood still, a threatening silence falling on the world's largest graveyard. There, facing the silence of that place, I understood I could not continue my denial, as I had done in my childhood in Tel Aviv or in Paris during the 1970s. Thus began my journey of writing my mother's story.
Last summer I returned to Auschwitz with Rachel-Shlomit, my eldest daughter, 20 years after the death of my mother, who had transferred to me, bit by bit, the story she had cloaked in silence. That summer morning, the museum site was filled with visitors from around the world, individuals and groups. Only a small percentage were from Israel. This time, when we were "swallowed up" by visitors crowding around the exhibits, the "erasure" process was especially prominent.
Joining the other tourists who were divided into groups, we followed the Polish guide for an official tour. I saw the exhibits in the pavilions. Here was the extermination trap, stage by stage, from the ramp to the showers, the medical experimentation rooms, the place where executions were held, the gas chambers, the piles of belongings - eyeglasses, combs, hair. I felt suffocated. A fear was also growing inside me, fear of another vacuum that was becoming increasingly powerful: of millions of human beings once more being swallowed up in the anonymity of mass numbers, in the faceless collective identity of the "martyrs." Here the Nazi extermination machine murdered 1.5 million human beings and erased their memory.
Even today, these people are not commemorated as individuals and they hardly exist in the museum - whether with respect to their previous lives or to when they were behind the camp's barbed wire. There are no names of the dead and the survivors, there are few photographs; you can hardly hear their voices and their stories are scarcely told. The museum does not show us the complexity of their reactions, and essentially they remain trapped in the Nazi documentation's perspective. There is no echo in the Auschwitz museum of the human experiences in the camp, of the ways in which inmates withstood, or collapsed before, the evil that reigned there.
I left the groups of visitors because I felt I was becoming an unwilling collaborator. Through this one-sided perspective, the visitor seemingly continues to erase the murdered as human beings and converts them into an industrial mass, a raw material that was gradually being consumed. During my visit, I felt I was part of a crowd rushing to see the traditional "attractions" - the hellishness, the torture chambers, and the horror shows found in amusement parks. Feeling powerless, I sat down by the path leading between the blocs, knowing even there the good would look better and the bad even worse.
Despite its noble intention, is the Auschwitz museum erecting a monument to evil's genius? Is it contributing to the intolerable whirlwind of terminology including holiness, sacrifice and martyrdom that began with "Holo-caust" (literally, a sacrifice consumed by fire), which Francois Mauriac coined in his foreword to Elie Wiesel's "Night"?
God did not establish Auschwitz nor did Satan create it. Mortals constructed Auschwitz and human beings were tortured there to death. They did not die to sanctify God's name; they struggled to sanctify life, as Rabbi Yitzhak Nussboim said before perishing. What about their voice? How can we draw closer to them and recall the ways in which they confronted evil - whether with despair, weakness, aggressiveness, cruelty, fraternity, compassion, heretical thoughts or faith in God?
I did not return to the groups of visitors, trying instead to cling to my mother's story, the story she silenced until her death, and which she expunged upon her arrival in Israel with an operation that removed the number tattooed on her forearm. I remember how she and her girlfriends supported one another in the face of torture, hard labor and hunger; how they lit Hanukkah candles in Block 24, sharing their bread, while trying to continue living and laughing. I sought a personal sign and said Kaddish.
The Auschwitz museum was established in 1947 in accordance with the Polish government's decision. When the Red Army entered the camp, a group of Polish survivors fought to keep the remains of it intact: They wanted to stop the Nazis' systematic erasure of their tracks, and to collect evidence of the crimes committed at Auschwitz. It was later decided that no changes would be made to the site and that it would remain as it was when liberated. The piles of personal possessions and hair, the blocks, cabins and remains of the crematoria were silent witnesses that turned the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp into a place of remembrance. The museum's founders refrained from publicly presenting their own private experiences.
"Your mother didn't have to talk about Auschwitz," one of her friends, a survivor, recently told me, "She was there."
When Auschwitz's gates were opened in January 1945 by the Allies, the camp was almost empty. Most of the inmates had been evacuated en masse in marches to labor and death camps throughout Poland and Germany. The silent remnants of the death machine and Nazi documentation (lists and photographs) remained in Auschwitz. These were the materials that formed the bulk of the original exhibition at the museum.
Hostages and captors
The stories of those were trapped at the camp were gradually exposed and only belatedly heard. Years would pass before the "Like sheep to the slaughter" stigma would fade somewhat. Only after the slaughter in Ma'alot and the murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich did people realize that hostages, even those in prime physical condition, are helpless in their captors' hands. Years would pass before the survivors' guilt feelings toward those who perished in the Holocaust, especially Israeli society's guilt feelings toward the "surviving remnant," would yield to a readiness to listen and to document at the last minute. For 60 years, material was gathered in archives, libraries and courts of law, on pages of testimony, in interviews and conversations with younger generations.
The isolated voices joined together, forming a giant chorus of personal stories that has given faces to the people who filled Auschwitz. More and more museums around the world, including Yad Vashem in its new format, are telling the story of the individual in the Holocaust. The story of humanity is buried among the camp's stone buildings and crumbling cabins. Here is where the children and grandchildren of the murderers and the murdered, of the accomplices and of those who extended a helping hand, face their past. This is where you confront the human spirit. This is the place where you can mourn the dead, remember their names and, if possible, their age and hometowns; where you can grieve for relatives and distant acquaintances, and for Jews and members of other nations and citizens of other countries. Each visitor remembers and grieves in a unique manner.
This is the place where you can hear the voices of human beings, and from this place visitors will carry them home, and will turn to them at critical moments in their lives, in situations where they will be either in a strong position or become hostages, where they may become torturers, where they will have to choose between turning their back or extending a helping hand.
At the renovated Auschwitz museum, modern technology will enable visitors to gather the mosaic of voices, and of the stories and their million details, and to listen closely to the voices they want to hear.