"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

6 Mar 2012

Who Owns the Auschwitz Barracks?

In 1989 the Poles loaned the Washington Holocaust Museum half a wooden barrack from its collection of 155 buildings on the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. The original 10 year loan was extended by another 10 years, and now, two years after the second loan period has expired, the Poles are insisting on the return of the barrack. Not surprisingly perhaps; because the Auschwitz museum director could be jailed for up to two years if he fails to obtain the return of the barrack under a law on protecting historic artifacts.
     There has been some negotiation on smaller items such as shoes and suitcases, with the Americans only too happy to part with some of the latter for fear of relatives who may recognise the names of their murdered ancestors (scrawled on their luggage in their hope of them eventually being returned) and claim them back. A solution was keep the suitcases with names obscured or even obscure them. After decades of squabbling over treasure looted by the Nazis, we now have this absurd battle over remnants of Nazi killing machine itself. The original owners of the barracks were arguabley the Nazis, the new owners the Poles, but what claim might the surviviors and relatives of those who were incarcerated and murdered in the barracks and surroundings have in this legacy?
     I'm indebted to documentary film maker Martin Smith, who was Exhibition Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Washington from 1988 to 1990 and who introduced the barrack as part of the Museum's narrative, for bringing the dispute to my attention and providing me with background information. If Martin is correct in identifying that US citizens have recently given the Poles $65,000,000 "to ensure the long term preservation of historic artifacts at Auschwitz and elsewhere", it does seem rather churlish not to let the Washington Museum keep their half a barrack. Firstly because there must be thousands of relatives of survivors and those killed in Birkenau living in America to whom the exhibition is an important focus for remembrance. And secondly, its not as though their aren't enough barracks in Birkenau . . . 
   
When I visited the site myself, what fascinated me was the way in which visitors took away with them small 'souvenirs' such as pieces of brick, fragments of glass, pieces of metal, stones, etc. I wondered how many years it would take before the museum disappeared altogether.

For a thoroughgoing critique on the absurdity of Holocaust tourism, see Angela Morgan Cutler's Auschwitz and Abigail Rine's response.

5 comments:

  1. Dear Ian, since you wonder what claim might the surviviors and relatives of those who were incarcerated and murdered in the barracks and surroundings have in this legacy, I must remind you of seventy thousands of Poles who were murdered in Auschwitz camp by Germans. From that point of view your comments on the actions undertaken by Polish side seem pretty churlish. Besides, how can you blame the legal claim for return of the object which was kindly loaned? It is not the Polish side who should feel ashamed in this situation.
    Sincerely,

    Filip

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  2. Thanks Filip,

    You have helpfully reinforced the absurdity of this debate. There are an estimated 10 million Poles living in America who are currently able to remember their ancestors by visiting the Washington Museum should they wish to do so, though of course these include Polish Jews also, including my own relatives in Chicago. I make made no distinction between what nationality or classification of person (gay, straight, mentally disordered, vagrants, etc.) was murdered in Auschwitz. So not sure why Poles feel they need to be competitive about the event.

    Ian

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  3. Ian,
    Your argument is completely invalid. The ground for returning the building is simple as this example-in case should you or anybody else have problems understanding this: if you borrow any piece from one museum to exhibit in another museum - you must return it - no matter what.

    By the way your comments "I make made no distinction between what nationality or classification of person (gay, straight, mentally disordered, vagrants, etc.)" or "not sure why Poles feel they need to be competitive about the event" are simply classically demagogic, and make this discussion pointless.

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  4. Ian,

    It's not about being Poles being competitive - it's about the Washington Museum not being decent and obeying to laws and rules. It should return the barracks not because they fit better in Poland, but because they are not its property - they're property of the Auschwitz museum (regardless of how much US gave to Poles - this is a really poor argument). I personally, think that it is a good idea to have the barracks constantly in US - there's a big audience for it there, as well as in any other country. But the way the Washington Museum handles it is simply wrong: the barracks are property of the polish museum and should be handled as any other artifact: returned when time comes.

    To answer your question "who owns the barracs": Auschwitz musem (not to be confused with Poles).

    Sincerely
    Szymon

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Szymon and others for reading and commenting on Cynical Reflections. Cynicism does not concern itself with the law and rules other than to ridicule them. Its target is human stupidity and absurdity (not least man made rules and laws), and it's commentary is often ironic; that is, to prompt a reaction, some critical thinking.

      En

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