On both sides of the track rows of red and white lights appeared as far as the eye could see; but there was none of that confusion of sounds which betrays inhabited places even from a distance. By the wretched light of the last candle, with the rhythm of the wheels, with every human sound now silenced, we awaited what was to happen.
In this excerpt from Primo Levi's memoir, the reader approaches the gates of Auschwitz as an anxious prisoner. Everything is uncertain and confusing. The initial feeling upon arrival at the camp, according to Levi, was that of bizarre disbelief. A sense of having been thrust into a rigged game, designed to mock and humiliate. Approaching the concentration camp as a visitor in the 21st century, however, one is acutely aware of precisely what cruel business was conducted here.
That being said, it is important to note that Auschwitz was not initially an extermination camp. It began as a work camp to contain the overflow of Poles in local prisons. The Nazi regime was obsessed with the 'useful' and 'un-useful.' Any 'useful', yet undesirable, body was thus sentenced to forced labour to fuel the war effort. During the course of World War II, the camp took in Soviet POWs, Sinti and Roma gypsies, homosexuals, those persecuted on religious grounds, and prisoners from all across occupied Europe. Of course, the camp was also re-purposed and included in the planned mass-extermination of the Jews. Following this decision, a huge influx of prisoners occurred, and the crematoria were constructed. Although, even after these were built, forced labour was still a significant part of everyday life at Auschwitz. Primo Levi, for example, was imprisoned at Buna: the synthetic rubber factory that 'never produced a single pound of synthetic rubber'. This brutal redundancy is reflected in the cruel lie, sculpted in iron, that workers faced every day: "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will make you free).
Primo Levi was a highly exceptional prisoner. He managed to survive an entire year in Auschwitz, where the average life expectancy was 3 to 4 months. A great many intricate factors had to come together in his favour, to ensure his survival until the liberation. Primo Levi (among others) stressed that the vast majority of prisoners who lost themselves in Nazi camps remain unspoken for. Out of an estimated 1.3 million that were sent to the camp, approximately 1.1 million died. Furthermore, only a minuscule proportion wrote memoirs of their experiences. This means the memoirs that we do have cannot be considered typical experiences by any means. Their very existences rely on extraordinary circumstances. They don't tell the story of the vast majority that came, and simply worked themselves to death, or perished in the gas chambers. Normal häftlinge did not survive. Auschwitz itself, though a quintessential Nazi camp, is also an exceptional one. It stands out due to its size, numbers, and the diverse national scope of its victims. All the same, perhaps the physical camp, and the emotional experience of walking where they walked, and seeing what they left behind is the only way to hear the voices of the ordinary prisoners.
Auschwitz itself is in danger. The museum faces a crumbling memorial. Aside from hundreds of physical buildings, the camp oversees the preservation of 110 thousand shoes, about 3,800 suitcases, 12 thousand pots and pans, 40 kg. of eyeglasses, 470 prostheses, 570 items of camp clothing, as well as 4,5 thousand works of art. A formidable and expensive challenge faces conservators. The decision has already been made to allow one of the most heart-wrenching exhibits at Auschwitz, the tonnes of human hair from victims, to decompose naturally.
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine in 2010, historian Jan van Pelt argued that, as Auschwitz becomes a reconstruction it becomes inauthentic. In his opinion, after the death of the last survivor, it should be left to fall to nature. 1958 saw a proposal to allow for the preservation efforts to cease and instead to pave an enormous asphalt road across the site of the main camp in an attempt to force visitors to face that they could never fully understand the horrors that took place there - a plan rejected by survivors.
For the moment many feel a fierce protectiveness over the site, and Auschwitz still stands to teach valuable lessons and tell important stories. It seems improbable that any empathetic human could walk through there unaffected, as one could through a museum collection pulled from its context into a building without memory. The remains at Auschwitz convey what words can not, and will not, because those who were lost at the camp never left.
Primo Levi, If This is a Man (1991)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum