Auschwitz: Balancing Memory and Mass Tourism

Auschwitz July 2015-wm1

Here’s my recent article for JTA on how commemoration and mass tourism collide at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz ‘showers’ highlight challenge of balancing tourism and memory

(JTA) – Pawel Sawicki gets to his desk every morning by 7, but he works no regular office job.

Sawicki is an information officer at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum, the sprawling complex in southern Poland that encompasses the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp. More than 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there.

“I look out my window and see barbed wire and barracks,” Sawicki told JTA. “It’s never just a job. You have to find ways to deal with the emotions.”

Auschwitz is a place where history, commemoration and, increasingly, mass tourism collide. The iconic symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz is also a major tourist attraction — the most-visited museum in Poland. Its complex identity — Auschwitz is also a sacred site of martyrdom for Catholic Poles — has made it an emotional, and sometimes political, battleground of memory since the end of World War II.

The latest instance erupted last week, when the museum’s effort to help visitors during an extreme heat wave by installing misting showers provoked outrage among those who felt they invoked the fake showers at Birkenau that spewed poison gas.

Facing a storm of criticism, the museum defended its actions. “Something had to be done” to help visitors cope with the sweltering temperatures, museum officials wrote in a Facebook post. The museum also pointed out that the Nazi gas chamber showers where nearly 1 million were killed by Zyklon B poison gas looked nothing like the misting sprinklers.

“Zyklon B was dropped inside the gas chambers in a completely different way – through holes in the ceiling or airtight drops in walls,” the museum said.

As the heat wave abated, the misting showers at Auschwitz were removed.

“The site is so complicated, with so many conflicting aspects, that nothing is easy,” said Tomasz Cebulski, a historian, tour guide and educator whose doctoral work was on the museum’s political and international aspects.

Created by an act of the Polish Parliament in1947, the memorial museum comprises two parts – the Auschwitz I camp, entered through the iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate, and the vast area of Auschwitz II, at Birkenau, about two miles away.

The museum’s permanent exhibition, displayed in several of the brick barracks in the Auschwitz I camp, opened in 1955 and has changed little since. It includes displays of original artifacts and masses of material left by victims: suitcases, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, clothing, kitchen utensils, even hair shorn from victims’ heads.

Birkenau is a memorial site, a vast open area marked by the grim ruins of the crematoria and barracks and bisected by railway tracks. At one end stands a large monument to victims erected in the 1960s; at the other, the looming entry tower and siding where trains carrying victims were unloaded.

One of the museum’s key challenges is conserving the site’s deteriorating buildings, ruins, archival holdings and artifacts. The museum is a state-run entity. The Polish government provides more than one-third of the approximately $15 million annual budget, and the European Union also contributes some funding. But more than half of the budget is generated by the museum itself through visitor fees for guides, sales of publications, onsite business concessions and other income sources.

In 2009, a special Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was established to “amass and manage” a perpetual endowment fund of $120 million whose income is specifically earmarked for long-term conservation. Some 35 states have pledged or donated funds to the endowment, including more than half of the sum from Germany alone.

The museum employs 339 staffers, including security personnel, educators, archivists, preservationists and technology specialists. They face a daunting task, said Emory University Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt.

“They are both a museum to educate and also a memorial. And they are the major site of destruction,” she said.

“There are very tough questions about preservation that are being dealt with in a most professional and sensitive manner,” Lipstadt said. For example, “the remnants of the gas chambers are collapsing. Do you go in and shore them up? Or let them collapse? Do you stop the hair from disintegrating or not?”

A dramatic upsurge of visitors in recent years has put serious strains on the fragile infrastructure at the site.

A record 1.53 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2014, up from less than 500,000 in 2000. This year, more than 1 million toured the site in the first seven months of the year.

The growing numbers of visitors prompted the museum to implement new visitor regulations and security measures in January. For the first time, there is a ban on bringing backpacks or other large bags into the site.

Basic entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau is free. But during peak hours entrance is now limited, and visitors must pay to tour the site in groups led by one of the nearly 300 guides, working in 18 languages, who have been licensed by the museum after specialized training programs, often in cooperation with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

Because of their large numbers and new regulations, some visitors must wait hours before they can enter the site. That has helped bolster visits to the nearby Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and prayer and study center established in 2000 and located about two miles away in the town of Oswiecim. Before the Holocaust, most of Oswiecim’s residents were Jews, and part of the center’s complex is located in Oswiecim’s sole remaining synagogue, Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot.

The Oswiecim center is dedicated to educating about the Holocaust and Polish Jewish heritage, and the center cooperates with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum on educational programs, including for university fellows, U.S. cadets and midshipmen, and law-enforcement personnel.

But the center at Oswiecim gets only a small fraction of the visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, according to the center’s director, Tomasz Kuncewicz.

“It is a logistical challenge – how to handle the immense numbers so that they can see the exhibits comfortably,” Sawicki said of Auschwitz-Birkenau. “With so many visitors, enhanced security measures were inevitable. We think of both the security of the site and the security of visitors.”

A $26 million off-site visitors’ center, due to open in the next two years, is expected to help, and a new education center is also planned.

The museum also has embarked on an 11-year, government-funded project to revamp its permanent exhibit in a way that will modernize the presentation and reflect current scholarship while at the same time preserve the authenticity of the site and material on display.

“I was for years very critical of mass tourism to Auschwitz,” said Cebulski, the historian. “But lately I’ve come to feel that we should see it as an opportunity. To have 1.5 million people be exposed to this original historic site, even if they spend only 10 minutes thinking of what Auschwitz is, it accomplishes something.”

 

 

Lodz Ghetto photos — my piece in the Jewish Quarterly

The Jewish Quarterly publishes my review of the book Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

June 22, 2015

The extraordinary images reprinted in Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross are survivors, both physical and symbolic.

Ross, born in Warsaw in 1910, was one of the more than 200,000 Jews imprisoned in the World War II Lodz ghetto. Thanks to his background as a photo-journalist, he was appointed to a privileged position—an official photographer for the Statistics Office of the Ghetto’s Jewish Council (Judenrat).

He worked in that capacity from 1940 to 1945, taking thousands of photographs that documented the widest possible range of ghetto life—and death.

On the one hand, his official work produced everything from ID portraits and group photos of ghetto police, to Potemkin village-like shots of ghetto inmates, smiling at their benches as they laboured in Council-run workshops, or “resorts”, including those that employed young children.

But he turned his lens, too, on other scenes far outside the purview of propaganda—scenes of violence and mass deportations, scenes of murder and malnutrition, scenes of death. Often taken on the sly, from a camera hidden under his coat, these images are chilling but almost familiar in the Holocaust horror they depict.

Ross, though, also immortalized intensely personal moments that put the death, destruction and degradation in a much more intimate, even unlikely, context: kids at play, a smiling bride at her ghetto wedding, friends clowning, a couple stealing a kiss.

Ross, who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel after the war, knew just what he was doing and just what he wanted to do.

“Having an official camera, I was secretly able to photograph the life of the Jews in the ghetto,” he wrote in 1987, four years before his death. “Just before the closure of the ghetto in 1944, I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

In January 1945, after the Red Army liberated the ghetto, he went back and dug up what he had hidden. Fewer than 3,000 of the 6,000 negatives he had buried survived intact; others were severely damaged from seven months under ground.

But by bringing them back to light, he brought them, and what they represented, back to life.  Ross unearthed not only shadowy strips of celluloid; he unearthed direct testimony to the cruelty of life inside the ghetto, and direct testimony, too, to life itself – the lives lived by ghetto inmates, intimate glimpses of humanity side by side with the horror.

Mai-Mari Sutnik, who edited Memory Unearthed, called them images of “cruel tragedies” and “consoling pleasures.”

…Continue reading

 

 

Quoted in article on Poland’s Jewish cultural revival

Joanna Zajaczkowska quotes me in her recent lengthy article on the revival of Jewish culture in Poland.

The very visible revival of interest in Jewish cultural heritage that has taken place in recent decades in Poland seems to many observers to be especially remarkable, even shocking. “Poland was long considered the quintessential ‘Jewish graveyard’, so many observers found Jewish and Jewish cultural revival there hard to believe or accept. For years, many people did not acknowledge or trust these developments,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, European-based American journalist and author, specialist in contemporary Jewish affairs. “The revival of interest in Jewish culture and history was a symbol of the fall of communism and return to democracy 25 years ago, in Poland and in other post-communist countries. Finally, people could “recover” a part of the past that had been virtually taboo in some places”- claims Ruth Ellen Gruber.

Read the full article

My articles on the opening of the POLIN museum in Warsaw

"The forest" -- entry into the core exhibit

“The forest” — entry into the core exhibit

The long-awaited core exhibition of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened Oct. 28. I attended the gala opening events and also wrote a couple of articles — one on the opening itself and one of the broader context. I also posted a photo gallery of the museum on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site. Click here to view the photo gallery.

Here below are my two articles, as well as some of the pictures.

Amid growing European anti-Semitism, new Jewish museum in Poland ‘reveals hope’

Ruth Ellen Gruber

October 28, 20114

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — In a Europe wracked by fears of rising anti-Semitism, and in a country whose Jews were all but annihilated in the Holocaust, a dazzling new “museum of life” celebrates the Jewish past and looks forward to a vital future.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday jointly inaugurated the long-awaited core exhibit of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a more than $100 million complex first conceived more than 20 years ago.

“It is not a museum of the Holocaust, it is a museum of life,” Rivlin, who was making his first trip abroad since his election this summer, declared at the opening ceremony. “It is the place that commemorates everything that is gone and will never return. And it reveals hope for a different future.”

Komorowski stressed the same hopes, declaring that the museum opening was a history-making event that bore witness to Poland’s development into a democratic state since the fall of communism.

“One of the central themes in our drive to freedom was to put right the account of history that had been corrupted, manipulated and distorted in so many ways during the non-democratic communist era,” Komorowski said.

Before the Holocaust, some 3.3 million Jews lived in Polish lands. Thousands of survivors fled anti-Semitism in the postwar period. The fall of communism sparked a remarkable revival in Jewish life and identity, but the Jewish population today is still tiny, estimated at 15,000-20,000 in a country of nearly 40 million people.

“We are here!” Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski, chairman of the Council of the Jewish Historical Institute, one of the institutional founders of the museum, said in an emotional speech at the opening ceremony. “That is the message: We are here!”

The reconstructed painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec, a key installation in the core exhibit of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

The museum is housed in a shimmering glass building erected on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto facing the dramatic monument erected atop the rubble left when the Nazis crushed the ghetto uprising in 1943. Described as a “theatre of history,” the core exhibit uses state-of-the-art technology and multimedia installations to narrate 1,000 years of Polish Jewish history.

The exhibition’s eight thematic and chronological galleries detail the complex ebb and flow of Jewish life in Poland from the early middle ages to the present, including periods of prosperity as well as persecution.

They recount grand events but also use letters, diaries, photos and other intimate material to provide personal viewpoints. This is particularly notable in the Holocaust gallery, which narrates the history through the words and deeds of the people who experienced it.

Other highlights include the reconstructed and elaborately painted ceiling and bimah of the now-destroyed wooden synagogue in Gwozdziec (in present-day Ukraine) and a painted animation of 24 hours in the life of the famous yeshiva in Volozhin (now Belarus).

But the core exhibit is only part of the story.

The museum’s impact “stretches way, way beyond the building,” said Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. “And it’s not about a museum of the history of Polish Jews — it’s about Polish Jews. History means past, and it’s not about the past.”

Hundreds of thousands of people — Poles and Jews, locals and foreigners — have visited the museum in the 18 months since the building was opened to the public. Organizers expect a half-million or more each year now that the core exhibit has been opened.

The museum is part of a wider movement since the fall of communism “to reconnect with the past, including the Jewish past,” said Dariusz Stola, the museum’s director. “The museum is the most visible element in this movement. But without the broader movement it wouldn’t have happened.”

This broader movement includes a number of new Jewish studies programs at Polish universities, new or revamped museums, permanent exhibits and memorials on Jewish or Holocaust themes in a number of provincial towns and scores of grassroots initiatives ranging from Jewish cemetery cleanup actions to Jewish culture festivals. This year alone, some 40 Jewish culture festivals took place in Poland, mostly in places where no Jews live today.

“The Jewish presence in Polish consciousness is vast, vast,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the program director of the core exhibit. “It means that there is a kind of inverse relationship between the numbers of Jews living in Poland and what we call Jewish presence in Polish consciousness.”

The POLIN museum was built as a public-private institution, with the Polish government and the city of Warsaw providing $60 million for construction and more than 500 private and institutional donors, many of them Jewish, contributing $48 million for the core exhibition.

“Though Europe has seen a recent rise in anti-Semitism, in Poland we are seeing a revitalization of Jewish life and culture that is being experienced by – and truly driven by – both Poland’s Jewish and gentile communities,” the San Francisco-based philanthropist Tad Taube, head of Taube Philanthropies and the Koret Foundation, said in a statement.

The two organizations were the largest private donors to the museum with a total contribution of $16 million.

“The opening of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a game changer that will break down negative stereotypes about Poland,” Taube said.

The hope, his statement added, is that its lessons “will have ripple effects throughout Eastern Europe as Poland’s neighbors seek to develop their own major modern cultural institutions and broader, more inclusive narratives of their multicultural histories.”


The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki. The building itself was opened to the public in April 2013. The core exhibition, which opened Oct. 28, uses state-of-the-art interactive technology to tell the 1,000-year-history of Jewish presence in Poland in eight galleries that cover 45,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Its name, Polin, means “Poland” in Hebrew, but also derives from a legend that when the first Jews reached Polish lands they heard birds chirping the welcoming expression “Po-lin.” In Hebrew, Polin means “Here you should dwell.”

The core exhibit’s galleries are arranged by both chronology and theme: Forest, First Encounters (the Middle Ages), Paradisus Iudaeoreum(15th and 16th centuries), Into the Country (17th and 18th centuries), Encounters With Modernity (19th century), The Street, Holocaust and Postwar.

Described by its director, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, as a “theater of history,” the exhibit contrasts the grand sweep of epochal events with intimate glimpses of individual joy, pain, fear and reflection.

Highlights of the exhibition include:

The dazzling “Jewish Sistine Chapel,” the reconstructed and elaborately painted ceiling and bimah of the now-destroyed wooden synagogue in Gwozdziec (present-day Ukraine), built by hand using traditional tools and techniques by volunteers and students under the leadership of the Massachusetts-based Handshouse Studio.

A larger-than-life-sized painted animation of 24 hours in the life of the famous yeshiva in Volozhin (now Belarus) founded at the beginning of the 19th century by a disciple of the Gaon of Vilna.

A cartoon-like animation telling the story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.

“The Jewish Street,” a multimedia mock-up of a typical street in pre-World War II Jewish Warsaw, with exhibits on Jewish life between the two world wars. Its layout in the museum corresponds to the exact prewar location of Zamenhofa Street, the heart of the prewar Jewish neighborhood of Muranow.

Evocative shifting video installations of field and forest Polish landscapes where Jews settled.

Hundreds of quotations by and about Jews culled from public documents, official decrees and intimate letters and diaries.

Interactive installations that allow visitors to “mint” a medieval coin, “print” pages from historic books, and “trace” and translate the epitaphs of centuries-old Jewish gravestones.

The Holocaust gallery, which narrates the story of the Shoah in the words of people who experienced it.

Postwar images of the rebuilding of Poland and Jewish life.

Click here to read story at LA Jewish Journal

 

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New museum reflects growing Polish interest in all things Jewish

Ruth Ellen Gruber

November 19, 2014

KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) — Crowds have been streaming to Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews since its core exhibition opened Oct. 28 at a high-profile ceremony led by the presidents of Poland and Israel.

Thousands of visitors have toured the museum’s eight interactive galleries that tell the 1,000-year story of Jewish life in Poland and have flocked to events like the recent Warsaw Jewish Film Festival, some of whose screenings took place at the museum. Some 7,000 people visited the museum on a single Monday when admission was free.

But POLIN is not the only Jewish-related museum in Poland to win recent recognition. At the end of October the Polish version of TripAdvisor listed the much more modest Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow as one of Poland’s 2014 top 10 museums. The Holocaust memorial museums at the former Nazi camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, as well as the Auschwitz Jewish Center — a museum, study and prayer center in Oswiecim — also made the roster.

The TripAdvisor list is based on user reviews and is by no means a scientific study. But it reflects the widespread interest in Jewish heritage, culture and history that has been growing in Poland since before the fall of communism. In many ways, POLIN is the high-profile tip of a very big iceberg.

“It is a symbolic representation of all the changes that have taken place,” said Galicia Jewish Museum Director Jakub Nowakowski. “It could not have been created if not for this. There is a genuine interest in Jewish culture and Polish-Jewish relations in Poland.”

The Galicia museum is one of more than a half-dozen Jewish cultural and educational institutions and initiatives in Krakow alone, a city that is home today to only a few hundred Jews. Established 10 years ago, it showcases photographs of Polish Jewish heritage sites taken by its founder, the late British photographer Chris Schwarz. It also hosts temporary exhibits and other events that celebrate Jewish culture from a contemporary viewpoint.

Other Jewish institutions in Krakow include the Jewish studies program at the city’s Jagiellonian University, the Judaica Foundation Center for Jewish Culture and the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, a nine-day event founded in 1988 that draws tens of thousands to concerts, workshops and exhibits.

The city also has three Jewish bookstores, a Jewish publishing house and a Jewish branch of the Krakow History Museum. A modern Jewish community center opened in 2008 and attracts local Jews, non-Jews and tourists alike to classes, courses, holiday events and kosher Shabbat dinners. Most of the dozens of young volunteers who staff the reception desk and help run JCC activities are not Jewish.

“The huge amount of interest in Jewish topics has created an incredibly pro-Jewish environment where people feel comfortable taking steps to explore their Jewish roots,” said JCC Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein.

Nationwide, there are various academic Jewish studies programs, new or revamped Jewish museums and permanent exhibits, and hundreds of grassroots initiatives ranging from Jewish cemetery cleanups to more than 40 annual Jewish culture festivals. Given that only 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Poland today, most of these are run by non-Jews — about 200 of whom have been honored by the Israeli Embassy since 1998 for their role in preserving Jewish culture and heritage.

“The number of these initiatives is really impressive,” said Edyta Gawron, a Jewish studies professor at Jagiellonian University who said about 95 percent of her students are not Jewish. “It is not just in the big cities, but also in small towns, where people are trying to build the future of Jewish heritage. And it is important and unusual that most of the people behind these initiatives are not Jewish.”

The more than $100 million POLIN museum, which draws about 60 percent of its funding from the city of Warsaw and the Polish government, is dramatically larger than the other Jewish projects around the country. It aims now to use its clout to reach out far beyond its walls to lead the process of integrating Jewish history into Polish history.

“With its very public and very prominent place in Poland, the POLIN museum validates local initiatives,” said Brandeis professor Antony Polonsky, the museum’s chief historian. “We want to find out what’s going on and give them encouragement and expertise.”

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In early November, the museum convened more than 100 local Jewish heritage and culture activists from around the country to exchange experiences, network and meet with museum experts. And POLIN’s Museum on Wheels project takes material, information and educational programs prepared by the museum curators to far-flung communities all over the country.

“It is very important. It goes everywhere — to towns where people never saw a Jew, or that they didn’t know that they did,” said Krzysztof Bielawski, director of POLIN’s interactive web portal Virtual Shtetl. The site posts news and information about Jewish heritage and history in more than 2,300 towns, cities and villages — and attracts 5,000 unique visitors a day.

“There are many myths about Jews,” Bielawski said.

“If you don’t know about something, you can be afraid of it. The first step is knowledge, and we are providing knowledge. Our museum shows that Jews are normal people,” he added. “It demystifies Jews.”
Click here to read story on the JTA site