New Museum Planned for Auschwitz

Clothes taken from prisoners at Dachau concentration camp as they were found by American soldiers who liberated the camp in 1945.
National Archives, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer [111-SC-206193]

Discussions are underway regarding a new exhibit at Auschwitz.  To date, the displays at the most famous Nazi death camp were “unadorned and mostly unexplained.” Now Piotr Cywinski, the museum’s director, hopes to change that.

The New York Times reports that Cywinski wishes to better explained what happened at the site, the experience of the victims.

Traditionally, the Polish state used Auschwitz to tell a story of the persecution of Polish-Catholics, largely ignoring the six million Jews exterminated at Birkenau.  Major conflicts erupted when Catholics sought to commemorate the killings by erecting crosses at the various sites.  Attempts to fix the oversight, such as one instance where the Star of David was placed on crosses in a misguided effort to commemorate Jews and Catholics alike, only made matters worse.

The new plan would essentially turn Auschwitz-Birkenau into a more traditional museum (although Cywinski is careful to say that his plan involves little in the way of technology as that would diminish the authenticity of the site).  It is unlikely that his effort will pass without conflict, however.

Telling the story of Nazi genocide necessarily means recounting the story of Nazi Germany, placing greater emphasis on the perpetrators.  Victims groups will almost certainly dislike this.  More daunting still, the rise of the Nazis and their path to the “Final Solution” is not at all clear cut.  There were undoubtedly truly evil men who enjoyed killing, but the real story is one of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” For every guard who enjoyed shooting victims, there were many more Germans who simply operated railway switches, pushed paper, or simply refused to speak up.

There is nothing banal about Auschwitz.  How does one juxtapose the complexity of the Nazi narrative with the unmitigated horror of mass murder?

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