Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at DU, currently on sabbatical and doing research for a book on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. The book will focus on case studies in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

Journal entry, May 9, 2013
I've been in Europe for about two and a half weeks, part of the time doing research for my current book project on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis during World War II. This is my third research trip during my sabbatical year (September 2012-May 2013), enabling me to examine government archives in Belgium and the Netherlands, and meet with art restitution experts in both countries. During my previous trips this year I've also studied archives and met with experts in Washington, D.C., London and Paris.

For this trip, I decided to extend my stay across the Atlantic to do some traveling that will enrich my teaching as well as my scholarship. I teach courses in modern European history, from the French Revolution through the Cold War, including World War II and the Holocaust. Over the last few years, I have felt that I needed to travel to Nazi concentration and death camps to give my students a more in-depth perspective of the sites, their surroundings, and the memorials that today honor the victims of Nazi persecution. I'm offering reflections here on my experiences as someone who teaches this history but is not an expert in the field. I'm not reviewing the historiography, just sharing how I felt as I toured the camps and some of what I learned.

I went to four camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, and Treblinka. During World War II they were sites of war crimes and genocide; now they are, in Pierre Nora’s words, “sites of memory.” My desire to see the camps made me what James Young has called “a memory-tourist” (The Texture of Memory. p. 144) and I felt an unsettling tension of wanting to honor the victims yet somehow feeling that my presence as a tourist was exploiting them.

I felt this most of all at Auschwitz, where there were crowds of “memory-tourists”--thousands during our “tour” (the word seems too superficial but it’s accurate). More than a million people visit Auschwitz-Birkenau each year, close to the number who perished there during World War II.  My husband Paul joined me for this part of my trip, which coincided with a holiday week in Poland--May 1 is Labor Day (as in other former Communist countries) and May 3 is Constitution Day, celebrating the 1791 Polish constitution, which as Poles will tell you with pride, was the first constitution in Europe. (They beat the French, whose revolutionary constitution was adopted several months later, in September 1791.)  With two weekdays off, many Poles took a week of vacation and like us, thousands of them went to Auschwitz.

Entrance to Auschwitz
It was a bleak, dreary day with light but steady rain throughout our time at the camp, which seemed appropriate.  Having seen many images of Auschwitz in books, online and recreated in films like Schindler’s List, some aspects of tour were as expected—the uniform look of the two-story brick buildings, the roll call spaces, the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work brings freedom) sign above the entrance. Among the unexpected: the crowds of visitors and inability of the museum to manage them, at least while we were there. Visitors are required to join an official tour, offered in several different languages. Our "small" group of English speakers had around 100 people. Fortunately, our tour guide was excellent and had very detailed knowledge of the camp history. She spoke quietly into a microphone and we could her voice through headphones. This system enables guides to speak softly and remain audible, even when next to other groups.

There were actually three main camps on this vast site, for detention of prisoners (Auschwitz I), extermination (Auschwitz II-Birkenau), and slave labor (Auschwitz III). An estimated 1.5 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 90% of them Jews. (For statistics, see Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, vol. 3, appendix B; Young, The Texture of Memory, 128.) Other victims included ethnic Poles, Roma, Soviet POW’s, homosexuals, social outcasts and political opponents of the Reich. I've been teaching the history of Nazism and the Holocaust for thirteen years but no amount of reading compares to seeing the camps in person. Seeing the torture chambers, the phone-booth sized spaces where four people were held for days, with no room to move; the spaces used for Josef Mengele’s exceptionally cruel medical experiments; the latrines where one imagines the stench, filth and disease endured by victims.

I'd seen the display of victims' shoes at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., but in Auschwitz the display was more vast and poignant. There were piles of eyeglasses and massive mounds of human hair, used to create textiles and carpets.  I knew this, I had seen images of the collected hair in Alain Renais's  film Night and Fog and shown it to my students, but was still stunned to see it in person.

I have two young boys, ages seven and five, so in all the camps, displays on the murder of children hit me particularly hard. Display cases held baby clothes, a broken doll and a vast mound of children's shoes.  Children's shoes. For me, the sight of children’s belongings was especially searing.

In The Texture of Memory, Young questions the value of displaying these everyday objects. “That a murdered people remains known in Holocaust museums anywhere by their scattered belongings, and not by their spiritual works, that their lives should be recalled primarily through the images of their death, may be the ultimate travesty.” (p. 133) Have Holocaust museums accomplished what the SS would have wanted, the portrayal of a destroyed civilization? Perhaps it depends how the experience of seeing these objects is used. How can we draw on the shocking sight of the collected objects and use it interpret the past in ways that honors Jews and other victims, yet avoids reducing them to victims? The debate goes on….

After viewing displays in several buildings for about two hours, we turned in our headphones before taking a shuttle bus to Birkenau, the real killing center and site of genocide. Having just seen mounds of everyday objects left behind by the victims, there was something very odd, an eerie kind of parallel as we piled our headphones in a stack of hundreds. As we waited for the bus to Birkenau, we again felt the impact of the crowds. There were not nearly enough buses for the visitors and we had to push our way onto one. A few mothers were yelling at their children, trying to stay together. Tour groups dissolved as visitors were separated from their guides, as the rain kept falling.

Again, it all seemed strangely appropriate and I didn’t hear anyone complaining. Perhaps we were all aware that these were just minor inconveniences as we waited for a shuttle bus on a tour. We were not victims of anti-Semitic or political persecution, we had not suffered on cattle cars for days, with no food, water, or bathroom facilities. We knew we would eat after the tour, Paul and I knew we had a hotel reservation in Krakow. Our kids were safely playing with their grandparents at home. On any other tour, we might have complained about the disorientation and mild discomfort-- but not at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The bus ride to Birkenau only takes several minutes, and we probably should have just walked anyway, but at least we were able to continue our tour with our English-speaking guide. In contrast to Auschwitz, there are fewer preserved structures in Birkenau. There is an imposing memorial created in 1967, with heavy black marble columns and tablets dedicated to countries from which victims were deported. The crematoria were destroyed by the SS in January 1945 as Soviet troops advanced, and today are left in crumbling ruins. There are reconstructed latrines and barracks, initially built as horse stables then converted to hold prisoners. The original barracks were either destroyed by the Germans or dismantled by local Poles, desperate for firewood.
Ruins of gas chambers at Birkenau

A few details here stick in my mind: a barrack rafter bore a message to victims, “Sauberkeit ist Gesundheit,” meaning “cleanliness is good health.”  Another sign warned that a louse can mean death (from the risk of typhus).  The wife of the commandant, the head of the camp, later described Auschwitz as a kind of Eden, though she told her children to wash the ashes (human) from the strawberries gathered in their garden. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around these contradictions.  The lack of hygiene in the latrines ironically made them a relatively safe place for inmates. The SS avoided them to prevent the spread of disease and assigned inmates as guards. The lack of an SS presence meant they became a place where inmates could exchange information and barter whatever meager objects they possessed.  In the women’s barracks babies were born, hidden from the SS, and some survived. Though the barracks are reconstructed, one senses the desperation of victims, from hunger, cold, thirst, and disease as they waited to die.

We lingered for about an hour in Birkenau, and preferred to push our way onto another shuttle bus to return to Auschwitz, rather than walking (how lazy we seemed knowing what victims endured), and then waited for another bus to Krakow. It was a long, heavy day, as one might expect on a tour of Auschwitz.  But it’s the unexpected sights and details that will stick in my mind and, in the end I hope, enrich my teaching. I’m still processing the experience and thinking about how to incorporate it into my courses.

Next I’ll share my experiences at two camps outside Berlin: Sachsenhausen, designed with chilling precision, and Ravensbrück, which mainly held female prisoners.


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