Withheld: A Reflection on Auschwitz

“Even after you’ve seen the whole goddamn thing, it remains utterly incomprehensible.”
Dr. Michael Berenbaum, on the drive back to Krakow from the camps at Auschwitz.

To walk through Auschwitz-Birkenau is to search for everything that is missing. It is a bucolic place where wild deer make their way through the barbed wire fences and open fields. The grounds keepers are constantly cutting the grass in an attempt to maintain the place, and in the summertime the surrounding forest of birch trees makes the tragic figure of the camp more at rest than we want it to be. One cannot help but notice the silence here. It is difficult to imagine it populated by thousands, surrounded by the constant noise and stench from the crematoria. In summer it is quiet, almost pleasant; the bleakness and cold of winter are beyond our grasp.

While there remains much to see of the ruins, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the vastness of this place. You must walk long distances between remains of wood barracks, the palimpsest of foundations inscribing the earth, and masonry buildings that housed large kitchens and scores of prisoners. There is the straight- line of the selection ramp with its lone, restored rail car; a ground for the never-ending accumulation of small stones placed in memorial. The horizon is always present, punctuated by an endless field of masonry chimneys that like stelae, mark where the majority of the inmates were housed. And always there is the inescapable figure of the entrance gate, where the trains passed through from the continent carrying so many to their end. The void below the watchtower stands like an open mouth that consumed the innocent and rendered them into bone and ash.

To walk through Birkenau is to seek a connection, knowing that you will not find one. We long to feel that which remains out of reach. We walk the grounds, we summon our imagination, we move through what remains and we touch the wood, all with the hope that we might feel something because we are there. But Birkenau stands across an abyss that can’t be crossed by those who were not there. In spite of our best efforts to know, we leave there with an emptiness that comes from that which is withheld.

There are three types of visitors to the camp. The first are those few, remaining survivors courageous enough to return, if only to proclaim that they have withstood all attempts to rob them of their humanity. For the survivors the camp is memory embodied; the grounds and remains are an integral part of their experience, vivid and present. The second type of visitor is one who was close to a victim. It might be a spouse, a family member, or a friend. These visitors come to the camp with the expectation that to walk the grounds, to touch the wood and brick will connect them to the victims in a way that nothing else can. There is a longing in this group, a longing to share or even glimpse something of the experience of their loved ones. They seek to be closer, to understand if only a little. The third type of visitor is the most distant, perhaps connected only by a shared stake in humanity. These are the tourists (of which you see many) who know little more than what they might have learned in school, along with the more informed, who like myself seek something beyond that which they have found in historical accounts. For the casual tourist the need to understand might be little more than a morbid fascination with one of the most infamous moments in the history of the civilized world. For those more prepared to contemplate the meaning of the physical fact of Birkenau, the need to feel something, especially if it is visceral, is perhaps greater than in all of the others. This third group comes away with the greatest sense of absence. In the case of the casual tourist, they can claim to have been there and found closure within the narrative, but in the case of the contemplator, that vast empty ground remains silent. They are left as empty as when they arrived, and the meaning they seek remains elusive.

In contrast to the extermination camp at Birkenau, the rationally ordered, masonry buildings that make up the compound at Auschwitz I provide a sense of place. An Austro-Hungarian army barracks from the First World War, it was appropriated by the Nazis and transformed into a Konzentrationslager. It is a much smaller complex with streets and courtyards between the austere, repetitive buildings. The two camps, Auschwitz I and Birkenau, are distinct and quite far from one another, and one is struck by the differences in size, permanence, and purpose. The state museum is here with didactic displays spread among the various cellblocks and administrative buildings. The masonry buildings are restored; a homogenous sense of grey seems to be everywhere. It is here that one sees the mountains of hair, shoes and spectacles that were taken from the victims at Birkenau. It is a narrative of evil, effectively curated. It is also an odd amalgam of two narratives, one that originally served to caution against the evils of fascism in a post-war Communist Poland, and the other against the specific evil perpetrated against the Jewish people.

Unlike Birkenau there are the remnants of the lives of the inmates here, if only in the form of simple, everyday artifacts like clothing and utensils. But these things are decaying, and it is a place filled with endings. It is a museum that seeks to prompt images of the place as it was, and to conjure an image of what it must have been like there. Again, one searches here for meaning, but always in the opacity of what is left. The narrative is a powerful one, deployed in service of the state or in service of humanity, dependent on the curators. But as a curated narrative it is consumed, as all narratives are, leaving each visitor with an explanation. In some ways, at least for the more casual observer, the narrative may provide some sort of understanding and hence closure, ironically hastening the first step towards forgetting.

In Block 27 there is the recently installed, permanent exhibition entitled, “SHOAH.” Designed and curated by Yad Vashem in Israel, it stands in stark contrast to the exhibits of the state museum. Pristine white and grey walls line the interior of the dark masonry barrack. The exhibition presents imagery, maps, photos and data to convey Jewish life in Europe before, during and after the Holocaust. While its stated mission is to place Auschwitz within a larger context, it is intensely visual, as much for the senses as for the mind. It stands apart because it fills this empty place with life in the form of sound and moving image.

Entering a darkened, empty room, images slowly begin to populate the surrounding white walls. Sounds of children playing, the noise of the city, birthday parties… one is slowly immersed, then swept up in the everyday life of European Jewry before the Shoah. Strangely, these do not feel like ghosts but instead remind us of life in the fullest sense: the lives of individuals, of families, of communities, of an entire people. And it is here where I found a deeper sense of what happened in this place, a sense both of intense loss but also of hope. (I use that word cautiously because one does not think of ‘hope’ within these walls). After reflecting on the shear accumulation of death, of dead things slowly disappearing back into the world and the valiant attempts to maintain them, I couldn’t help but be awakened by this modest room of sound and image. The sense of humanity, so absent from every other part of the camp, is awakened here. It spans beyond numbers, beyond the apparatus, beyond the cruelty of conditions. It returns something that the perpetrators worked so hard to take away; the anonymity of the number collapses in the face of life.

A dear friend of mine, Gideon Yaffe is a Professor of Philosophy and Law at Yale. He recently sent a short note to me the day after we had talked in depth about Auschwitz. It captured something of my encounter there, and made me think of its future.

Wonder and doubt are two different sensibilities that motivate inquiry. Neither of them leads to answers, but wonder and doubt motivate different kinds of questions. The wonderer seeks more and more information about the object of his/her curiosity; the doubter seeks to understand why that object is in the world and what it means. I guess my thought was that you might encounter Auschwitz with wonder, or you might encounter it with doubt, depending on your sensibility. You might think that the key to understanding it is to learn more and more about it, or you might think that the key to understanding it is not to be distracted by its details, but to contemplate it for what it is. For those who encounter it in wonder, the right kind of architecture is one that makes it available to them–able to be looked at and scrutinized. But those who encounter it in doubt need a different kind of architecture. They need one that leaves intact what they know of it already, and gives them space to think through why it is the way it is. The doubter comes with an idea of what Auschwitz is and has to contemplate it on a long walk around the perimeter, a walk where nothing is learned about the place except what was known already.

While the state museum at Auschwitz I effectively delivers the history of this place, the rapidly disappearing ruins of the camp at Birkenau remain less determined and more opaque in the face of inquiry. As it ruins, the ephemeral remains mark the ground as a trace of what was. At the same time the vast figure in the landscape persists as both a literal and figural void, overwhelming and enduring beyond its contents. It refuses to offer explanations and denies answers to the difficult questions it provokes, suspending the possibility of closure. Perhaps we know the facts of this place, the ‘what’ of this place, but we will never know the ‘why’ of it. Why did this happen, why is this here, why should we continue to think about it? The questions endure, and one is left unsettled not only by what is palpable and present, but by what has been withheld.

Russell N. Thomsen
Krakow, Poland
July 2013

About Russell Thomsen

A founding partner in the award winning Central Office of Architecture (COA, 1987-2008) and IDEA Office (2009-2014), Russell Thomsen formed RNThomsen Architecture in 2015. He has been a licensed architect since 1989. The office provides a full range of architectural services. In addition to directing the practice, Russell is also a senior design studio faculty member at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in downtown Los Angeles. The work of the office has been internationally recognized, exhibited and published. The office has received several awards including the Architectural League Prize and Emerging Voices, both from the Architectural League of New York, and the Best In American Architecture Award for the Saitama Residence.