Thinking the Future of Auschwitz

“Is it because the Holocaust will always go beyond the limits of representation? Is it because the Holocaust seems to stand outside narratable and representable history, so that the monuments commemorating it are reduced to the status of mere signs, like numbers or helpless syllables, unable to carry a meaning and to be anything more than pure and naked reference? Hence, can the Holocaust monument never properly be said to be a commemorative representation of the Holocaust because no Holocaust monument could ever add meaning to pure and naked reference?”

F. R. Ankersmit, Historical Representation, 2001

Until recently a great deal of the controversy, debate, and anxiety over the question of what to do with Auschwitz has centered on the camp at Auschwitz I. Most of the remaining buildings, railway tracks, and grounds, along with the notorious mocking gateway, stand there. The iconic displays of confiscated suitcases, shoes, spectacles, prosthetics, and the shorn hair belonging to the victims are located in a retrofitted museum there, and ongoing discussions about how to curate the visitors’ experience have focused on it. The Polish government made a pragmatic decision in the early 1950s to house the museum and exhibitions in the masonry buildings at Auschwitz I (there simply weren’t sufficient funds to deal with the larger, more fragile camp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau). An Austro-Hungarian army barracks from the First World War before its transformation by the Nazis into a Konzentrationslager, the durable buildings were more easily restored and provided de facto the iconic presence required to effectively represent the state’s version of the atrocities committed there.1

Several kilometers away the much larger extermination camp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the synecdoche for the Holocaust, is disappearing. Nature and time are slowly erasing the physical presence of the camp and its grounds. The memory of the Holocaust, embodied in the words of both survivors and perpetrators, and the palpable experience of the place itself are slowly moving from firsthand forms of knowledge to more mediated historical representations.

The Birkenau site is already in an advanced state of ruin. Within the vast figure of almost 400 acres delimited by barbed-wire fencing and iconic guard towers spaced at regular intervals, a seemingly endless field of brick chimneys surrounds the few remaining buildings, emphatic vertical lines marking locations where row after row of wooden prisoner barracks once stood. Erasure began as early as 1944, when Jewish prisoners led a failed rebellion, dynamiting Crematorium IV using smuggled explosives. Shortly thereafter, as the Russian army approached, the Nazi SS hastily blew up the remaining crematoria in an attempt to erase Birkenau’s architecture of genocide and concomitant evidence of atrocities. In the months following the liberation of the camp, an acute shortage of building materials resulted in many of the barracks being dismantled and removed. Whatever remained was left largely untouched over successive decades, lapsing into neglect.

Today prosaic events continue to assault the fragility of Auschwitz. In 2009 the theft of the infamous ironwork entry sign, Arbeit Macht Frei, from Auschwitz I marked the loss of an original artifact. In 2010 massive floods inundated Birkenau and again prompted international calls for a plan to deal with the future of the site and its environs before it simply passes away from neglect. The subtractions, erasures, modifications, edits, and subsequent additions to the camp complex as a tourist site have created additional historical and evidentiary problems. Tours are offered daily, bringing multitudes of visitors to the towns of Oświęcim and Brzezinka; an average of more than one million people annually visit the combined sites of Auschwitz I and Birkenau. The physical impact of this many visitors strains the already fragile accessible portions of Birkenau. It is ironic that the fragile historical evidence embodied in the camps is such a popular draw that the site requires infrastructural additions that endanger those very artifacts. Moreover, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, gift shop, bus station, parking lots, and restaurants, as well as a planned (as of 2010) visitor center, have challenged the quest to maintain authenticity, resulting in a compromised and problematic site. `

As a memorial site and as a symbol, Auschwitz has played a schizophrenic role in regard to its nationalist significance. On one hand it has been a powerful symbol for the persecution of the Poles and for the Polish-centric resistance to Nazi ideology, especially during the decades of Communist rule following the end of the war. (As a satellite state of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Auschwitz as a symbol of the Holocaust was subsumed by a larger, state-sponsored narrative warning against the evils of fascism).2 On the other hand it has always had an altogether different significance for the global Jewish community.3 As a result, postwar Auschwitz narratives have been contentious, polarized, and widely debated.4

The future of the concentration camp at Auschwitz I and the extermination camp at Birkenau remains uncertain and contested. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum currently maintain the camps and grounds, in counsel with the International Auschwitz Council (IAC) and UNESCO. While the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation has made a clear and impassioned commitment to restoration in the near future, the more distant future of the camp, especially at Birkenau, is less certain.5 Cultural historian Robert Jan van Pelt has described the inherent difficulty in restoring the ruins there, observing that inevitably the site will grow less authentic with the passage of time. “You’re seeing basically a reconstruction of an original site. It’s a place that constantly needs to be rebuilt in order to remain a ruin for us.” 6

Needless to say, the issues remain contentious and animated by deep emotions, opinions, and politics. While some call for maintaining, even restoring, the buildings and grounds at Birkenau as a perpetual (albeit static) sign of remembrance, others advocate leaving them to ruin and allowing them to disappear back into the surrounding forest.7 Both sides are passionate and argue their positions in earnest, remaining diametrically opposed. Thus without any clear direction, a question emerges: How can the disappearing evidence of the Holocaust at Auschwitz remain vital without being framed solely as a curated museum, a cemetery, or a progressively inauthentic, static memorial?

The goal of our proposal “Thinking the Future of Auschwitz” is twofold: first, to engage the broad cultural questions of memory, evidence, and preservation within the context of a physical site with a traumatic past; and second, to advance and expand the potential role of architecture within a critical interdisciplinary dialogue already in progress. The project suggests that we are approaching a clear tipping point, a paradigmatic shift in the relationship between the Holocaust as an event and its subsequent myriad forms of memorialization. Thus an imminent and urgent dilemma: preserving the physical site as evidence for eternity is both impossible and progressively destructive, while passive indifference (leading to erasure) ultimately deprives future generations of one of the most powerful means to comprehend the gravity of what occurred at Auschwitz. It is within this dilemma that this project seeks to propose an alternative.

Auschwitz as a place has come to connote a single iconic entity; it has become a historical metonym for the Holocaust in general. In reality it is a large complex made up of multiple camps and subcamps, and collapsing them together as a whole fails to distinguish between the different roles played by each constituent part, physically and metaphysically. Understanding the difference between the two primary camps, Auschwitz I and Birkenau, is to acknowledge their asymmetric roles in the Nazi apparatus of genocide and locate their destinies within separate and very different notions of time. American Jewish scholar Arthur A. Cohen adopted the terms tremendum (from Rudolf Otto) and caesura (from Martin Buber) to describe the abyss of history opened up by the Holocaust.8 For Cohen the human tremendum of our time was the Nazi destruction of the Jews, and the caesura was the catastrophic fissure in the foundation of Jewish existence. 9 By conceptually splitting Auschwitz I and Birkenau, we create a productive abyss, producing an interruption that echoes Cohen’s description of tremendum as caesura: the “interruption of conventional time and intelligible causality.” 10 The tremendum allows us to think of the catastrophe as a vast abyss without filling it; “as Grund, but also and simultaneously as Abgrund, abyss.”11 For various reasons, both historical and largely unintentional, the current reality is that Auschwitz I and Birkenau are for the most part already individuated, and the way forward must acknowledge their different trajectories as they contribute to the future of the whole.

“Thinking the Future of Auschwitz” imagines that two modes of control would articulate the splitting of the camps. Auschwitz I would continue to be maintained and programmed by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum; the buildings and grounds would be conserved as evidence and house a museum to exhibit the narrative of its history. It would endure as a didactic institution—a place of curated coherence, order, signs, signifiers, symbols, facts, use, and mnemonic reference points. It would hold steady as an arrested past manifest as memorial. But rather than simply abandoning Birkenau and allowing it to be subsumed by nature (and ultimately erased), the second act of the project sets it on an alternative course. In 2045 a Tel Olam would be constructed at Birkenau, after the last survivor and perpetrator would have passed from this world. Originally cited in Deuteronomy, Tel Olam is a biblical term for a place whose physical past should be blotted out forever and rendered inaccessible.12 Translated as a perpetual heap, it would produce a traumatic figure steadfastly delimiting a perimeter. It would be realized as a procedural event; felled tree trunks, harvested from each of the countries from which victims were deported, would be stacked to form a perimeter wall approximately thirty feet high. The Tel would act as both a palpable, physical presence on the site and an object deeply saturated with meaning derived from its making. Encircling the grounds, the tree trunks would effectively separate the ruins of the camp from the surrounding world, barring entrance from the outside. Initially the stacks would be orderly and solid, but the logic of nature would contribute to their inevitable decay, and the physical remains would be transformed through a signless entropy. In contrast to the didactic memorial site at Auschwitz I, Birkenau would be set into perpetual drift as it moves out of the regime of culture (human time) and into that of nature (geological time), finally released from the mission of maintaining its traumatic landscape.

After viewing the Memorial Museum at Auschwitz I, visitors would move to Birkenau and walk the perimeter of the Tel Olam, creating an emergent ritual that would allow for an assertion and recording of the camp in absentia. The perimeter condition would acquire new significance contingent on the perpetual line that differentiates inside from outside. The various paths inscribed into the landscape by the wanderings of the multitudes of visitors would slowly accumulate over the years, marking a common journey without common answers. In shifting the perception of Birkenau from cultural to geological time, a new ontology for the camp would emerge. The camp’s interior would communicate a presence of absence (a blanking), a withholding that would transform how it is apprehended as the manifestation of the ineffable, that which cannot be named.

Birkenau’s echo of the “machinic” order (as a means for mass extermination) would cease to project its authoritative trauma and instead remain without narration and beyond comprehension. If understanding can be argued as one of the first steps toward assimilation and closure (and ultimately forgetting), the blanking of the extermination camp at Birkenau would confound conventional explanations.13 Subject to a caesuric act of separation from the world, Birkenau would be ritually expelled and placed outside of humanity, rendering its landscape purposeless and thereby radically opening up a future for the whole of Auschwitz. After a long passage of time, when the perimeter wall will have decayed to the point where it has been breached and will soon become indistinguishable from the nature reclaiming it, we will ask again, “What is the future of Auschwitz?” But there will never be a definitive answer. Instead cyclical reconsideration will perpetuate memory as an incomplete but enduring future yet to be imagined.


1. Timothy W. Ryback, “Evidence of Evil,” New Yorker, November 15, 1993. During the war Auschwitz was already a household name in Poland: this was the camp to which Polish intellectuals, priests, members of the Resistance movement, and indeed ordinary Poles arrested in street roundups were sent. As many as 75,000 ethnic Poles were murdered in Auschwitz; their families knew where they were since they could send them postcards, and even food parcels. Auschwitz (or Oświęcim in Polish) became synonymous with the horrors of the Nazi occupation. Little wonder that after the war the Communist government preserved the place as a reminder of the evils of fascism, and a visit there was an obligatory part of the school curriculum.

2. Michael Kimmelman, “Auschwitz Shifts from Memorializing to Teaching,” New York Times, February 18, 2011. “Each generation has gotten the stories it wants from the site. Under Communism, Auschwitz served as a national memorial to Polish political prisoners, who were the camp’s first victims. Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of Jews from Poland, France, Germany, Hungary, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere were murdered, lapsed into neglect, because it didn’t fit the narrative.”

3. Jonathan Webber, The Future of Auschwitz, “Frank Green Lecture Series” (Oxford: Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, 1992), 3. “The need for Jewish cultural privacy to nurse the grief, to attempt to recover from the overwhelming ignominy, implies that Auschwitz should not be intruded on, that it should not be cluttered with other messages, with moral and cultural irrelevancies deriving from elsewhere [emphasis added] —a Christian convent, for example.”

4. For an extensive discussion of postwar Holocaust narratives, see James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993).

5. BBC News Europe, “Auschwitz Memorial: Germany Gives $80m for Preservation,” December 15, 2010, The Auschwitz-Birkenau Fund, established in 2009, has a number of contributors, including Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. (The strategic conception of the present/future of the camps is based on a default preservationist model that does not acknowledge the asymmetry between the physical and metaphysical natures of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II [Birkenau]).

6. Andrew Curry, “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” Smithsonian, February 2010.

7. Statements by former Polish foreign minister and Auschwitz survivor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and cultural historian Robert Jan van Pelt, in “Cash Crisis Threat to Auschwitz,” January 26, 2009,

8. Arthur A. Cohen, The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 27−58.

9. Robert Jan van Pelt and Carroll William Westfall, Architectural Principles in the Age of Historicism (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993), 341. “Cohen derived the term tremendum from Rudolf Otto’s classic The Holy (1923). Otto described God as the utter mystery, the enormous mystery, the terror mystery, the mysterium tremendum. This original and awesome holiness, from which all the other attributes of God emanate, is countered by the human tremendum. This tremendum Cohen defined as “the enormity of an infinitized man” who fears death so completely and denies it so “to placate death by the magic of endless murder.” Cohen identified the Nazi destruction of the Jews as the tremendum of our own times, “for it is the monument of a meaningless inversion of life to an orgiastic celebration of death, to a psychosexual and pathological degeneracy unparalleled and unfathomable to any person bonded to life.” Cohen believed that it had not been accidental that the victims of the tremendum had been the Jews: their 4,000-year-long history was, after all, “a celebration of the tenacity of life.”

10. Arthur A. Cohen and David Stern, An Arthur A. Cohen Reader: Selected Fiction and Writings on Judaism, Theology, Literature, and Culture (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 246.

11. Pierre Joris, ed., Paul Celan: Selections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 5. “The perpetual ruin as both physical ground and figurative abyss is noted by Pierre Joris in relation to the poetry of Paul Celan: [in German] Grund, but also and simultaneously Abgrund, abyss.”

12. F. R. Ankersmit, Historical Representation (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001), 178. “In a most perceptive essay, Jonathan Webber associated the Holocaust with a Tel Olam, a biblical term for a place whose physical past should be blotted out forever. That is to say, the Holocaust should remain to us forever an ‘empty place,’ a place that we can never hope to possess or actually occupy in the way that the historian hopes to appropriate or to come into possession of the past with the help of his metaphors. The discourse of memory is ‘indexical,’ it points to or indicates the past, it encircles the past—but without ever attempting to penetrate into it.”

13. In describing the motivations for his design of the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” architect Peter Eisenman addressed the issue of representation and the Holocaust: “I think it was something that defies representation; I think you cannot represent it. And what I’ve tried to do is say if you go to Auschwitz, if you go there, it’s horrific: you’re reminded of all these images, et cetera. But you can reassimilate your internal mechanisms to say, OK, that was then and here we are now. What I tried to do in Berlin was to do something that couldn’t necessarily be as easily reassimilated.” Peter Eisenman, “‘Liberal Views Have Never Built Anything of Any Value’: Interview by Robert Locke,” Archinect, July 27, 2004,

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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.