Preserving the Materiality of the Holocaust
Fascinating BBC News article - two opposing viewpoints, really - about whether or not Auschwitz should continue to be preserved. I've never been to Poland (I didn't feel psychologically ready when an opportunity arose sometime in high school), so I don't know what the camp site itself is like in terms of evoking the past. The two authors make interesting points (though I am inclined to agree with the second individual), and the comments are also fascinating as a reflection of popular morality. But no one has mentioned anything about the implications of singling out Auschwitz itself - there are dozens of camps scattered throughout Eastern Europe that have been allowed to decay, without any such debate about preserving the material remains of the Holocaust for humanity's sake. I am actually a little worried about preserving just the one, as that might give the impression that there was only one, instead of a whole infrastructure of human exploitation and destruction.
This, of course, also raises the whole issue of material remains generally. That is, what I like to call the myth of materiality: that somehow, magically, by just looking at a thing (any thing) you can derive from it all the information inscribed upon it through its creation, use, and associations. Because "objects speak", don't you know. But actually, objects just hold witness, and reflect what we already know. They are not a mirror, so please don't think I am an object relativist, but the careful interpretation of objects (within a museum/heritage context) is vital, because people need to know what to look for. People who visit Auschwitz (to return to the point of this entry) come with certain assumption, knowing certain things already, and the place itself reflects those because of its being the same wood, stones and metal components as the original soldiers and prisoners knew it. (Unlike, let's say, Waterloo, where a farmer's field doesn't exactly give you the sense of the Napoleonic War.) There is a power to that kind of material testimony. So in a way, it will not make a difference when the last survivors pass away; we will not be able to experience them, flesh and blood, standing before us, but we will still know their truth.