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The Unwanted Auschwitz

A reader may regard the title of the article as a paradox or provocation. Especially from the perspective of 70 years that have passed since the end of World War II. Considering the numerous debates emphasising the documentary and educational importance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, the numerous conservatory activities to preserve the postcamp relics - the unwanted Auschwitz is something incomprehensible. It is a superficial feeling, though, as the real space of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is merely a small part of what Auschwitz in fact was.

When analysing the tangible traces of German investments from 1940- 1945 preserved until the present day in Oświęcim, their immense spatial scale can be easily noticed, creating a new identity of the place and having huge influence on the town’s post-war development. This results from both, the extermination activity (the death camp created), as well as the seemingly “normal” municipal and industrial investments being a consequence of colonising the territory of Poland annexed to the Third Reich (the East German model city, see Steinbacher 2012, Setkiewicz 2000; Kortko, Nycz 1999). Even these days, the scale of such undertakings disrupts the common perception of Auschwitz associating this place most of all with barbed wired blocks and barracks, railway sidings, ruins of gas chambers and crematoriums.

German investments' area in Oświęcim
The map of the stigma. The traces of German investments from 1940-1945 (red) against the contemporary space of the town and commune of Oświęcim. The part of the former Interessengebiet des KL Auschwitz and UNESCO protection zones are included
Prepared by: M. Rawecki, 2014

'The concentration camp area of interests' (Interessengebiet des KL Auschwitz) created in 1941 by the SS and separated from the German civil administration, covering over 48 square kilometres, was the 'Auschwitz camp' sensu stricto. This is evidenced by the site management method - autonomously by the camp commandant - and by uniform supervision over the site by the police, guards and constructors. The German investment activity carried out by organised administrative, design and executive backup facilities exhibited here full consistency in terms of economic and spatial planning. As a result, a management standard fulfilling the camp’s SS staff subsistence needs was achieved until 1945, but, most of all, fulfilling the then goals of the German war economy (development of armaments, construction and food plants, see Rawecki 2003, Piper 1981) and also the Third Reich’s perspective political and social plans. As regards the plans, one can mention a concept of the Nazis’ New Order of Europe (Neuordnung Europas) and Heinrich Himmler’s agrarian visions deriving from Blut und Boden ideology (see Dmitrow 2012; Dwork, Pelt 1996; Manvel, Fraenkel 1971), laying conceptual foundations for Interessengebiet. The mass extermination installations constructed for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” (Piper 1992, Höss 1990), as well as specialist facilities for plundering the property of those murdered and for factoryscale exploitation of human corpses, were the integral part of the so organised structure closely linked to Berlin’s political objectives. 

Area of Interessengebiet
The area of the former Interessengebiet des KL Auschwitz and
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum drawn comparatively on
the current administrative division of the region
Opracowanie: M. Rawecki, 2015

Interessengebiet was the form of spatial organisation unseen so far in the civilised world, in which infrastructure was created for biological elimination of the chosen nationalities, and at the same time the slave labour force of the conquered nations was used for the vital needs of German citizens who were to live there after winning the war.

Why is Auschwitz not identified with Interessengebiet? There are a few reasons for this. The most crucial one is the way the martyrdom museum was organised after World War II. The museum was established on the most important, but small part of the area of interests. The remaining grounds were put into an ordinary urban and rural use. Auschwitz was defined anew this way. Since then, the limits of the museum, not of the former camp, have outlined the space visualising 'for all time' - to those visiting Oświęcim - the crimes committed by German Nazis (the act of 1947, the ordinance of 1958). The consequences of the above decisions have been weighty not only in the physical sphere. Auschwitz was then started to be mentally associated with the museum. It is the museum where people come to understand what the biggest extermination camp was. It can be obviously discovered in the museum’s narration that the camp was also operating outside the barbed wire, but nobody visits the places. The way of presenting the camp history by the exhibitions is not helping this; there is no exhaustive information in guides and at the museum’s website. Considering that an institution established to disseminate the history of Auschwitz does not educate in this field, it is hard to expect that the local authorities would be interested in protecting the post-camp places and structures situated on their territory. On the contrary, the activities of Oświęcim’s self-governments conducted to date have led directly, without any response from the museum, to the exclusion of this heritage from the 'normal' urban and rural space. 'Normal', because obtained in most of the cases by removing the postcamp structures from the consciousness, playing them down, or even devastating and demolishing them. This must be surprising, not only because of indifference to such tragic history. Some of them were constructed before the war and exemplify the cultural heritage of the town from the 'before Auschwitz' times. From the times Oświęcim can be proud of and the world knows almost nothing about.

Another reason is that the heritage of Auschwitz is classified in terms of whether it had a direct effect on extermination, or not. In such context, the 'economic area of the camp', as the museum officially terms Interessengebiet, i.e. the warehouses, workshops, storage yards, farming facilities and areas, technical infrastructure, production plants - is treated as a less important part of the camp’s heritage, less important in the educational content or not mentioned, at all. It should be reminded here that all the remnants of Auschwitz are the corpus delicti, therefore any trace allowing to reconstruct the material truth and to learn about and understand the mechanisms of the crime, is important. For obvious reasons, the gas chambers, crematories, the places where ashes of the genocide victims were hidden, the places where prisoners were kept, are the key elements of the evidence collection process and cognitive process. But not the only ones. It would not have been sufficient to build barracks and extermination installations only to commit a crime at such a huge scale.

Nazi Germans needed effective logistic facilities: an administrative, design, warehouse and renovation base, efficient transportation. Auxiliary infrastructure was required to concentrate the tens of thousands of prisoners on a relatively small area: food warehouses, roads, melioration ditches, electrical, water supply and sewage systems, sewage treatment plants, even a dog kennel for guarding dogs. The size of the structures and their functions, as well as the overall spatial layout of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex also reveal the magnitude of the crime, and the site planning and technical documentation prepared at that time - a premeditation of the undertaken actions.

And finally the last reason. The term 'former concentration and extermination camp' was applied after the war for an area in which prisoners were kept and where mass murder installations were located. The function of detention, though, as well as the extermination of European Jews, in the aspect of spatial consequences, reached farther beyond the camp/barbed wires.

The new development and production potential of the area of interests was materialised by the prisoners’ commandos and through the labour costing the lives, and the ashes of Holocaust victims were used for fertilising the local fields, as a base course for roads and paths and as insulation in buildings. The unused ashes were sunk in the surrounding ponds, bogs and rivers (Piper 1995, Sehn 1956).

The administrative reduction of former Auschwitz’s limits has brought negative consequences very quickly. It turned out just after five years (1962) that the massively growing housing and commercial development of the village of Brzezinka is colliding with the necessity of retaining the site’s authentic context, with the necessity of preventing its profanation and ensuring the climate of its gravity. A protection zone was established (a decision of 1962). The same efforts were taken 16 years later in Oświęcim, where the situation reached the critical stage as municipal and industrial plants using without limitations the post-camp structures have become burdensome for the visitors (noise, odour). To make matters worse, the town authorities planned to develop a residential quarter consisting of multiple blocks of flats just next to the limits of the museum. An application was then filed to the World Heritage Committee to inscribe the museum sites with protection zones to the UNESCO List. It was stated in the justification that: The Museum is now extending the protection zone from 300 to 1000 m to maintain or restore the character of the surrounding similar to the times of occupation (an application of 1978). An attempt was made 30 years after the war to recover part of the former camp which had been abandoned when establishing the limits of the museum.

The conflict may have been prevented, had research works been conducted prior to establishing the protection zones, and had the protection of the museum’s surroundings been agreed at a self-government level. Nothing else apart from setting a line on the map was made, though. No conservatory protection rules were formulated, no guidance was provided on how to 'restore the character of the surrounding similar to this from the times of occupation' in the living space of the town and village. It was not sooner than in the 90’s when specialist research works were urged by the protests of the local community (Rawecki 2003; Rawecka, Rawecki 1992-1999).

The establishment of protection zones did not have positive influence on solving the development dilemmas of Oświęcim and Brzezinka. Helplessness in seeking a sensible compromise, the way of coexistence, an attempt to reconcile the morally opposite realities of Oświęcim and Auschwitz, Brzezinka and Birkenau was only intensified by mixing the space of live and crime. Intertwined forever, not only in the semantic, but also physical dimension, it is paralysing the activity of the residents and entrepreneurs aimed at economic growth and promotion of Oświęcim as a good place to live. The name Oświęcim, bearing the mark of the camp, is also a burden. To be born in Oświęcim, to live in Oświęcim, to work in Oświęcim, to invest in Oświęcim, is, in a broad sense, something incomprehensible, as the word Oświęcim is associated, most of all, with the place of extermination and martyrdom (see Derczyński 2005, Kucia 2005, Lachendro 2007).

Oświęcim, Kolbego Street
Oświęcim, 12 Kolbego St. The site of the former warehouse
of belongings of the mass extermination victims, so-called
Canada I. The SS killed 200 Jews from Sonderkommando here on
25 September 1944. Currently, a storage yard of building
materials. The victims have not been commemorated
Photo by M. Rawecki, 2015

Unlike it is commonly thought in Oświęcim, the reason for this are not the external limitations resulting from conservatory protection of the relics of Auschwitz preserved in the landscape of the town. The functioning patterns of many historical towns globally show that protected sites may be and are a basis for economic growth based on the activisation of tourism-related services. So, what is influencing the inertia of Oświęcim’s elites, observed for many years as regards the building of a new identity of the town 'after Auschwitz?

It seems that the reasons are intrinsic in how the local community is treating the former camp’s heritage endowed to this community by delimiting the museum area. A factor which, after the war, should impede from returning to Oświęcim and nearby villages was not so much the completely converted landscape and destroyed houses - something common in just liberated Poland - but the transformation of their identity. These places, where people had lived in happiness for generations, have become the scenery of crime and a cemetery. Warm feelings experienced by every human being in the place one was born, raised, educated - were confronted with the nightmare of the post-apocalyptic landscape and human ashes spread across the surrounding fields. The new appearance of the home’s land did not paralyse the soul of those returning, though, did not raise doubts in the sense of staying in such tainted place. An ordinary need of finding a shelter after wartime displacements became most important. But a decision to live - already at the area of the former extermination camp - was in fact an approval for the perpetual stigma, was like signing a pact to make Auschwitz one’s own home.

The cost of resettling the tainted land was high: involving oneself in a neverending martyrological debate, a fear what will be the outcome of domestic and international debates about Auschwitz, constant mobilisation and a humiliating need to explain oneself of the right to live on the land of ancestors. Scientific studies discovering the new pages of Auschwitz’s history and international pressure to treat appropriately the remains of the camp have painfully reminded what one tried not to remember in everyday life to maintain the mental health. Such a situation triggers self-defence reactions. Nobody wants to be reminded constantly that a crime was committed in your own garden (Pollack 2014). There was nothing else but to remove Auschwitz from your own home, to put it against the 800-year positive history of the Land of Oświęcim and thus to legitimise one’s presence. Legal regulations came to the aid (the act of 1999, the ordinance of 1999) by decreasing the protection zone to the width of 'not more than 100 metres'. However, the right to live on the land of ancestors, even when regulated by law, does not justify the wiping out of the history of Auschwitz.

The distrust and often even reluctance of the local community seen today towards those who are speaking up for this 'unwanted Auschwitz' are the aftermath of the above mentioned attitudes. And they are speaking up for different reasons and such voices can be heard from various parties - due to the numerous conflicts existing over the past 30 years in the surrounding of the museum, or the activity of the conservatory service and UNESCO experts trying to protect the scattered residues of the camp. SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analyses in the local development and promotion strategies are symptomatic in this respect. A space planning tool serving to diagnose the current situation to find optimum paths of development is naturally reflecting the social awareness and judgments also in disputable matters - and the museum and its protection zones are beyond doubts such matters in Oświęcim.

How the local leaders are perceiving this problem then? To put it simply: ambivalently and xenophobically. First of all, they are unable to decide on which side to put Auschwitz. It is listed both, in strengths and threats. The positive influence of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the county and the town is noticed (international rank, educational activity, growing number of visitors), however, 'large pressure' and'excessive influence' of unclear 'international circles' on the town is claimed, or to be more accurate: 'the influence of Jewish circles on Oświęcim and its surroundings'. It may seem that such remarks should be rather on the side of opportunities and strengths, as in any normally functioning community expecting with great attention interest from the external world as it creates a convenient opportunity to initiate a dialogue, cooperation and to promote the local potential. Regret is expressed in Oświęcim, though, that the town has a 'monothematic image', 'negative associations' or 'excessive associations' relating to the former camp. How deeply rooted here are the irrational phobias is best signified by the fact that the diagnosed threat: 'imposition of provisions inconsistent with the will of the residents and harmful for the town in different documents having an effect on the town’s development' was put as a first, even before the threat of flooding and economic emigration of the population. 'Jewish circles' are also criticised for their 'resistance against economic initiatives, including such supporting tourism, undertaken in the surrounding of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau camp'. No wonder - considering such opinions - that one of the threats identified - 'ignoring the local interests by international circles' - seems to be quite true. 

This way the local community deprives itself of the voice in the international debate about Auschwitz. The community, maybe, does not want to participate in such a debate at all, for the reasons mentioned above, it has, however, as a depositary of the post-camp heritage, a moral obligation to remember and to bring this memory to the future generations. A question is often asked in Oświęcim whenever some conflicts, disputes or discussions arise: 'where the former camp ends and where the normal life begins?'. The question is wrongly formulated as it reveals only the local will to renounce Auschwitz for the comfort of one's own life. It is an unrealisable expectation that someone will determine where should the world’s sensitivity to suffering and extermination end.


Marek Rawecki

Special thanks to Marek Rawecki for allowing us to represent his article. Originally published in 'Culture Management', 2016, Volume 17 Issue 1, p. 77-89. Available at: Kulturze/Tom-17-2016/17-1-2016/art/6395/

Full sources and references for this article can also be found on the original article in the Culture Management that may not have been represented here.