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Uncertain Future

The Holocaust museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau is charged with preserving the memory of a horrific past. Conservators struggle with the right way to maintain artifacts that never should have existed.

Suzanne Rozdeba
August 25, 2011
(Photographs by Suzanne Rozdeba)
(Photographs by Suzanne Rozdeba)

Ewelina Bisaga is bent over a worn blue suitcase, Q-tip in hand. A conservator at the Auschwitz Museum, she gently slides the cotton swab along the suitcase’s edges, slowly removing some residue. Almost 70 years ago, that luggage, filled with clothing and personal possessions for what would be its owner’s final journey, was carried into the concentration camp by a prisoner deported there by the Nazis. Today, it lies open, anonymous, never to be claimed, on a table in a whitewashed room at the conservation department in the museum. Its fragile fate is in the hands of Bisaga.

“We try to do the least amount of conservation on an object,” Bisaga, 31, says in Polish, describing how she approaches her daily work. “They are damaged, and their state is telling of their history.”

Bisaga, who lives in Oswiecim, Poland, is one of 11 conservators who work meticulously to preserve the past at the former concentration camp established by the Nazis in occupied Poland during World War II. Bisaga has been working at Auschwitz since 2003.

At the museum, and particularly in this conservation department, which handles fragile items like prisoners’ artwork and thousands of documents, shoes, and suitcases, preservation is seen as an ethical as well as a practical issue. But these conservators must also wrestle with questions about the proper role of restoration. “People who come here don’t want to see a replica of how something might have once looked,” says Ewa Cyrulik, another conservator. “They are looking for the original condition, as if the objects exist as guardians of history.”

Conservation work at Auschwitz is unique; while some basic rules of conservation do apply, others defiantly do not. And threading that needle is an ethical conundrum the conservators face daily. “It’s an experiment in doing something unbelievable, but we have to guide ourselves this way, and work in an orthodox way,” Cyrulik says. “Then we have a chance that these objects will affect the people who come here, that they’ll see these original, historical objects.”

A new conservation department, with new workshops, opened at Auschwitz in 2005. Its budget last year was 11.3 million euros, around $15 million. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation is seeking to raise an additional 120 million euros in a two-year campaign ending this year for an endowment to fund future preservation work. So far about 85 million euros, or $122.5 million, has been committed, according to Pawel Sawicki, a spokesman for the museum and a Polish radio journalist, including a subsidy from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and a grant from the European Infrastructure and Environment Operating Program.

When Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army in January 1945, it covered 40 square kilometers, with three camps, sub camps, and an additional area that was supervised by SS administration. “There were some voices [saying] that it should be completely dismantled because this memory is so difficult,” says Sawicki. But a group of former prisoners began talks with the local government to keep the former concentration camp intact as a memorial. The Polish government began initiatives to preserve the site, giving the Ministry of Culture and Art the authority to preserve parts of it. The ministry named former prisoner Tadeusz Wasowicz as the head of the Protection Board, and in 1946 work began on creating a museum.

Since then, the fragile future of artifacts in the museum’s possession has been constantly discussed. Among the artifacts are 110,000 prisoners’ shoes, 3,800 suitcases, 6,000 works of art, and, often most harrowing for visitors, the pile of hair collected from the heads of 30,000 murdered women.

Beyond the artifacts, one of the impending projects is the preservation of 45 brick barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau’s former women’s camp. Environmental conditions are viewed as the biggest barrier to preservation. “This is very difficult because protecting a standing building is relatively easier than protecting a ruin from all-natural conditions, atmosphere, rain, and cold, which is the biggest threat here,” Sawicki says.

The foundations themselves are also fragile. “The structures in Birkenau were built by prisoners and were not built to last 70 years,” he says. “They were built from weak materials; these are weak constructions. And the fact that they are still standing today is a miracle, and this is more and more difficult to upkeep them and preserve them.”

For all the rigorous ethical standards that guide their everyday work, conservators believe they have a bigger mission than daily preservation. “We need to conserve objects that speak of the many histories of this place,” says Cyrulik. “We maintain that history for the future. Maybe in some way, with our work, this will protect someone, and in the future, these things won’t happen again.”

Suzanne Rozdeba, a freelance journalist, was a 2011 participant in the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics. Her Twitter feed is @suzannerozdeba

Suzanne Rozdeba, a freelance journalist, was a 2011 participant in the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics. Her Twitter feed is @suzannerozdeba