By now news of the installation of cooling showers at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp have made the usual rounds on various news sites eliciting a wide range of reactions. The majority of people’s response seem to fall in the realm of horrified. Such a reaction is not surprising, after all the shower is a symbol of the evil that took place in the concentration camps. Jews were herded into the showers where they were murdered with Zyklon B.
Jewish visitors quickly denounced the new showers as an affront to the memory of those who died at the hands of the Nazis. The management maintained that no such affront was intended, but that the showers were meant to provide relief from the extraordinary heatwave that’s gripped Poland for the past week, with temperatures hitting the high 30s and low 40s.
The installation certainly poses some interesting questions about the management of sites of historical atrocities. Full disclosure, this topic is of particular interest to me. In 1995, I visited Auschwitz while on a semester abroad when I was doing my undergrad at the University of Guelph. When I went, it was a miserable November day. We arrived late in the afternoon when the sun was already setting and a wet snow had been falling leaving the dirt paths a muddy swamp. I can never claim to understand the brutal reality of what happened in these death camps, that day helped give me a sense of conditions people whose only guilt was to be Jewish (though we must not forget that blacks, Roma, the disabled, and gays were also targeted and exterminated by the Nazis) had to endure.
I spent four months in Poland and took a stupid amount of pictures (long before the advent of digital cameras) but when we went to Auschwitz, I deliberately refused to bring my camera because I felt that taking pictures would somehow dishonour the site. I was not the only one to feel this in my group, and the ones that did bring their cameras used black and white film, colour film being seen as a kind of desecration. We felt that we were not visiting a tourist site, but a place made sacred by the memory of unspeakable evil and the triumph of the human spirit over that evil.
That said, when I read about the showers installed I think some very important questions need to be asked about the management of these kind of locations. Is offering comforts at Auschwitz a violation of the memory of the place? Remember, temperatures were not just mildly uncomfortable, but reaching deadly levels and having cooling showers may have been more than just about appeasing discomforted tourists. Second, the cooling showers are not in any way connected to the gas chambers. Now, if the showers were called Zyklon B plumbing or there were references to the actual showers then that would certainly be not only in poor taste, but highly offensive.
Another question that comes to my mind is should we be comfortable at these sites.
When I went in 1995, we felt that being comfortable would be highly inappropriate. But is this the way everyone should experience difficult history? For me, there is value to this, but who’s to say that this is only way to get something out of the experience.
Substantial portions of the internet jumped on the poor girl who took a selfie at Auschwitz and then posted it. She didn’t stand a chance, and yet her only crime was to exhibit at worst bad taste and a singular obliviousness. But she did not imitate a Nazi salute, or posted her thoughts on how the SS were misunderstood. Or when Justin Bieber, after visiting the house of Anne Frank, wrote in the guest book and then tweeted that she would have been a Belieber.
Granted, Bieber is an easy target and there are many reasons to castigate him, but although he most likely did not have the self-awareness, he made a good point. Anne Frank was a 14 year old girl and her diary reveals that she had the same interests that most 14 year old girls have and so in different circumstances, sure Anne Frank most likely would have enjoyed Justin Bieber’s music. So why does saying so cause offense. I would argue because of what Anne Frank has come to represent and in that representation we have lost site that she was a flesh and blood teenager and had she lived in different time, she would have lived a normal life.
But back to the subject at hand, who owns history? Does Auschwitz belong to the Jews who rightfully have a claim on it since it looms so large in their collective memory? And yet, Auschwitz is now a museum – a monument of the Holocaust, but still a museum that serves the larger public. And as a museum, the management have a responsibility to manage it in a way that not only preserves the integrity of the memory but can be accessed by people now who for the most part have no historical memory of World War Two.
I for one believe fully that the management meant no harm, but yes, the optics are poor and a little more thought about how installing showers would look to the public would have prevented some of the controversy. Underneath the outrage and commenting on the optics of the cooling showers rest some very serious questions about the uses of history and what historical sites mean to different people. It’s a minefield that historical site managers have to navigate constantly. Regardless of all else, Auschwitz is an important reminder of why we must be vigilant against anyone or group that would seek to demonize anyone for simply not loving believing different.