As discussion once again rises about how to deal with the painful legacy of the Holocaust, Peter Molloy examines the requirement to maintain a tacit link with the past.
January 27th marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of the day that advancing Soviet soldiers made their way into the first of a puzzling series of barbed-wire delineated compounds just outside the southern Polish town of Oświęcim.
The sprawling complex of barrack huts, workshops, crematoria, and gas chambers they began to uncover would become known to infamy under the German name grafted onto it by its architects: Auchwitz-Birkenau. Today, almost six and a half decades after the end of the World War II in Europe, the remains of the death-camp at Auschwitz remain perhaps the most potent and emotive physical symbol of Nazi atrocity in existence.
Last month however, as the world observed International Holocaust Memorial Day, a recurring debate about Auschwitz and its legacy once again came to the fore. In the light of an urgent requirement for continuing funding and financial support to maintain and preserve the site, renewed calls were made for the camp to be left to naturally decay once its last surviving inmate passes away. Once living memory of the Holocaust ends, so the argument goes, then so too does the immediate relevance of its physical presence.
The somewhat controversial strand of opinion was encapsulated by historian and Auschwitz expert Robert Jan Van Pelt, who commented that:
“Many Auschwitz survivors have told me that a visit to the camp can teach little to those who were not imprisoned there. It might be that we will agree that the best way to honour those who were murdered in the camp and those who survived is by sealing it from the world, allowing grass, roots and brambles to cover, undermine and finally efface that most unnatural creation of man.”
“Physical remnants of the past do not constitute a necessity – but they certainly help.”
Speaking to The University Observer, Lynn Jackson of the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland was politely weary about the discussion once again diverting attention from the Memorial Day’s primary purpose of commemorating and preserving public knowledge of the period.
“This has been a debate since its [Auschwitz’s] establishment [as a memorial site] just immediately after the war. There were those who survived who said ‘of course it should crumble away, there should be no memory of the atrocities that took place against a whole people’”.
Even should such a drastic step be taken, and even in the absence of any direct, living link with the camp’s history, it is still utterly unlikely that Auschwitz or the wider Holocaust would ever run the risk of fading from memory and public consciousness.
Still, the entire discussion raises noteworthy questions about the necessity or otherwise for a link between historical memory and its physical manifestations. Should history be able to persist of its own accord, or does there remain a requirement for its literal legacy to be preserved?
Ireland’s modern experience of protecting the past – or more accurately, failing to do so – provides a salutary lesson as to the importance of maintaining a material link with our own heritage.
In Dublin, it is very difficult to notice some of the key locations in Irish history. For example, Clanwilliam House, one of the principal positions utilised by insurgents as they fought to stop military reinforcements reaching Dublin city centre during the 1916 Easter Rising, was unceremoniously torn down later in the twentieth century, to be replaced by a squat, strikingly ugly office complex.
That degradation of such specific historical sites during this period was accompanied by wider assaults on Dublin’s rich heritage of Georgian architecture. More recently, it’s difficult to disagree entirely with the sentiment that has led to significant activism against a proposal to route the M3 motorway near the Hill of Tara, a location with a strong connection to Ireland’s pre-Christian history.
Physical remnants of the past do not constitute a necessity – but they certainly help. Just as our understanding of ancient cultures like Rome and Greece are enhanced immeasurably by the architecture still scattered around the Mediterranean, so too are the lessons of darker history aided by the continued existence of places like Auschwitz.