Exhibition in Memory of the Hungarian Holocaust

Museum—: a crack opened on the border of past and present. The crack is always created from the side of the present and so is arbitrary, even violent. The picture is incomplete, just as the crack's spidery reach is limited. All we glimpse is a segment of the past. Though we can increase the number of cracks, and make them stretch further, the conclusions we draw about our past are always conditioned by the timing of our arbitrary interventions. The opening always shows the imprint of the present on the past. And each fissure is separated from the last by an interval of time, that is, our picture of the past is influenced by a different kind of present with every newly revealed segment of the past. This is true even if we target the same past moment with each cut. The idea that the museum provides continuity with the past is therefore wrong. The museum, like everything around us, including ourselves, is in continuous flux.

This simile raises a question: which moment in the existence of the Auschwitz-Birkenau deathcamps do we take as a museum beginning? The question may seem academic, but given that the debate is repeatedly revived, it is important to fix the moment we think of as authentic, worth preserving. 2 As with any archaeological excavation, monument restoration, or relic preservation, several possibilities present themselves in the case of the Auschwitz Museum. One is to keep everything as it was found at the end of the excavation, at the beginning of reconstruction. However, this is hard to achieve as ruins can’t be kept in the state in which they start out. They have to be reinforced—ruins generally need more ruins added. This technique is widely accepted, although it is undeniable that the snapshot taken in the present (the ruin) often conceals the reality of the past. That is hardly a negligible consideration in the case of Auschwitz. The other option is to reconstruct whatever the ruins were before they became ruins, based on the remains themselves and the information available to us, for the sake of a more direct experience and understanding. This approach—although considered by many to be fraudulent—has, like the former, been accepted in several cases.

Examples of both organizing principles can be found in the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the display of the "gaschamber-crematorium" that has become the symbol of the place. The ruins of the blown-up buildings in the Birkenau camp have been conserved, but in Auschwitz (the mother camp, as it was called in camp-jargon), a gaschamber-cum-crematorium was reconstructed on the original site of the building demolished before the liberation of the camp. (The leaders of the mother camp destroyed the gaschamber-crematorium not in order to cover their tracks, but because it was thought "redundant" after the Birkenau death factory was built.) Although the two kinds of display are crucially different, they have one important feature in common: temporality is presented in both cases in an abstract form that does not really exist.

The treatment of time is based on a sort of common consent in both cases. The essential point is that death is simplified, as it were, to the triviality of the representation of the passing of time. That is, the fact that we see a rusty, tumble-down building with crumbling walls, rather than a freshly built (prototypical, experimental) gaschamber as a result of the reconstruction is not due to a want of courage. Nor do the conserved ruins present the image of a building just blown up, nor even the state of liberation; instead, we are presented with an almost masterly ruin, one that has been shattered by time, yet is also apparently continuously maintained and tended. What is interesting about this treatment of time is not the polarity of authentic/fake, but its dependence on common consent, that is, common remembrance.

It seems that "new" is not acceptable today as a representative of death or a symbol of murder. We have to acknowledge the fact that a reconstruction of the deadly order of brand new shining high-tension barbed wire fences, dazzling white insulating standing blocks and freshly cast concrete poles would today seem blasphemous rather than authentic. However, in Imre Kertész’ strict, precise writing we can see that this approach would not be unfounded: "The station was neat. We treaded on the usual breakstone of such places. Farther off was a streak of lawn with yellow flowers, and a flawless white asphalt road vanishing to infinity. I also noticed that this asphalt road was divided from the entire boundless territory beginning behind it by an evenly bending row of columns, with thorny wires gleaming metallically between them. (...) Everything was fairly clean, neat and nice ..." 3 Instead, the representation of death, of mass murder, is achieved by means of a currently compelling fragment of the past in its present-tense. We should add that the museum is not a space of display only, but also of contemplation and meditation—a process well-served by abstract, non-existent, manufactured units of space and time, wherein we can move with both a familiar sense of "homeliness" and a shocked and alienated "revulsion." (Since, as noted, the present always influences our image of the past, it is not impossible that by reconstructing the "new" we might in future actually re-enable the horror that people may design experimental facilities, and construct neat buildings again in order to eliminate their innocent fellow humans by the million.)

Issues of an entirely different order are raised by the objects presented in Auschwitz. For how long can humans be replaced by objects? Today, it is acceptable to display in glass-cases the costumes, materials, and various instruments of the past. However, in the case of Auschwitz, it is not merely, and generally, humans that are represented, but the victims of mass murder. So the question burns more fiercely: can individual objects be displayed without any attempt at personalization? Can a dish, a toothbrush, a shoe be exhibited without our knowing who they belonged to? Or an empty canister labeled Zyklon-B, without knowing who diffused it through shower-nozzles into which gaschamber? Naturally, there is no uncontestable answer, but still, the fullest possible process of personalization and identification is vital. We cannot be too grateful to the families of the victims for their exemplary courage in allowing the tortured and humiliated to be represented by their names and faces. Naming is one of the most important elements of remembering, the more so because the individuals (children, adults, old persons, women and men) who have perished are personally missing from our homes, our history and our culture. That is, from our life.

The permanent Hungarian exhibition in Auschwitz appears as a fragment of the present in the space of the past surrounding it. The past comprises Block No. 18 of the one-time deathcamp of Auschwitz. The building itself is the objective reality. It bears testimony to all the horrors that happened there and everything that followed. That is, it is a segment of the past that we have accepted as the embodiment of an awful tragedy. This is the only “exhibit” in the Hungarian exhibition. The artifact is surrounded by further subsequent layers of the past. The many different buildings, the barbed wire fences dividing the various zones, and the gate itself, above which is written the infamous sentence. The Hungarian exhibition itself appears as the space created in the present, placed amidst different layers of the past. The decisive platform creating the space of the present, the actual surface of the exhibition (an alternating sequence of glass and expanded plates), does not touch the past, the building, at any point. It is as though it were floating above the building floor, at arm’s length from the wall. The platform is trellised, or even transparent—the visitor may not touch, nor place a foot on the house of the victims, while, at the same time, nothing conceals the nakedness of the victims of the past. Everything that is the present is to be found on this floating platform—this is the place from which the visitor looks into the past, which is always presented on the wall of the house. Everything that is the present (explanations, maps and charts) is there in its physical reality in the space of the present. The past, however, exists only virtually. That is, we see the horrible void generated in the past, but in such a way that it never materialises. Not even the documentary photographs of the victims: these are only projected onto the wall of the past, that is, they are with us, but we must know that only our memory can evoke them—only thus can we project them before us again and again. This is how the joint existence of present and past can be made permanent. The exhibition’s visitor inevitably walks into the rays of projected images, and her shadow appears either in the crowds of the deathmarches or in the rows of the people waiting for selection. The person viewing the wagon with transparent walls from outside will see the silhouette of the individual walking within, and his or her ghost image can be seen by someone else later. Present and past are strictly separated, and yet they are repeatedly entangled. This is only reinforced by the images from the three online webcams installed at the Birkenau camp. The first transmits images of the present from the ramp, the second from the inside of a barracks, and the third from nearby the ruins of a crematorium. Visitors to the Hungarian exhibition become part of the exhibition themselves. They can notice and register the fact that a previous visitor may have caught sight of them on the ramp of Birkenau, in the barracks or at the crematorium, and by this means they have become part of the past themselves, for a moment.

We are surrounded by the past as we move on the surface designated for the present—the victim’s house seems to be empty; what we see there is up to us alone. The exhibition does not aim to enable us to “live through” the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead it builds consciousness to accompany something already accepted emotionally. After all, compared with actual reality—especially when surrounded by the real—an exhibition’s reconstruction of reality can only be fake.

Translated from the Hungarian by Stephen Humphreys and Rita Kéri.

1 The new permanent exhibition of the Hungarian National Museum in the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Script: Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági, visual design: László Rajk.

2 The building complex in Oswiecim was originally built as an army post at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the 1939 downfall of Poland, the army post was transformed first into a prisoner-of-war camp, and later, from 1942, into a concentration camp. It was continuously extended. Later the first crematorium was built, and the construction of a new one began three kilometres away in Brezinska—with the primary aim, however, not of creating a concentration camp, but of designing, and realising with engineering precision, a centre suitable for the industrial implementation of mass murder. In effect, the plan, the Birkenau deathcamp, was realised by 1944. At this time, a mechanism of annihilation was initiated in Hungary. In late autumn of the same year, the gaschambers and crematories were dismantled in order to destroy the murderers’ traces, and the buildings themselves were blown up a couple of weeks later. Following the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the remaining buildings of both camps, as well as the ruins of the gaschambers and crematories were declared protected—as an everlasting memento—a museum was created on the site, and by the end of the 20th century, the one-time deathcamp is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

3 Imre Kertész: Sorstalanság, 1975 (Fatelessness, 1992)
© Laszlo Rajk 2013