Julia Kennerley: Auschwitz and Heritage?

‘Never forget that this has happened
Remember these words
Engrave them in your hearts’
- Primo Levi.  

At first glance, it seems as though heritage is very glamorous.  I discovered this on Sunday evening when, alongside my fellow delegates, we were treated to a drop of prosecco whilst sitting in the courtyard of 13th century Wawel Castle.  After listening to a welcome from the Polish president and sitting under a beautiful summer sky, I decided that, if this is what heritage (and the UN) is like, then I’m a fan. 

But, as I’ve subsequently learned over the past few days, heritage is conflicting.  Heritage is a struggle.  And, at times, heritage is simply nauseating.  Yesterday, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi German Concentration Camp where at least one million Jews, Poles, Roma and Soviet Prisoners of War were murdered between 1940 and 1945.  We passed through the infamous ‘Arbeit macht frei’ gate.  We walked around the blocks in which prisoners slept, thousands squashed together like cattle.  We saw the threadbare stripped uniforms that victims were forced to wear in sub-zero temperatures.  And we learnt how prisoners were dehumanised - stripped of their identity, family, belongings and ultimately their lives. 

I felt physically sick. 

And I was simply walking through (mostly) empty buildings.  If I felt this way, imagine living in this hell.  

When I got back last night, my head was all over the place.  So, in an effort to find out even more about what I had witnessed earlier in the day, I turned to Google.  It turns out that Auschwitz is a UNESCO World Heritage site - it was inscribed in 1979 on the basis that it illustrates ‘a significant stage in human history’.  

For me, this idea of Auschwitz being labelled as ‘heritage’ - a word usually reserved for describing places of beauty - is interesting.  Some may ask how can we classify a collection of buildings that so accurately depict the horrors of mankind in this way.  Isn’t heritage supposed to be nice?  Fluffy?  Sunny?  Something that’s handed down from generation to generation with pride and joy?  

Whilst walking through the forest behind Birkenau, I asked our guide whether any prisoners had ever escaped the camp.  She told me the story of Kazimierz Piechowski, a prisoner who, in 1942, posed as an SS guard and drove out of Auschwitz in the stolen car of head commandant Rudolf Hoss.  For his courage, innovation and tenacity, Piechowski has become something of a modern legend.

What Piechowski’s story shows, I think, is that maybe in this case the ‘heritage’ is not the haunted red brick buildings or the rail tracks that weave across the landscape like a giant spider web.  Instead, the ‘heritage’ is the story that the physical spaces, the objects and the photographs can tell us.  And the reminder they give that we can never, ever, let this happen again.   

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Posted on July 5, 2017 and filed under World Heritage 2017.