How much should we memorialise tragic events? Poland is home to many of the landmarks of horror associated with the Nazis. But of these arguably the two most notorious are memorialised in very different ways. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the concentration and extermination camps where over a million Jews, gypsies, communists, trade unionists and lesbians and gays were worked to death, or simply executed. It is preserved perfectly, Auschwitz converted to a museum with each block dedicated to a different aspect of either life in the camp or of the wider holocaust, whilst the larger Birkenau is simply preserved as a monument and memorial to the horror. Over the years as historians have uncovered different aspects of the story the Auschwitz Museum has gained exhibits about the experience of Roma and Sinti communities, and now has dedicated exhibitions on the particular experience of the Jews of France, Holland, Belgium, Poland, Romania and Hungary (A little known fact is that Hungarian Jews were the single largest national group executed at Auschwitz, comprising 500,000 of the 1.1million).
A stark contrast to this is about 200 miles north in Poland’s capital. The Warsaw Ghetto is the sight of some of the greatest tragedies and greatest acts of heroism of the holocaust. All of Warsaw’s Jews, 30% of the population, where forced into an area comprising 2.4% of the its size. Tens of thousands of people died of starvation and disease. In 1943 an extraordinary armed uprising challenged the Nazi military (documented extraordinarily in this book). This remains, for me at least, one of the most inspirational single acts of the 20th Century. Yet to look at modern Warsaw it would be hard to find traces of this story. One small section of the wall exists, hidden in a private courtyard. An old monument, built by the Soviets, stands in an obscure section of central Warsaw, attended by an old Jewish man with a stall selling dog-eared history books and odd badges. In contrast to the day trips and tours to Auschwitz that blossom around Krakow, there is no way of getting the Ghetto story, except to wander round yourself.
Clearly there are a number of reasons why these two sites are so different. Warsaw is a city of nearly 2million, whilst Oswiecim (OZ-VEE-TSIM – the Polish town that became Germanised in to Auschwitz) is a small town of 48,000. Clearly space was at more of a premium in post-war reconstruction. Very few remnants of the ghetto survived the reprisals of the Nazis, and the 1944 fighting in Warsaw, whereas the fleeing Nazis were unable to destroy most of Auschwitz, only able to reduce the gas ovens to piles of rubble before leaving. Clearly there was more of Auschwitz to preserve. Most people would have a sense that Auschwitz was significantly worse, that the industrial slaughter of millions is of a degree worse than the ghetto.
Another, more cynical reason is the fact that Krakow, the nearest town to Auschwitz is Poland’s traditional tourist destination, whilst Warsaw is still developing its tourist industry. Perhaps the Ghetto tours will spring up, just like the Auschwitz ones. None of these reasons seem enough to me though. Whilst no-one expects them to go to the extremes of rebuilding the Ghetto to remember it (though that’s what they did with much of the rest of Warsaw), surely there could be more done. So, and I’m really interested in your thoughts, why is it that some things are memorialised in such detail, and others not?