The UK government's announcement of funding to help maintain Auschwitz-Birkenau was an important step, one which raises compelling questions about preserving Holocaust sites. Alex Maws welcomes the educational challenge.

Preserving Auschwitz

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit The Acropolis whilst on holiday in Athens. As always seems to be my luck, it was almost entirely covered in scaffolding, ruining any chance I had at taking a decent photo. But the experience sticks in my memory nonetheless because of a remark that I remember our tour guide making: that a large part of the massive restoration project was for the purpose of reversing the misguided work undertaken as part of previous restoration efforts over the past hundred years or so.

So the renovators weren’t attempting to restore The Acropolis to look like it did, say, 2,000 years ago, but rather what it looked like 100 years ago. Interesting.

When we attempt to turn back the clock on historical sites, how far back should we turn it? Where do we draw the line between restoration and re-building? How do we ever know that the decisions we are making right now about what and how to restore will be regarded by future generations as the correct ones?

These complex questions relating to the upkeep of historical sites become even trickier when we are dealing with authentic Holocaust sites, an issue which has recently gained public attention thanks to the Government’s recent announcement of the UK’s £2.1 million contribution towards the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As an organisation which is committed to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, the Holocaust Educational Trust welcomes this announcement enthusiastically. Our Lessons from Auschwitz Project brings 3,000 students and teachers to the site each year – and these are just a tiny fraction of the approximately 1.4 million people who visit the site annually. Clearly, Auschwitz is a site which carries great meaning for people from all corners of the world. And with so many visitors to a site which was never intended to host even a single tourist, it is imperative that governments other than just Poland’s help to preserve it.

Precisely which parts of Auschwitz-Birkenau should be restored – and to what extent – can be debated by experts. Indeed, such debates are what we in the education field like to call “teachable moments”.

Once when I was leading a group of students on an educational visit to Auschwitz, the group began to deliberate over this issue. One student asked a hypothetical question, “So, if the Arbeit Macht Frei sign were to fall down, would they really just put it back up?” As it turned out, in December 2009 we learned the answer when thieves stole the sign. Within hours, workers at the museum had replaced it with a replica, which has remained in place ever since.

What can we possibly make of this thorny piece of information? To respond in the way that millions of teachers do when asked something unanswerable: “Good question. What do you think?”

Efforts to make Auschwitz a site that can sustain the number of visitors which it now receives will no doubt provide us with many more points for discussion. I don’t think anyone would propose rebuilding a gas chamber and crematorium, for example. Yet I also don’t think anyone would object to making Auschwitz more wheelchair accessible. In between these two ideas, there is a massive ideological grey area.

The contribution of the UK government reminds us that Auschwitz is more than just a historical site. It is a place whose purpose has evolved over time – before, during and after World War Two. Those 1.4 million annual visitors today become part of the history of Auschwitz, not just passive observers of it.

Alex Maws is Head of Education at the Holocaust Educational Trust.