For Artist at Auschwitz, a Challenge: Stepping Into the Past, Not on It

Marc Santora, The New York Times, July 4, 2019

Image: Mr. Libeskind and Nina Libeskind, his wife and business partner, during a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. (Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times)

OSWIECIM, Poland — The letter to Daniel Libeskind’s father arrived shortly after the war ended. His sister, Rozia, informed him that his family was dead. She was the only one of 10 siblings to survive Auschwitz. Over three handwritten pages in Yiddish, she detailed the horrors they endured.

“As I write these words,” she concluded, “who will believe what I am telling you?”

As the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the world’s largest factory of death approaches, Mr. Libeskind, the architect and artist, returned to the site of his family’s destruction, doing his part to be sure that her words — and the words of other witnesses — are both believed and not forgotten.

Working with the photographer Caryl Englander and the curator Henri Lustiger Thaler of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, Mr. Libeskind was at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on Monday to open a new temporary exhibit — “Through the Lens of Faith” — near the entrance to the camp.

In a wide-ranging conversation that touched on faith, family, memory, politics and art, Mr. Libeskind talked about the challenge for an artist of making a statement on a site whose horrors have been preserved unadorned, so they can speak for themselves. And, in fact, Mr. Libeskind’s original design — a larger structure like a cathedral with seating for visitors — was rejected as “too artistic.”

“At first, I didn’t really understand that,” he said. “You need to have art to communicate an idea.” But he came to see that nothing he did should take away the focus from the place itself. “Whatever you do, you have to communicate where you are,” he said.

Mr. Libeskind also reflected on what it meant to take part in a project so deeply personal.

Born in a homeless shelter in the industrial city of Lodz in 1946, Mr. Libeskind spent his childhood in the postwar ruins of Poland under the heel of communist rule. He returned as one of the world’s most well-known architects, having worked on projects around the world, including the complicated assignment of overseeing the rebuilding project at ground zero after the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

That makes him no stranger to dealing with the complicated — and competing — demands that come with working on a site that is also a graveyard. His work at Auschwitz, though, comes at a particularly challenging moment, both for the institution and for the task of preserving historical memory.

As the last living witnesses of the Holocaust die, there has been a troubling rise in anti-Semitism across the continent. As it has, political parties from Budapest to Rome have grown ever more bold in their desire to control the narrative of the past as a weapon in the present.

Poland is at the center of these political crosscurrents, and so the past year has been a tumultuous one for the Auschwitz museum.

When the government passed a broadly written law last year making it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust, setting off outrage in both the United States and Israel, the museum found itself thrust uncomfortably into the middle of the maelstrom. The law was later weakened.

But the director of the museum, Piotr M.A. Cywinski, came under attack from conservative organizations. He was accused of “threatening” Polish historical memory, and around 10,000 people signed a petition calling for his firing.

Pawel Sawicki, a spokesman for the museum, said that the institution would withstand any political pressure. Still, the museum faces a tricky balancing act: It must commemorate an unspeakable atrocity without appearing to claim responsibility for it.

Many Poles, whatever their political beliefs, fear that as time goes by, the death camp will become more associated with Poland than with the Germans who ran it. Unlike many of its neighbors, Poland did not to establish a collaborationist government during the war.

To address those concerns, a new exhibit will do more to tell this story. It is part of the largest renovation of the museum since its founding, an 11-year project to be completed in 2025. With the number of people visiting every year continuing to grow — from 500,000 in 2000 to more than two million last year — the museum will do the work without closing to the public.

“The new exhibition will be to a large extent based on the experience of the old exhibition, in particular as far as such aspects as its dignity, tranquillity, certain austerity and minimalism are concerned,” Mr. Cywinski said in a statement. “It will still aim at showing rather than narrating.”

The museum opened in 1947, and the main exhibits that visitors see date to 1955. They include mountains of hair, encased behind glass, of the victims who died in the gas chambers, as well as the piles of shoes, the luggage still emblazoned with family names, the personal items like eyeglasses and toothbrushes, which are all intimately associated with the memorial.

Many of the exhibits were created by former inmates, and aside from some remarkable preservation work, remain largely unchanged.

When Mr. Libeskind was a child, he said, his parents took him to the museum. Seeing the exhibits again for the first time after some seven decades was a powerful experience.

“The memories came flooding back,” Mr. Libeskind, 73, said as he walked between the red brick barracks.

At the outbreak of the war, his parents — Dora and Nachman — had not yet met. Both fled east, only to be arrested by Soviet forces. HIs father was sent to a labor camp and his mother to Siberia. It was only after a deal was reached between Stalin and the Allied forces allowing for Polish prisoners to be freed in 1943 that the two met.

They returned to Poland after the war, and the scale of the genocide was made clear by a simple fact: None of their family was there anymore.

“We lived in the radiation of the Holocaust,” said Mr. Libeskind.

But he also lived under a new kind of oppression. Communist rule, he said, would be a different sort of prison.

His family left in 1957, during one of two major purges of Jews in the postwar years. Of the 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland before the war, three million were murdered. An estimated 300,000 tried to return after the war. But by 1968, only around 20,000 remained.

When Ms. Englander and Mr. Lustiger Thaler approached Mr. Libeskind about doing a project at Auschwitz related to faith, he did not hesitate.

Often, the stories of survivors of the camps include recollections of lost faith. How, after all, could there be a god who would allow such a thing to happen?

But the new exhibit, which is the result of three years of research, focuses on the stories of those who somehow managed to keep their faith or find it again after the war. It includes interviews with 18 Jewish survivors, two Polish Catholics and one Roma Sinti man.

Ms. Englander photographed each person, hoping to show their vitality. Mr. Lustiger Thaler chose excerpts from the interviews, 200 words to try to capture the essence of their story. It was left to Mr. Libeskind to design an exhibit that translated that somewhat abstract notion into reality.

He designed a series of vertical steel panels to form a path leading to the entrance of the museum. Each panel contains a recessed section where Ms. Englander’s portraits are displayed. In front is dark glass, etched with the words chosen by Mr. Lustiger Thaler, whose family was also from Poland and was nearly completely wiped out in the Holocaust.

Mr. Lustiger Thaler called the exhibit “testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit.”

Mr. Libeskind agreed, and went further: He said he was confident that “manipulating memory is doomed to failure.”

The next day, standing next to the ruins of one of the gas chambers at Birkenau, blown up by Nazi soldiers hoping to eliminate traces of their crimes, Mr. Libeskind grew silent.

He walked off alone with his thoughts, staring down the train tracks that brought so many members of his family to their death. After a few minutes, he turned and walked out of the camp.

A version of this article appears in print on July 4, 2019, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Architect at Ground Zero Now Has Art at Auschwitz. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe