Redrawing Auschwitz to the Last Bitter Splinter

German and Israeli researchers have sketched buildings at Auschwitz that no longer exist. The Cologne exhibit provides chilling detail.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
A drawing from the exhibition, by Władysław Siwek, 1950.
A drawing from the exhibition, by Władysław Siwek, 1950. Credit: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The drawings at a new exhibition in the German city of Cologne portray 50 ordinary-looking buildings. But these buildings weren’t ordinary — they stood at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Germans’ largest extermination camp built in occupied Poland during World War II.

At its height, Auschwitz was a constellation of 45 camps covering 40 square kilometers (15 square miles). Around 1.2 million people were murdered there, most of them Jews.

Last weekend, an exhibition opened at the National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne entitled “Todesfabrik Auschwitz — Topographie und Alltag” (“The Auschwitz Death Factory – Topography and Everyday Life”). The exhibition marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which falls on January 27.

Over 70 years, a huge number of exhibitions, books and films have been produced about Auschwitz, but the new exhibition presents the camp from a different perspective — Auschwitz on the drawing board. According to historian Gideon Greif, an Israeli involved in the exhibition, only about 20 percent of the wartime structures at the death and labor camp remain.

But the new exhibition makes it possible to reconstruct the other 80 percent to the last detail. The idea is to better understand how the death machine worked — from the ramps where Jews arrived to the gas chambers.

A blueprint of Auschwitz. Credit: Peter Siebers.

“This is a different exhibition about Auschwitz,” Greif told Haaretz by phone from Cologne. “Its key point is the huge disparity between what was normal and not normal. The buildings at the camp were ordinary, but their content wasn’t routine or normal at all.”

For his research, Greif, an expert on Auschwitz, linked up with German architect Peter Siebers of Cologne. “There is a very beautiful message: the fact that a German architect is working with an Israeli historian on a subject such as Auschwitz,” Greif said. “When a Jew and a German work together on such a sensitive and complex topic, it’s no routine matter.”

An illustration from the exhibition, by David Olere, 1950. Credit: Yad Vashem.

In recent years, the pair traveled between Poland, Germany and Israel to complete their research and, as Greif put it, “to reconstruct these camps to the last structure, to the doorstep of the last house and the last stone.”

Aerial photographs, construction plans, maps, pictures, books, personal testimony and films were used to recreate Auschwitz. The two did most of their research in the archives of the Auschwitz museum, which was a partner to the study. More work was carried out in the archives of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

Peter Siebers, left, and Gideon Greif, two masterminds of the exhibition on buildings at Auschwitz, November 2014. Credit: Nir Keidar.

One big insane asylum

What Greif and Siebers couldn’t find in their research, they looked for on site. “We set out for Auschwitz with measuring tape and began to measure,” Greif said.

The sketches of the 50 buildings are clean and aesthetic, leaving the viewer “cold,” as Greif put it. Still, the drawings provide a full sense of what went on.

“Auschwitz was an insane world that had everything including a brothel and an orchestra,” Greif added. “There were no human phenomena that didn’t occur at Auschwitz.”

A drawing by Wadysaw Siwek, 1949. Credit: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

All these phenomena find expression in the drawings. “We didn’t flinch from dealing with the most delicate of subjects such as the young people who served functionaries at the camp sexually,” Greif said.

"It was a world of contrasts, bizarreness and madness — one big insane asylum in which people were murdered with Vivaldi playing in the background.”

A drawing by Jan Komski, 1990-1997. Credit: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

The drawings show how the site operated — the functionality of each building and the calculated planning by the architects and engineers. They make clear the straight line from the architects’ offices to the crematoria.

“Our goal is to understand the horror from the point of view of the murderers,” Barbara Kirschbaum, a staff member at the Cologne center, told the German newspaper Express.

As the center’s director Werner Jung put it: “It’s hard to believe the steps that the German engineers took at the site to ensure that the largest number of people would be murdered.”

A schematic of Auschwitz. Credit: Peter Siebers.

Easier to believe is that if the exhibition had been staged decades ago, Albert Speer’s life would have been different. Speer, an architect as well as armaments and war production minister for Hitler, cheated the hangman by portraying himself as a reasonable Nazi unaware of the scope of the regime’s crimes. At the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and died a free man in 1981.

In the exhibition, there’s also artwork by Auschwitz inmates showing routine life at the camp. There are also 25 photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau as it exists today, as well as a model of the crematoria and gas chambers.

The exhibition received funding from entities including the German Foreign Ministry and the Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation. It will be displayed around Germany and Poland; it may even come to Israel. An accompanying book will be published in the next several months.

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