Walking through the gates of Auschwitz was surreal. The infamous camp sees about one million visitors every year. Each of the barracks have been renovated as exhibition spaces or offices, and many of the exhibitions have been organized by specific countries for the Jews from these respective countries. In 1947, Auschwitz became a protected site of the state with the purpose of remembering those who perished there. Since then, the staff has been preserving and conserving the site and artifacts found at the site.
We were fortunate to arrange a tour through the conservation lab with a specialist in paper conservation. Our tour guide took us through many different offices in the lab. In one of the offices, we met a man who was testing a sliver of one of the barrack windows. His test determined whether the windows were original; if they were he would have to establish a plan to preserve them, and if they were not original he would be able to take more liberty with replacing the windows, still making them looking as much like the original as possible. The test he ran took much longer than the time we spent with him, so we don’t know what he decided. The dedication to authenticity is remarkable.
In another office, we saw a dozen or more paintings done by forced laborers in the camp. When artists entered the camp, officers would demand different paintings including portraits or copies of famous works of art. The Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau organizes exhibitions of them periodically.
We also saw a room for the preservation of luggage and shoes. Each shoe was put into a special box for preservation. In some occasions, preservationists find papers stuffed into the shoes, maybe they were too big for the owner. The preservation lab keeps everything they find, even these small, torn slips of paper, as they make the image of the person more complete.
The last office we visited was the paper preservation room where they preserve different journals and story books found in Auschwitz and Birkenau. One of the most touching objects was a children’s Christmas storybook, with detailed and colorful pictures of Santa Claus and different scenes of Christmas including Christmas dinner, mistletoe and stockings hanging on the mantel.
This tour through the conservation lab was enlightening as it changed the way we looked at the different artifacts in the camp. Each of them was carefully cleaned, selected and placed. Each object belonged to a separate individual, and the attention given to each object reminded us of the individual to whom it belonged.
We were also able to meet with one of the archival researchers at Auschwitz. He showed us different artifacts, including deportation lists, identification cards, etc. He also informed us of the process to identify individuals that had been at Auschwitz. People often send requests to the office and received either identification cards or deportations lists, as well as any other information that was collected. Generally, only an identification card with limited personal information or a deportation list is available. Those that were selected for forced labor had identification cards, while those who were sent to the gas chambers right away had no identification other than a name on a deportation list. However, the office also archives mail sent in and out of the camp, however this mail was extremely censored so it didn’t offer a real sense of life in the camp. Nevertheless, it still offers more information about the individual. When Nazis censored the mail, they would literally cut out the sections of the letter they didn’t like, which often resulted in a flimsy scrap of paper left to send to their families and loved ones. Oftentimes, in cases like those sent from Theresienstadt, those deported were forced to send postcards back to Theresienstadt saying they had arrived safely and the camp was similar to Theresienstadt. All these letters have been preserved.
Thanks to these offices and the hard work of those we met, the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz and Birkenau offers information that would have been lost about those who lived and perished there.
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