The Awkward Case for Preserving Holocaust Relics

Posted on January 15, 2010 

The Awkward Case for Preserving Holocaust Relics

The theft in Poland of a Holocaust relic — the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz — had historians and memorialists around the world this month in an uncomfortable posture of outrage. Some of them seemed as upset as jewellers over the theft of the Hope Diamond, which revived a delicate question. How much of the Holocaust needs to be preserved?

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is now a memorial museum, and its managers handled the theft of the sign just as any curator would treeat the loss of some vital collection piece. It’s an odd reaction, because it risks turning Nazi memorabilia into something sacred. Decay is natural, and one day, maybe centuries from now, the entire Auschwitz camp will return to the Polish forest. Isn’t the proper response, “Good riddance”?

Not just yet. Rabbi Marvin Hier from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles rightly scolded Polish authorities for not preventing the theft. He called the sign “the defining symbol of the Holocaust, because everyone knew that this was not a place where work makes you free, but it was the place where millions of men, women, and children were brought for one purpose only — to be murdered.”

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