Monday, August 4, 2008

Historic Preservation and the Memory of Injustice

It is always good (and sobering) to be reminded that historic preservation is not only about preserving the beautiful or the architecturally noteworthy, or what we are proud of.

Some of the most striking memories of my childhood encounters with history are of the conversations in which my parents talked about their experiences of Europe during or after World War II with Japanese-American friends, who shared their recollections of the internment camps to which the United States had so shamefully relegated them.  In the intervening years, the latter subject has, thankfully, attained an ever greater place in our educational curriculum and collective consciousness (though still not as great as it deserves).  Even though we are now more aware of the experience of the evacuees, few if any of us pause to think about the physical environment and its fate.

A recent piece from the Associated Press describes the challenge of preserving the remains of those camps in the American west. The first practical difficulty entails locating and identifying the surviving structures, many of which have been moved or reused.
The park service has proposed restoring a block of the barracks to recreate the living conditions that roughly 13,000 Japanese Americans experienced at the camp. The initiative is part of an overall plan to preserve sections of Minidoka, which became a national historic site seven years ago and now sits mostly deserted

But most of the barracks found so far are ghosts of their former selves, long since converted into homes, farming sheds, chicken and pig pens, and in one instance, a Twin Falls apartment complex.

"We have no idea how many still exist," said Patrick Taylor, who was hired in March to find the barracks.

Preservation plans at Minidoka fit into a larger, more complicated endeavor as the National Park Service and grass-roots organizations nationwide try to resurrect history that was largely buried for decades.

The camps held memories many Japanese Americans wanted to forget and actions the U.S. government worked quickly to erase.

"Most of these sites have been abandoned since they were closed," said National Park Service historian Kara Miyagishima. "No one has had the finances to preserve them."

President George W. Bush signed a bill in 2006 authorizing up to $38 million for a park service grant program aimed at preserving the sites, but two years later, the money still hasn't been appropriated.

Only two of the sites _ Minidoka in Idaho and the Manzanar camp in California _ have been designated as national historic sites.

[. . . . ]

"At first we were worried we weren't going to be able to find them," Taylor said. "That has turned out not to be the problem, it's what to do once we find them."

But the federal channels, although time-consuming, seem necessary in the long run, Taylor said.

History can be misleading as officials at the Manzanar National Historic Site in California discovered after spending an estimated $40,000 to relocate a mess hall, only to discover later that it was a World War II air base.

"By the time we found this out we had already spent the money," said Alisa Lynch, a park service employee at the Manzanar National Historic Site. "It's costing several hundred thousand dollars to restore it."
(Jessie L. Bonner, "World War II camp preservation proves difficult")

The topic also poses profound questions regarding the goals of preservation versus restoration, and thus, history and memory.

Last month, I visited Auschwitz (a separate report on that later, perhaps) where these issues are highlighted as perhaps nowhere else. Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps were not just places of internment, but also extermination--and, as such, de facto graveyards for those who have no graves.

Though still present on-site, many of these facilities, like those of Manzanar and Minidoka, were built quickly, with impermanent materials. Without conservation efforts, they will disappear. The greater the intervention required, however, the greater the loss of authenticity--and thus the risk of inadvertently calling into question the very historical phenomena whose reality one seeks to document.

As a 2007 press report noted:
"The biggest dilemma of this place is preserving what is authentic while also keeping it possible for people to see and to touch," said Piotr Cywinski, a 34-year-old historian who took over in September.

"This wasn't built as a medieval castle with strong materials to last for all time," Cywinski told The Associated Press in an interview in his office in one of the Auschwitz barracks. "It was a Nazi camp built to last a short time."
The most sensitive issue involves the ruins of the killing facilities at Auschwitz II (Birkenau):
The Nazis themselves blew up the gas chambers and crematoria toward the end of World War II as the Soviet army approached. Today, they are mostly in ruins as the Nazis left them, evidence of both the original crimes and the German attempt to cover them up.

Any decay at all poses a problem given the camp's role today as evidence of the atrocities. . . .

For all that to crumble would deprive future generations of priceless historical evidence of Nazi atrocities, a further concern in light of Holocaust denial.

[. . . . ]

Cywinski is calling for retainer walls to be built around gas chambers to prevent them from sinking further.

"We are at a moment where we have to act," Cywinski said. "If we don't, there's the risk that in 10 or 15 years, it will no longer be possible to understand their construction."

But any tampering with the gas chambers is problematic because Holocaust deniers could seize on that, and photographs of repair work, to try to argue that the whole thing was fabricated, according to Jonathan Webber, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Birmingham and a member of the International Auschwitz Council, a board that advises Auschwitz administrators.

Webber noted that the barbed wire at Auschwitz has already been replaced more than once since the war, because the original was so rusted. But "fiddling with the gas chambers" is different.

"Anyone tampering with gas chambers is tampering with the heart and soul of what Auschwitz represents," said Webber, who has urged the council to seek the advice of engineering experts before starting any work.
(Read the rest: Associated Press: "Auschwitz curator has new challenges," January 2007)

As the Times of London put it around the same time:
It is a macabre dilemma. Should one give new life to a Nazi camp that has become synonymous with evil? Or should one let the camp crumble gently? Should Auschwitz become an overgrown site for mourners or a tourist destination? The International Auschwitz Council meeting this week decided that it was possible to strike a balance. Auschwitz remains a museum as well as a crime scene and, as such, should be more accessible to those wanting to learn about the Holocaust.
Restoration efforts were to focus on stabilizing the remains of the Birkenau killing facilities and on the principal Auschwitz I camp, whose mainly brick structures derive from old Polish military barracks.  These include modernizing the exhibits housed there (they dated from 1955).  And then there is the problem of preserving the mundane yet chilling artifacts--from mounds of human hair and personal possessions such as toothbrushes, shoes, and luggage, to rusting metal cans that once held Zyklon B gas.  No less sensitive are the issues involving the larger ambience as the site adapts to address the practical needs of increasing numbers of tourists in more up-to-date fashion.
the Auschwitz restoration team has to be careful to avoid the impression that it is building replicas. “The camp has to be propped up without sacrificing any of its authenticity,” a source close to the council said.

The other fear, voiced by Jewish scholars, is that Auschwitz will lose the smell of death and become more of a museum than a graveyard. Noach Flug, the president of the Centre of Organisations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, said: “Auschwitz is the original place where it happened. You must have the feeling as it was then — the smell and the look. It is important not to change.”

The most damning comment has come from the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims: “Changing the memorial and making it less horrifying and more friendly, having more flowers, trees, parks and grass, is good maybe for an amusement park but not for a place that is important to teach us what happened.”

“This is not about beauty,” Mr Cywinksi said. “We have to think about the next generation and different ways of speaking to them.”

Further reading:

• Sharon Yamato, Moving Walls: Preserving the Barracks of America's Concentration Camps.
• Paul Kusuda, recollections of evacuation and internment in Manzanar, in Asian Wisconzine: "Day of remembrance: February 19": "Part 1"; "Part 2"; Part 3; "World War II at home: West Coast evacuation of aliens and non-aliens"

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