But Berenbaum said that for museum visitors, an anonymous suitcase is not the same as one bearing a specific name.
“That might look like a minor thing,” he said. “But it is a major thing. People arrived in Auschwitz and put a name on it because they expected the material would be returned to them. It gives us a sense of what their expectations were.” They packed assuming that they would survive.
But Bloomfield said that the museum’s lauded exhibition, created by the renowned museum designer Ralph Appelbaum (who has also been tapped to create the exhibitions for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture), hasn’t been seriously altered and in some cases has been enhanced. In any case, it is almost 20 years old and must necessarily evolve.
A truck chassis, borrowed from the Majdanek museum, has been returned and not replaced. Bloomfield doesn’t see its absence as a devastating loss. The object, a twisted metal frame, was used to cremate bodies during Nazi efforts to hide the extent of the killing. But while it had historical significance and helped establish material proof of the genocide, it was confusing to visitors.
Museum officials could try to renegotiate its loan, but it “was a very hard artifact for the public to read,” she said, and its importance to the exhibition is being reconsidered.
But members of the original exhibition team think the Holocaust Museum should fight harder to maintain the exhibition as is.
“I can’t figure out why the museum has agreed to go along supinely,” Smith said, adding, “I don’t know why the Poles are doing this.”
There are multiple answers to that question.
Dzielski, the Polish Embassy official, said that “if there is a law, you have to obey it.”
Off the record, some observers worry that this is another chapter in Poland’s complicated relationship to the Holocaust, which includes efforts to play down knowledge of and complicity in the Nazi atrocities and ham-handed attempts to lay claim to the Holocaust as a crime perpetrated primarily against Poles rather than Jews. The current resort to intransigent legalism thus echoes earlier cultural tics, such as the creation of a Carmelite convent that stood near Auschwitz from 1984 to 1993 and was widely seen as an appropriation of Jewish sacred ground.
But museum officials stress that Polish groups have been accommodating in most of the negotiations, in some cases providing replacement material before demanding the return of similar objects, so as to keep the basic elements of the exhibition intact for visitors.
The Polish insistence on the return may also reflect an evolution of its relationship to the past. Museum officials say that Polish conservation and stewardship of Holocaust sites and material have never been better.
The Poles may simply be adhering to what they view as their legitimate conservation obligations.
Warren Rosenblum, a professor of history at Webster University who studies the Holocaust, said there has been “a cultural awakening” in regard to the Holocaust in Poland, including more openness and professionalism in how the country deals with the subject and the material remnants of the genocide. But with that comes “a new kind of self-assertion and pride,” he said, and the sense that Poles want to “be in charge of this history, take ownership of it, be true to this legacy.”
But the case of the barracks remains emotional. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and prominent author, issued a statement encouraging its retention.
“I fervently hope that the Polish government and the Museum will find a way for the barracks to remain on view,” he wrote. “The museum is of extraordinary importance as it is. There are few institutions in the world that have done for remembrance as well and as much as this museum.”