In the late 1980s, when organizers of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum were searching for Nazi-era artifacts, they sought to tell a story that was industrial in its magnitude and horrifying in its detail. The results, a widely acclaimed permanent exhibition that broke new ground in museum design, may be in jeopardy as the museum deals with demands to return one of its most powerful and haunting objects.
Little known outside the Holocaust Museum is that many of the objects borrowed from Poland almost a quarter-century ago were on a 20-year loan, and over the past few years, those loans have expired. In some cases, the museum has returned objects, renegotiated loans or exchanged existing materials, such as shoes, suitcases and prayer shawls, for equivalent pieces.
Several members of the team that built the exhibition, one of the most visited in Washington, are concerned that the drab wooden barracks from Auschwitz that gives visitors a chilling sense of the daily brutality of life under the Nazis, may have to be returned to Poland, leaving a prominent hole in what they call the exhibition’s basic narrative.
Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director, said that while some objects have already been returned or exchanged, visitors were unlikely to notice any significant change to the exhibition. But she acknowledged that negotiations are underway to keep the barracks on the museum’s third floor.
“It is our priority to keep the barracks in the exhibition,” Bloomfield said. “We are in negotiations with our Polish partners about how to do that.”
Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who was project director for the museum when the collection was being formed, is disappointed by changes to the exhibition.
“It was our understanding that we were going to have it permanently,” he said.
Martin Smith, a documentary filmmaker who helped craft the exhibition’s focus on narrative (at the time, an important innovation in U.S. museum design), is more blunt.
If the museum loses important pieces such as the barracks, “the whole veracity of the place will go,” he said. “The physicality of those objects speaks volumes.”
But Bloomfield and a representative of the Polish Embassy in Washington are in accord about the legal details.
“We have reviewed the loan agreements,” Bloomfield said. “We’ve always called these long-term loans.” The original understanding dictates that “at the conclusion of the agreement, the barracks will be returned, and the museum can request another loan after that.”
Witold Dzielski, first secretary of the Polish Embassy, said he sympathizes with the museum’s desire to keep the barracks.
“All the other issues are being solved pretty easily,” he said of the smaller objects that have been returned or exchanged. “But in the case of the barracks, it is a particularly difficult situation. There was an agreement, and according to Polish law, there is no way that the barracks cannot be returned.”
The expiration of the loan agreements puts the museum and Polish organizations that contributed to it in a difficult position. Few subjects are more emotionally fraught than the Holocaust; and the relationship between Jewish survivors and Poland, where most of the German death camps were located, has been particularly difficult. The enormity of Nazi violations of international law and human rights have led to decades of ongoing conflict over the ownership of looted art and property, and the relative status of different groups that suffered in the war. But the loan agreement case also raises emotional concerns about the museum’s design, so celebrated since its opening in 1993 that changes to it are seen as potentially sacrilegious.
Suitcases that bore the names of Holocaust victims, for example, have been returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau and replaced with others that don’t bear clearly identifiable names of particular victims. Jacek Nowakowski, the museum’s senior curator for research and acquisitions, says the exchange was probably prompted by the possibility that items bearing specific names could be subject to legal disputes if claimed by surviving family members. By replacing them with anonymous objects, the curators at Auschwitz-Birkenau are protecting the objects they own.
A 2005 legal case in France hinged on that issue: The descendent of a Holocaust victim discovered his father’s name on a suitcase lent by the Auschwitz museum to an exhibition in Paris. He asked for its return, and when Polish authorities refused, he filed suit to keep the object in France. Polish officials may be legitimately concerned that Polish cultural patrimony is potentially in jeopardy.
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.”