Now a museum and a memorial to the millions who were murdered there, the former Auschwitz concentration camp, now part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, is Poland’s most visited cultural destination, drawing a record 2.15 million tourists in 2018. That number is over four times the number of visitors two decades ago, and while it’s hard not to view this as a net positive—a sign that Holocaust remembrance is alive and well—it also creates a peculiar problem: how to effectively welcome the crowds, without crowding out the solemn, even sacred, character of the site? The difficulty is especially acute at the museum entrance, where dozens of lumbering buses idle in a vast parking lot only yards from the infamous gateway with its chilling, wrought-iron legend, “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free).
Daniel Libeskind, FAIA’s professional connection to the Holocaust goes back to his first completed project: Jewish Museum Berlin (2001). But his personal connection goes back considerably farther: Born in 1946 in Lodz, Poland, the designer counts as many as 19 members of his father’s family murdered by the Nazis during the war. “The only one who survived was living in Pennsylvania,” he says. “That’s why we came to America.” This summer, in a return to his native country, Libeskind has helped create a temporary installation at Auschwitz that combines a unique commemorative mission with a much-needed programmatic function, providing a fitting architectural preamble to the museum.
Inaugurated last week, “Through the Lens of Faith” combines photography and text in a simple, open-air gallery designed by Studio Libeskind and situated just outside the museum’s main admissions office. The images, all portraits, are the work of photographer Caryl Englander and feature 21 survivors of Auschwitz: 18 Jewish, two Catholic, and one Sinti (eastern Roma). Englander visited each of her subjects alongside historian Henri Lusitger-Thaler, who documented their stories and then edited them into brief first-person narratives that accompany each photo. The theme that connects them, as the title suggests, is religious belief and the people who hold it: The survivors relate how their own personal experiences in the camp challenged yet strengthened their convictions, redoubling their commitment to a pious life after they were finally freed. “It’s about enlarging the capacity for empathy,” says Lusitger-Thaler, chief curator of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, the institution that sponsored the exhibit.
To realize that empathic mission, the organizers needed to create a setting that would give viewers an immediate, visceral connection to the subjects of the installation. For this they turned to Libeskind, who responded with a straightforward but emotionally charged solution: A single walkway, composed of alternating metal and wooden strips—an overt reference to the railways that carried victims to Auschwitz—is flanked by stanchions faced in mirror-like stainless steel. Each stanchion features a hinged, smoked black glass panel inscribed with the survivors’ words; behind these panels, color photographs of each survivor are printed directly onto the steel posts. The photographs are only fully visible by lifting the panel: “You have to physically engage with it,” Libeskind says, noting that the act immediately establishes a degree of intimacy between viewer and subject.
Perhaps the most successful effect of the installation is down to the high-finish materiality of the posts: Glimmering in the blazing summer sun, the stanchions instantly catch the eye of anyone alighting in the car park; once approached, they suddenly dissolve, giving way to reflections of the surrounding landscape, the nearby camp structures, and the viewers themselves. Combined with the uplifting message of the text and moving portraits of the survivors, the effect introduces a tranquility to the busy entry plaza, as well as a moment of spiritual refreshment to counterbalance the grimness of the site. “Death is everywhere in this place, even as you walk around it or sit on the grass,” Libeskind says. “This lets in just a little light.”
“Through the Lens of Faith” will be open through Oct. 31, 2020.