This autumn Kazerne Dossin is mounting a new exhibition about Auschwitz entitled Auschwitz.camp. The camp became the symbol of the Holocaust after the Second World War. But behind the horror is an astonishing story of colonization and industry.
More than 25,000 Jews and Roma were deported to Auschwitz from Dossin barracks in Mechelen. Seventy-five years ago that transit camp was liberated. A short while later, in January1945, the same happened with the camp in Auschwitz. “So in this commemorative year, it falls to us to tell the layered and little-known story behind Auschwitz”, says Christophe Busch, General Manager of Kazerne Dossin, who curated the exhibition.
Auschwitz, a new German city
The exhibition investigates how the horrific mass murder carried out by the Nazis was clearly linked to their desire for colonial control. The Germans were looking to recuperate the Polish territory they had lost after the First World War. Their expansion eastwards also stemmed from a desire for more Lebensraum, i.e. territory they claimed was needed for the survival and healthy development of the nation. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, plans were made to bring new German industry to the Polish territory Germany had acquired. The presence of raw materials made the Polish town of Oświęcim (in German Auschwitz) an obvious choice. In 1941 building work began on the IG Farbenfabriek, a chemical concern where (among other things) synthetic rubber for tyres would be made. The town would boast modern workers’ houses with parks, swimming pools and an up-to-date transport system. But the factory was also a stone’s throw from Auschwitz I, a concentration camp set up a year earlier for Polish members of the resistance. An agreement between IG Farben and the SS allowed prisoners to be deployed for hard labour in the factory. This triggered a dangerous dynamic. “The contrast between Oświęcim’s modern facelift and the wretched conditions in the camp could not be greater,” Christophe Busch explains.
New Lebensraum brought with it the need for increased food supplies. A new bioindustry also led to the establishment of fisheries, batteries, pig and poultry rearing and the like in the surrounding area. In some concentration camps Angora rabbits were bred for meat, fur and wool.
There will be live animals in the exhibition too. A formicarium filled with ants will exemplify how the Nazis saw their ideal society: one strong leader, the queen, and thousands of workers.
Forbidden images show life and death
The exhibition also looks at life in the camp in some detail. While the prisoners are subjected to life-threatening conditions, the guards make time for relaxation and enjoyment. Two photograph albums illustrate that incredibly stark contrast. The very existence of the albums is extraordinary because it was forbidden to take photographs in the camp. The album belonging to the SS officer Höcker illustrates the carefree life of the camp guards, while Lilly Jacob’s exposes the fate of the victims.
Selfies at Arbeit macht frei
Hans Citroen’s photographs show what remains of that history today. While the former camp at Auschwitz, now a museum site, struggles with the pressures of mass tourism, the surrounding area is studded with silent witnesses. Co-curator of Auschwitz.camp and author Hans Citroen lived in the city for a while: “In Auschwitz, too, you find reminders of what happened. Camp posts, for example, were used by locals to make a chicken coop. A prison camp has been turned into garages. The railway tracks still cross the fields. Those things are of great historical importance, but how do you respond to them? People take selfies at the entrance to Auschwitz I. Tourists flock there in droves. With this exhibition we also want to give visitors the chance to reflect on remembrance education, one of Kazerne Dossin’s central themes.”
The exhibition opens on October 24th 2019 and runs until June 25th 2020. It can be visited by individuals or groups with a guide.