Auschwitz: From Architect's Promise to Inmate's Perdition
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Auschwitz:
From Architect’s Promise to Inmate’s Perdition

Already its name seems inassimilable. Before we have recovered from its harsh and repulsive beginning (“Ausch”) we are hit by its violent and sarcastic end (“Witz”). The name itself already suggests the content which, according to Jean-François Lyotard, is “the experience of language that brings speculative discourse to an end.” 1 Staunch Heideggerians, who seek to justify their master’s inability to confront or even name the Holocaust, have declared Auschwitz an unthinkable realm shrouded in silence. Many others also believe that silence serves the pious memory of the victims and shows a deferential respect for the survivors. They declare Auschwitz to be an unintelligible world, a strange universe that cannot and may not be explained. Hochuth called it “Planet Auschwitz,” a forlorn, damned, and desolate world.

Banished from the world of description, analysis, and conclusion, Auschwitz has become a myth in which the assumed universality of its impact obscures the contingencies of its beginning. I use the word “myth” here in the sense that Roland Barthes gave to it in his cele-brated essay “Myth Today.” Mythification, he argued, occurs when language empties a narrative of its historical contingency to fill it with an unchanging nature. “In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences...” The result is an account of “bliss-ful clarity” in which there are no contradictions because statements of fact are interpreted as explanations. “Things appear to mean something by themselves.” 2 Today few events can rival the mythic power of “Auschwitz.” Unlike “Hiroshima,” which indeed happened in an unintelligible flash, the story of the atrocity of “Auschwitz” can be depicted in sufficient detail to arouse our fascination. It takes place on a carefully mapped stage that holds our attention. [End Page 80]

In this essay I aim to recover some of the historical quality of Auschwitz that, in the words of Barthes, consists in the memory that it once was made. 3 It is characteristic of a mythic site that it has always been, since its significance is assigned at the beginning of Creation, to be redeemed at the end of History. Jewish legend records that the site of Solomon’s Temple marks not only the foundation stone of the world, but also the place where the Messiah will appear to Israel. 4 Auschwitz was not preordained to become the major site of the Holocaust. It actually acquired the role of “major site” almost by accident, and even the very fact that it became the site of mass murder resulted more from the failure to achieve one goal than from the ambition to realize another. To reclaim the reality of Auschwitz we must become attuned to the contradictions of the site, not in order to find reasons to deny what happened, but to square the way it happened with the ways of the world—a world in which the mysterious, mythifiable forces of malevolence seem ludicrously irrelevant com-pared to the profane, utterly intelligible, and very effective tendencies towards insufficiency and expediency. 5

As Jean-Claude Pressac has shown, the contingency of Auschwitz’s evolution even applies to its mythic core: the crematories. 6 In this essay I will concentrate on another contradiction of the site that clashes with an essential aspect of the myth of Auschwitz: the idea that it was quite literally “the end of the world,” that is, a place far away from everywhere else. My choice of subject goes back to a personal experience. The first time I visited Auschwitz I was surprised that a center of extermination was located side by side with a major town. I had seen Lanzmann’s film Shoah and remembered its depiction of the forsaken isolation at the death camps of Treblinka and Sobibor, the silence of the forests that surrounded them. It was the same seclusion that I knew from the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork, where the weekly trains set out upon their fatal journey eastward. Growing up in Holland, I had always thought that the secret terminus of those trains ought...