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A German-Israeli team undertakes the reconstruction of Auschwitz

Through painstaking study of plans and remains of the complex, a German architect and an Israeli historian join forces to 'recreate' the camp where 1.3 million people were murdered.

In December 1944, a month before the liberation of Auschwitz, the Germans inaugurated the death camp's last building. This was the so-called "reception building." It was a huge star-shaped structure intended for the reception of new inmates. A short time earlier, and a few dozen meters away, outside the main camp, another 20 new buildings had been constructed to house female inmates.

Blueprints of Auschwitz. Photo by Nir Kedar

The Germans never had the opportunity to utilize these new structures. The huge, star-shaped building today houses the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum as well as the museum's restoration laboratory, which fights the progress of time in order to preserve its authentic findings. Residents of the Polish town of Oswiecim now inhabit those other 20 structures. "The Germans did not want to face reality and recognize the fact that they were about to lose the war and that the end of the fighting was imminent," says Prof. Gideon M. Greif, an Israeli historian and a Holocaust scholar who specializes in the study of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. "Their megalomania knew no bounds."

For the past few years, Greif has been heading a new and highly unusual project whose goal, as he puts it, is "to reconstruct Auschwitz as it was." Greif has joined forces with German architect Peter Siebers, with whom he is working to produce 3-D computer visualizations based on detailed blueprints and architectural plans of each of the hundreds of structures located in the three central parts of the camp: the main camp, which was also the administrative center of the network of Auschwitz camps; Birkenau, a giant concentration and extermination camp; and Auschwitz III (also called Buna or Monowitz ), which was a huge industrial complex.

It is hard to remain indifferent to the monumentality of their work: They have produced over a hundred three-dimensional blueprints that make it possible to envision - on the computer screen and in an exhibition that will open late next year in Cologne - every brick and tile in that immense factory of death. "We have included every detail," Greif points out. "It is an obsessive, almost insane project. This is the topography of Auschwitz."

At one time, Auschwitz was an empire comprising 45 camps sprawling over an area of 40 square kilometers. A total of 1,300,000 persons, most of them Jews, were murdered at this site, which was the largest concentration and death camp established by the Germans on Polish soil. Today, only 20 percent of its original structures are still standing. All of the buildings belonging to the main camp have remained intact because they were stone structures. In Birkenau, however, where most of the extermination of the Jews took place, only a relatively small number of the original structures are still standing. The quality of construction was inferior to begin with: The buildings were erected by Soviet prisoners of war and the fact that they were made of wood meant that they would not remain standing for any extended period of time.

In the winter of 1945, a short while after the fighting in Europe had ended, residents of the surrounding area dismantled the wooden structures, using the building materials to heat their homes.

Auschwitz III was a forced labor camp, where thousands of inmates were employed in a row of factories, including one belonging to the Siemens company. Some of the buildings that were part of the network of factories have survived and are even today used as factories, but there is almost nothing left of the inmates' barracks.

"We are reconstructing these camps down to the last building," explains Greif, "down to the last house and the last stone. I admit that this is a very ambitious project, but it is our goal to be absolutely precise right down to the last millimeter and to thereby accomplish something that no one has ever done before."

The blend of architecture and history has turned this project into the first of its kind. "We are describing the reality that existed behind the architectural structures," notes Greif. Through the blueprints and the research work being carried out in connection with them, Greif is trying to understand the thinking behind the planning. "Strangely enough, it is this cold, technical part of the project that actually amplifies the feeling of a giant death factory, and tells us what Auschwitz was really like."

Green ink

The project is the brainchild of Siebers, who was born and still lives today in Cologne. The two first met in Jerusalem five years ago, when Siebers shared the idea with the Israeli. "I immediately grasped the potential of this project," recalls Greif, a resident of Givatayim. "The idea simply captivated me. I had never seen such a project before and I am thoroughly familiar with the literature on Auschwitz. There is something here that is more sophisticated and more precise than anything I have ever encountered."

Greif is aware of the poignancy inherent in his collaboration with a German colleague: "What is really beautiful about this project is that it is being carried out by a Jew and a German. There is something symbolic in this kind of atonement, which everybody talks about. Although we discuss the crimes, we are engaging in our historical project as a collaborative effort." The "two madmen" - as Greif and Siebers call themselves - have made frequent shuttle trips between Germany, Poland and Israel in their search for aerial photographs, original blueprints, maps, films, photographs, books, articles and personal testimony that could help them reconstruct Auschwitz in blueprints.

The bulk of the material, however, was found at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum itself, and was identified by Greif with the assistance of the museum's scientific team and its chief historian. Many documents had been taken by the Soviets, who liberated Auschwitz, and they are today scattered among archives situated throughout the former Soviet Union. In recent years, some of the documents have been transferred to the original site of Auschwitz. "All the plans are stamped and, in different shades of pencil, they document the name of the architect and the various stages of authorization that the plan had to go through," says Greif. "At the bottom there is the symbol of the SS, of course."

Found in an attic

In the archives of Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem, Greif has found other important archival material and hundreds of testimonies from Auschwitz survivors, all of which sheds light on the day-to-day life of the camp's inmates. Yad Vashem also has the original architectural plans for Auschwitz - which were discovered four years ago in the attic of an empty apartment in Berlin. The popular German newspaper Bild published them a few months afterwards to great fanfare. Axel Springer Verlag, which publishes Bild, presented them to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a present and he transferred them to Yad Vashem. In 2009, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu displayed them in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust.

The plans were prepared by inmates working under a special SS construction administration known as the Waffen SS und Polizei Bauleitung between the years 1941 and 1943. One of them bears the signature in green ink of the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. The plans were apparently taken to Moscow immediately after the war and then found their way to East Germany, into the offices of the Stasi secret police. On one plan - for a delousing pavilion - one can clearly see the words "gas chamber."

What could not be found in archives was discovered by Greif and Siebers in the field. The two set out for Auschwitz with a tape measure and began to take measurements. The entire experience of recording measurements on the Auschwitz site was, as he puts it, "very surrealistic." On one occasion, as they were going around with their tape measure, they aroused the suspicion of security guards. "This was a short time after the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' ['Work Will Set You Free'] sign [on the camp's entrance gate] had been stolen," says Greif, "and everyone was very nervous." The guards ended up detaining the men briefly. "It was quite unpleasant," he recalls.

Greif's research has also included delving into the operations of the building administration that served the needs of the S.S. in Auschwitz: "It was actually just like an ordinary office of architects and it was located in the heart of the death camp. From their [the architects'] standpoint, there was no difference between planning a new office or a gas chamber. They regarded both projects as a professional challenge."

One of the documents that he found in his research is a letter from a furnace manufacturer, Topf and Sons, based in the town of Erfurt. The company, which manufactured the camp's crematoria, assured its client that its furnaces were of the highest quality and guaranteed the workmanship of its products. "If necessary, they promise in their letter," Greif points out, "they are even willing to send in teams to replace and repair faulty parts."

Other documents that he has studied are invoices issued by the companies that supplied Auschwitz with the poison gas Zyklon B.

Bird's-eye view

With his unique and innovative approach, Siebers is not prepared to settle for standard blueprints; he wants to give viewers a bird's-eye view so that they can feel as if they are looking at the camp's structures from above or gliding over them. By viewing it from the top down, he actually dismantles the entire structure and descends into the basement, which sometimes contains the most important details of all. Thus, it is not only the killing facilities that are revealed in a new light. Even the more "ordinary, day-to-day" parts (to use Greif's term ) are shown in all their complexity.

"Here was a garage for the camp's vehicles," he indicates, as he points to some of the blueprints. "This is where the bicycles of SS personnel were repaired. Over there on the side were parked the trucks that took the Jews to their deaths. Here was a laundry and over here is the chair, the coat hooks and the kitchen that served the executioners. In this room over here, SS personnel took their smoking breaks. Here are the washrooms. And over here is a wall clock. These are details and articles that you could easily find in any normal setting. But that is precisely the point: Auschwitz was simultaneously both a normal and an abnormal place."

The project has once more clarified for Greif how complex Auschwitz was: "It was a miniature self-contained universe. Every human phenomenon existing in the outside world is replicated here. But there is also another element: death. At Auschwitz, death was elevated to an art."

Take for example the blueprints for Barrack 24, a huge stone pavilion in the main camp that housed, side by side, the rehearsal room of the inmates' orchestra and a brothel. "Barrack 24 also had," he explains, "a few rooms for VIP prisoners, the so-called Prominente."

The blueprints also enable one to understand more clearly the suggering and despair that the inmates endured in the camp in the minutes before they met their deaths. "The crime that was committed in Auschwitz," points out Greif, "was very sophisticated. It was carried out in what looked like a normal building, an ordinary brick structure. It is only when you peel off the various layers that you can comprehend what really took place there. Then you discover the route that the inmates took from the auditorium to the gas chambers and then to the crematoria. It is then that you discover the lies, the falsehoods, the fraudulent acts and the camouflaging that were a central element in this crime."

The original stones

Prof. Greif, aged 61, who grew up in Tel Aviv, has engaged in Holocaust research and in teaching the Holocaust for decades. As a teenager, in the late 1960s, he had another career entirely: as a singer whose recording made the local hit parade. One of his hits, which took Israeli radio stations by storm, was "Alei Zahav" (literally, "Leaves of Gold" ), which was written for him by the celebrated Israeli composer Moshe Vilensky.

Greif studied Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, and received his doctorate at the University of Vienna. He has served as a historian, lecturer and editor at a long list of institutions, including the Knesset, Yad Vashem and universities in Israel and abroad. He is involved in dozens of research and educational projects and has been the consultant for numerous books and films on Auschwitz.

Currently, he is chief historian at the Shem Olam - Faith and the Holocaust Institute for Education, Documentation and Research in Israel and is a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His book, "We Wept without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz" (Yale University Press, 2005 ) presented for the first time the personal testimonies of Jews who had served as Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz.

"Apparently," Greif says, "Auschwitz is the only extermination camp for which such precise blueprints can be found. At Treblinka, for example, nothing remains of the camp, not even the stones. The Germans were able to dismantle everything there. They even plowed the earth under and set up a farm, to create the impression that no crime had ever been committed there."

The new project is being funded largely by Greif and Siebers from their own pockets. The city of Cologne, where Siebers lives, will be the first to host the project in the form of an exhibition, opening on November 7, 2013. It is to be housed in the building that served as the Gestapo headquarters of that city. A book and website are also in the works, and ultimately a scale model will be displayed at the camp. Another issue that has not yet been resolved: Should the blueprints be displayed in black and white or color? "We are still debating the issue," Greif admits. "After all, there was green grass at Auschwitz and some of the buildings were painted in various colors. Nonetheless, people are repelled by the idea of blueprints in color and say that color and the Holocaust do not mix. Some of these people forget that, in 1939, when Auschwitz did not yet exist, the movie 'Gone with the Wind' was shown in movie theaters and that was in color."

By Ofer Aderet