Walking on ashes and bones, preserving Holocaust sites

Florence Luxenberg-Eisenberg at Treblinka.

Witnesses to the worst genocide in human history are dying, but the sites where the Nazis and their helpers committed atrocities during the Second World War remain.

For Montreal-born Florence Luxenberg-Eisenberg, preserving the forced labour and extermination camps and mass killing and grave sites has become a mission. Raised in Côte St. Luc to Montreal-born parents, with grandparents from Lodz, Poland, and Czernowitz, now part of Ukraine, Luxenberg earned her B. Ed. and M.Ed. degrees from McGill, before moving to Israel in 1989. She is married with four sons and lives in Karmiel in northern Israel.

Now teaching English at Sefad Academic College, Luxenberg-Eisenberg developed a passion for Holocaust commemoration while researching her PhD. from the University of West Timisoara in Romania. “My goal was to go to locations where atrocities took place and investigate the physical condition of the sites, speak to the people who work there,” she said in an interview at a West End café, while on a visit here.

Her thesis is entitled Protecting Truth, Combatting Denial: The challenge to manage and preserve Holocaust memorials. “Survivors are disappearing, and we have to think about preserving these locations, because that is the authentic evidence where the atrocities took place. You are walking on ashes and bones at these locations.”

Bochna florence luxenberg eisenberg

These sites are also the best argument against Holocaust denial, and she urges all to become more interested in preserving them. “I divided my research into two trips, February and October 2011, to look at sites – 13 camps – that were known, and not known, with 70 interviews, in and around nine cities in Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Ukraine.” She financed it on her own. Apart from Auschwitz-Birkenau, she visited four German sites of mass extermination in Poland – Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

“I wanted to see who works there now, who are these people who work arduously to maintain and manage these sites. I did the research through their eyes, and when I was done, they called me their ambassador, probably the first person who has taken an interest in speaking with them.”

Maintaining these sites is both a curatorial challenge and a huge expense, she notes, and even Auschwitz, which is assisted by a foundation, is facing financial challenges.

She has been attending seminars and delivering lectures in Israel, most recently in Ottawa, and meeting with media, emphasizing her essential message: “We must protect truth.

“My thing is to create awareness of the problem. The sites of mass extermination must be preserved. Treblinka, northeast of Warsaw, where as many as 900,000 Jews and 2,000 Roma people were killed in its gas chambers, has memorials to the victims and their suffering, but little else.

“Those sites where nothing is on the surface are the most powerful. You don’t see the ashes and bones you are walking on, unless you pick up some earth and see bone fragments in your hand.”

She cites Caroline Sturdy Colls, a Straffordshire University forensic archaeologist, as having told her: “Florence, nothing ever gets completely erased.” The Nazis tried to destroy all traces of the extermination-camp aspect of Treblinka, but using geophysical techniques, Sturdy Colls has uncovered the site of mass graves and the foundations of gas chamber-like structures. Sturdy Colls has set up a foundation for preserving the gas-chamber site.

Preservation of old synagogues and cemeteries that are no longer used is a challenge. After the war it was not unusual for Jewish gravestones to be removed for use as building materials. “It’s a huge task, and Poland should not have to do this alone. They (the concentration and extermination camps) are all international cemeteries without walls, and mass graves.”

At Sobibor, where some 300,000 Jews were murdered in its gas chambers, archeologists recently discovered foundations buried under asphalt. There is a debate on where to erect a memorial. The drive to exterminate the Jews of Europe began there in 1941 with mobile gas vans, where deadly carbon monoxide fumes were funneled into sealed chambers filled with Jews. “Israel, Holland—a lot of Dutch Jews perished at Sobibor— Slovakia, and Poland are involved in the preservation efforts.”

Luxenberg-Eisenberg confessed she was disappointed by the low turnout at her talk in Ottawa, and cannot accept the notion that after 70 years it’s time to move on. “If we forget about it, you are lowering human dignity. It is not just a Jewish catastrophe – this was an event against the essence of humanity.

“Anybody who was different – homosexuals, priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the handicapped and mentally ill – was targeted,” as were Communists, socialists, and union leaders, and anyone who posed a threat to Nazi ideological hegemony.

Luxenberg-Eisenberg says she hopes to film a documentary in Israel, Poland, and Germany to show what is going on at the camps today, because, “though the event is over, it’s not over. The sites on location will take the place of survivors – their ashes and bones, and at Auschwitz and Majdanek, their hair, suitcases, toothbrushes, books.

“I want people to know.”

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