The Evidence Room
February 23, 2016
Today I touched the gas column—a reproduction of the device that inserted Zyklon B into the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
As a Holocaust survivor I felt the cold hand of history on my spine. I knew a good deal about the Auschwitz-Birkenau murder factory, but the gas column really shocked me. Because of what I had read about people thinking they were going into a shower room, I had always imagined the gas being dispersed by sprinklers. Touching that construction had a profound effect on me— a new visceral recognition, all these years later.
The gas column was in the workshop at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture where a team of professors and students were preparing a remarkable exhibition that has since made its way to the Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened in May.
The exhibition creates a visual and tactile impression of the forensic architectural evidence presented by expert defense witness Professor Robert Jan van Pelt at the 2000 trial in London for Holocaust denier David Irving’s suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher for libel. The truth of the Holocaust became the issue in contention.
A major element of the display is a reconstruction of the steel mesh gas column through which Zyklon B gas pellets were lowered into the gas chamber. The display also includes reproductions in plastercast relief of original architectural drawings for the construction of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the door of the gas chamber with a tight seal around the edge and a hinged lid covering the exterior peephole, and other artifacts.
The whole exhibition is in white, the only thing to separate our present reality from the monstrous artifacts at hand, perhaps to permit us to remain unsoiled by the black reality of the evil it represents.
For me, a survivor of Dachau, the most compelling feature of the exhibition is its tactile character. By removing colour, sound and interpretation from The Evidence Room, we are forced to rely on touch to elicit its meaning.
Most people are by now aware of the Holocaust. It is possible to know things, to be aware of them, but not feel them.
This exhibition lets people touch the metal of the gas column, run their fingers over the drawings, and connect in that mysterious way that sometimes happens when reality overwhelms us by becoming part of us.
It is difficult to imagine the details of a gas chamber, where humans were locked in to die. One has to feel the double grates that protected the bucket filled with poison pellets from the desperate hands of the condemned, peer into the bucket, and imagine the pellets melting away, the poison oozing out of them. Only then can real awareness arise in the soul and place the viewer inside the gas chamber.
The simplicity of this killing machine is obscene. I imagine the original designers, engineers and architects congratulating themselves on such a cheap and cunning solution.
Today’s visit is still reverberating with me. I’m still processing what I saw and felt.
Holocaust survivor Elly Gotz was born in 1928 in Kovno, Lithuania.
The Evidence Room is on display as part of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia until November 27, 2016. A version of the exhibition is also presented at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal until September 11, 2016.
This text is an excerpt from a companion book published by New Jewish Press.