The Death of Silent Witnesses to History
In recent days, the inventory of trees at the site of the Auschwitz camp has been reduced by the loss of three historic poplars, the oldest of which was over 90 years old. Many years of efforts to save the trees proved incapable of halting the natural process of dying, and the hard decision to cut the trees down had to be made this year.
This was the largest tree felling in the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The deteriorating health of the trees and the absolute imperative to ensure the safety of visitors made it necessary.
The hurricane-force winds that are occurring with increasing frequency in Poland involve a particular risk of breaking the branches of trees with weakened trunks. For this reason, there will be fewer historic trees, especially those with rot in their trunks, left at the Auschwitz site.
Barbara Zając, the Museum’s vegetation conservation specialist, explained that these “silent witnesses to the Nazi crimes” are under constant conservationist care intended to preserve them for as long as possible. “Time has shown,” she noted, “that costly conservation procedures can only extend the lives of trees for a few years or, at most, a dozen or so years.”
Aside from the efforts to save the lives of the trees, annual care procedures and trimming of the crowns are carried out. Unexpected things sometimes happen. After a heavy rainfall lasting all night and the following morning in the summer of 2004, one of the trees making up the poplar avenue suddenly came crashing down at the very moment when a group of Korean tourists were approaching. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Prisoners planted birches and Lombardy poplars almost 70 years ago. This age represents maturity for birches and extreme old age for Lombardy poplars, and living any longer is a rarity. Very few of the trees remaining at the Museum are 90 or more years old: two chestnuts, two oaks, eight poplars, and between 10 and 20 birches.
Only 22 of the 58 Lombardy poplars that line the two avenues at the Auschwitz I site date from World War II or earlier. The others are replacement plantings from the 1960s and 1980s. No new trees have been planted since.
The possible future replacement of trees remains an open question at present. The answer to this question will determine the landscape of the Museum over the coming decades.
The Trees before and During World War II
The precise site where the Auschwitz concentration camp was established had been occupied by Polish army barracks surrounded by trees that were about 25 years old at the time. There were several oaks, birches, and chestnut trees, but Lombardy (black) poplars predominated.
Continuous rebuilding produced constant changes in the appearance of the Auschwitz grounds. As early as 1940, the number of trees increased considerably with the planting of Lombardy poplars around the prisoner blocks. Birches were planted along the south side of the blocks in the spring of 1941.
Plant life was used to conceal the mass extermination facilities in Birkenau. The first gas chambers, the mass graves, and the pyres for burning the bodies of the victims were located amidst the pine forest growing there.
Wicker fences were used initially to camouflage the gas chamber and crematoria buildings. Poplars were planted there later. Vegetation was used as a means of concealment throughout the time that the camp was in operation. Near the end of the war, in the autumn of 1944, a “green belt” (Grüngürtel), made up mostly of poplars and rowans, was planted to mask gas chamber and crematoria buildings II and III
Fruit trees grew among the barracks in sectors BIIb, BIIc, BIIf, and BIIg at Birkeanu, as well as in the immediate vicinity of the gas chamber known as the “Little White House.” These were pear, apple, and cherry trees left from the Polish village of Brzezinka, which the Germans demolished after expelling its residents.
Trees and People
Former prisoner Halina Birenbaum devoted one of her poems to the trees:
Many, like I, confessed to the trees here, beseeched remembrance
Wanted to climb to the top and fly away
All traces of them vanished, they were swept away
And the trees saw it all, the trees heard
And, as is their custom,
Grew, sprouted leaves, remained silent
(Drzewa milczą, Oświęcim, 1982).
Another survivor, Adolf Gawalewicz, had particular memories of one of the trees: “A tree can be seen hard by the entrance to the camp, to the right of the gate inscribed ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ This is no ordinary tree! Beneath it stood the tormented parents and siblings of a prisoner who had escaped. Here, also, stood those whose escape attempts had failed. They stood with their skin ripped by the claws of the dogs, holding a sign reading ‘Hurra! Ich bin wieder da!’ (Hurrah, I’m back!) as a warning to the labor details returning from work.”
Today, people react emotionally to the sight of the trees being felled. Some of them weep, as an American tourist did; others, like some local residents, curse the people cutting down the trees and accuse them of being heartless and destroying nature.
The Trees and Vegetation after the War
The Rebirth of Nature
The present-day landscape at the site differs from what the prisoners remembered. As nature re-emerged, greenery replaced the grayness of the camp: trees grew and grass covered the ground that had previously been trodden down by the feet of thousands of prisoners. At present, the Museum grounds encompass 25 hectares of woods and almost 120 hectares of grass.
A visitor to the Auschwitz site in June 1947 wrote that “the barracks are overgrown with flourishing vegetation, hardy grass, nettles, weeds, and daisies growing high, that inexhaustible force of life, putting out its tendrils everywhere and stifling to a degree the horrors of this barracks living space.” Yet the Long-Term Museum Preservation Plan drawn up 11 years later stated clearly that “all weeds and trees that were not here must be rooted out—in a word, harsh order must prevail . . . The Museum cannot agree to the transformation of the grounds of the former Birkenau camp into a park-cemetery. There were neither grass nor flowers in the Birkenau camp, and the ground was trodden by the feet of millions of people. In rainy periods, there was deep mud here. In the summer, clouds of sand arose. It was gray, empty, and harsh in the camp, and so must these grounds remain.”
Attempts at Controlling the Vegetation
Nevertheless, the lack of the proper contractors, equipment, and financial resources limited attempts to control the vegetation. For many years, only the neighboring Brzezinka residents and volunteer groups limited the reconquest of the Museum grounds by the forces of nature.
The previous owners of the homesteads where the camp arose mowed the grass and grazed cattle there, especially in the remote sector BIII, known as “Mexico.” They received permission to do so free of charge, as a form of partial compensation, during the protracted and thorny eminent-domain proceedings that led to the establishment of the Museum boundaries. This was a controversial arrangement about which many had reservations, but it continued until the end of the 1980s because it was a way to deal with the vegetation without incurring additional costs.
Groups of volunteers—Polish and German young people, and Polish soldiers—performed work connected with the vegetation until the 1980s. The volunteers were committed, but the results were only temporary. Bushes and weeds grew back once the work was done. Trials of weed-control chemicals failed to produce the desired results.
The Plan for Managing the Woods
In 1963, ownership of all the woods and trees on the grounds was transferred from the Ministry of Forests and Lumber Industry to the Museum. The trees became a part of the exhibition. This event led to the first study of the vegetation at the site. The Economic Plan for Maintaining the Woods and Trees of the Oświęcim State Museum for the Ten Years from 1968-1977 envisioned not only improving the condition of the existing trees, but also restoring them to the 1945 state in terms of their spatial arrangement and makeup by species.
The Museum has been cooperating with the Forestry Vocational School in Brynek since 1980. The students clear free-growth trees and bushes from the site as part of their work-study experience. This annual, systematic work by the young foresters has yielded appreciable results, but the extent of the Museum grounds makes the completion of the task a distant prospect.
The Vegetation Conservation Specialist and Outside Companies
The political changes that began in Poland in the late 1980s favored the appearance on the market of private, professional companies involved in tree conservation and landscaping. In the interest of the best possible organization and supervision of such work, the Museum created the position of vegetation conservation specialist in the early 1990s. At the same time, vegetation was incorporated into the overall preservation plans of the Auschwitz Memorial, and the conservation of trees began to be carried out on a regular basis. Care was extended to all trees, with special attention to those of historical value.
The Situation Has Been Brought under Control
At present, the conservation of vegetation at the Museum is comprehensive and includes care for grassy surfaces and the trees, as well as the use of herbicides for weed control. Both Museum staff and contracting firms carry out this work, the cost of which amounts to several hundred thousand zloty per year.
Although the involvement of volunteer groups in vegetation care has diminished, there is still a place for volunteer work—and, in some tasks, a very important place. One recent example of this kind of outdoor work was the removal by German volunteers of a layer of humus, about 20 cm. deep, from the majority of the camp roads in Birkenau sector BII. All the work connected with vegetation at the site shares a single goal: to rescue and properly display all existing traces of the past, while expressing respect for the victims of Nazism and the tragic events that occurred here.
(Based on Barbara Zając, Zieleń w Auschwitz-Birkenau. Praca napisana w ramach Podyplomowego Studium Muzeologicznego, zorganizowanego przez Instytut Etnologii Uniwersytetu Jagielońskiego. Oświęcim 10 czerwiec 2005 r. [Vegetation in Auschwitz-Birkenau: a study written as part of the Museum postgraduate course, organized by the Jagiellonian university Ethnology Institute. Oświęcim, June 10, 2005].