The Evidence Room: a ROM exhibition explores the chilling architecture of Auschwitz
The haunting show features plaster reconstructions of gas chamber door, key documents, more.
By Jennifer Van Evra
The first time that Elly Gotz touched the life-size model of an Auschwitz gas column — a key weapon in the murder of millions at the notorious Nazi death camp — the effect was profound.
"As a Holocaust survivor, I felt the cold hand of history on my spine," says Gotz, an 89-year-old survivor of Dachau who now lives in Toronto. "For the first time I touched the instrument of death. It was very, very moving."
Originally created for the International Architecture Exhibition at the 2016 Venice Biennale, The Evidence Room is a haunting collection of works that examines the architecture of the Holocaust — specifically, how the Nazis designed, built and used key objects for their devastating ends. It opens at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum this Sunday.
The exhibition features full-scale models of three key objects: a gas chamber door and latch; a gas column used to distribute the poisonous vapours; and a gas-tight hatch that was used to drop cyanide Zyklon gas pellets into the chambers. Also included are more than 60 plaster casts of architectural evidence, including blueprints, photographs, drawings, correspondence and contractors' bills.
It's not just an artifact, it's a lesson for mankind. Somebody designed it. Somebody with technical knowledge, with training from a university, sat down and created this evil thing.- Elly Gotz
The work is the result of groundbreaking research by Robert Jan van Pelt, a University of Waterloo architectural historian whose mother is a Holocaust survivor and whose uncle was murdered at Auschwitz, and who is one of the world's foremost experts on the death camp. The evidence he gathered also became central to a landmark 1996 court case involving Holocaust denier David Irving, who had sued scholar Deborah Lipstadt for libel. (The case later inspired the 2016 Rachel Weisz film Denial.)
'We enforced the gravity, both literally and symbolically'
The pieces in The Evidence Room were painstakingly designed and built over many months, and were extremely challenging on a technical level because of the larger pieces' scale and weight, and the fine lines of the drawings and documents, which needed to be created in relief and then cast in plaster.
"We enforced the gravity, both literally and symbolically, of the material we we're dealing with," says van Pelt from his Waterloo office. "These casts are seven or eight centimetres thick, they're solid, they're very strong and they have metal in them. They're actually very heavy."
Van Pelt emphasizes that the works are not meant to be reproductions; rather, they are presented as an almost clinical body of evidence — one that isn't intentionally designed to elicit emotion, but is more an examination of the intellect behind one of humanity's most horrific atrocities.
The objects were left pure white in part to create that level of remove; also, white is a haunting, ghostly hue, and allows shadows that move across the works. It's also the colour of plaster — the material that is used in archaeology to fill the voids where life once was.
"It's a play of shadows. There are lines, but the lines are the shadows thrown by the relief — and the shadows actually move around," says van Pelt. "We didn't set out to create a work of art in any way but ultimately, we recognize that it actually became one."
The designers, who included University of Waterloo architecture professors Donald McKay and Anne Bordeleau, also wanted to create objects that people could touch — which can create contradictory senses of both intimacy and violation.
"Touch is the most intimate of all senses. When you say you are touched by something, it means that it's very profound. So this whole exhibition is about touch, and you can explore everything with your fingertips. Especially in the gas column, you can put your fingers through the wire mesh and you realize you can't reach the second wire mesh column at the center. And it's very cold because it's steel, which removes the heat from your fingers," says van Pelt, who has also consulted carefully with the Canadian survivor community leading up to the exhibition.
'Beautiful and profoundly uncomfortable'
"In a sense, people are not prepared for that because our increasingly digital interpretation of the world foregrounds the visual," he says. "But it's beautiful and profoundly uncomfortable, and it's that dialectic that makes people think — and it makes them think with their heart and soul."
The experience of the exhibition is overwhelming for some, including for an ambassador at the Biennale who was reduced to tears when van Pelt closed the gas chamber door with a heavy clang.
Van Pelt says the main thing he hopes The Evidence Room achieves is a kind of re-awakening and deepening of people's understanding of the Holocaust, and a clarification of the things we thought we knew.
"In a way, it's a piece of sand in the oyster. It isn't more than that, but it's a trigger to go back to the real accounts, the firsthand accounts and then start to do something with it," he says. "That is what evidence does."
For Gotz, a retired engineer, the display is especially powerful, not only because it provides a visceral sense of the death camps, but because it demonstrates how professional skills can be used for horrific ends.
'An engineering contribution to the killing millions of people'
"It's not just an artifact, it's a lesson for mankind. Somebody designed it. Somebody with technical knowledge, with training from a university, sat down and created this evil thing. They worked out the best way to do it. They worked out the strengths of the wires on the gas column so that the prisoners couldn't bend them or tear them up with their hands. The doors opened outward, because all the bodies were crammed against the door," says Gotz, who would like to see engineers and architects swear an oath similar to the Hippocratic oath, "Do no harm."
"All those technical little elements come together in this object that we are looking at," he says. "I saw it as an engineering contribution to the killing millions of people."
Gotz worries that, once all of the survivors are gone, the Holocaust denial movement could strengthen; that's why he and other survivors, as well as their families, work tirelessly to gather and preserve evidence that will stand for generations. The Evidence Room, he says, helps to present it in a very powerful, public way — and he hopes to see it tour to other areas of Canada, and around the world.
"It's a hurtful thought about humanity, that we can deny what is so patently true. So this acts as an additional reminder not to listen to those bad voices," says Gotz, who, at 89 years old, still gives over 100 lectures a year and speaks with over 12,000 students. "And the evidence that Robert Jan van Pelt brought here is so essential because it bypasses the issue of the witness. It shows engineering drawings signed by German architects. So the evidence is of a different kind."
The Evidence Room is at the Royal Ontario Museum from June 25 until Jan. 28, 2018.
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